Five Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

I have to confess: I love the nineteenth-century. (Would I want to live there? Of course not!) I’m fascinated by the class structure, by the growing emancipation of women, by the intricate manners and (yes, I admit it), the gorgeous dresses.

I wrote my dissertation on 19th century American women, but I took so many Victorian lit classes that many of my peers thought that was my emphasis. And my debut (!) takes place in nineteenth-century England and Hungary. While it is fantasy, so some elements are made up, I’ve also done a lot of research to get details about the world as accurate as possible.

For those of you  new to writing historical fiction, here are a few tips for finding good source material.

1. Starting with Wikipedia is fine . . . as long as you don’t end there.

I’ve read my share of Wikipedia entries as a writer and researcher. It’s easy–and one of the first sources that pops up in any search. And while it can be helpful to get a basic overview of a topic you know little about, it’s pretty unreliable as a general source, since anyone can edit the pages and basically say anything they want (as dramatized by the Colbert Report’s brilliant Wikiality show). So if you’re just getting started, that’s fine. But make sure you do more research. Wikipedia should never be your only source.

2. Find reputable online sites dealing with your era

There are lots of historical fiction buffs out there, many of them with websites. But if you want a legitimate site, look for some combination of the following:

  • Asite whose creator has credentials in the field (such as Lee Jackson’s wonderful Dictionary of Victorian London–his most recent book came out with Yale University Press, so it’s safe to assume he knows what he’s talking about)
  • A website hosted by a university, like Brown University’s Victorian Web
  • A site that draws from a variety of writers (who can fact check each other)
  • Blogs or posts written by well-known historical fiction writers (like this delightful list by one of my favorite alternate history writers, Gail Carriger).

3. Get thee to a library

I’m lucky in that both my husband and I have access to a university library. In prepping for my book, I read a lot of published books dealing with Hungarian history, but I also found some wonderful details in academic articles, like an article exploring how Hungarian women helped the 1848 revolution and reform movement by promoting fashion trends that emphasized Hungarian nationality and by hosting balls (of all things!) to support the cause. Another helpful find: a book from a 1979-80 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Hapsburg style, with chapters covering changing fashions in Vienna and Hungary.

4. Look for Primary Sources

For the uninitiated: a primary source is something written close to the event itself–an eye-witness account. So a primary source for the Civil War era might include letters, diaries, even newspaper accounts of battles (if the journalist witnessed what happened). Secondary sources are compiled after the event, usually by a historian who has combed through primary sources looking for pertinent facts (“pertinent” depending on the historians own agenda). In my case, primary sources included novels written by 19th-century Hungarians (even in English translations, they gave me a good sense of popular issues and concerns of the day, and they often contained wonderful details of food and fashion). I also read several travel narratives by British travelers to Hungary. Since my main character is a British lady on her first visit to Hungary, the narratives helped me decide what details a nineteenth-century British sensibility might notice on entering the country. Some of these I found in libraries–others I found for free on Amazon.
 

5. When in doubt, consult the experts 

At a recent conference, I heard a speaker emphasize how important it is that we get diverse experiences right–and to do that, we need to consult readers who belong to the culture we’re trying to portray. Since we don’t have that luxury with historical fiction, do the next best thing: consult someone who has made a study of that period. Experts shouldn’t be hard to find–they might sponsor one of the websites you’ve found, or they’re the university professors who wrote the books and articles you’ve studied. Most university professors I know love their subject area and are thrilled to share their expertise (though it still behooves you to be respectful of their time, and emails are often more effective at establishing contact than phone calls or trying to show up to their office).

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

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