Yesterday, I received advance copies of my forthcoming novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife (Dzanc Books). The official pub date is December 6, but, of course, the book is available for pre-order now from wherever you prefer to purchase your books. There, that’s the end of the self-promotion. I mention the book only because I want to talk about the writing of historical fiction.
Someone recently asked me how I defined historical fiction, and I jokingly said I’d gotten so old everything I write is historical. In all serious, though, isn’t any novel that takes place in a now past time period historical? Couldn’t, say, a book set in the 1990s be speaking from a distinct historical period?
I set my first novel in 1920s Texas. I’ve set other books in the 1950s and the 1970s. Here are three things I’ve learned about writing historical fiction.
- The going can be slow. For me, authenticity is the first rule of writing historical fiction. I want every detail to be accurate. I’m not just talking about the history of the time period itself, but also about the small things like what women in the mid-1840s would have used to hold their hair up. The answer isn’t pins, like I first assumed, but rather ribbons or combs. Tracking down these authentic details can slow the writing process quite a bit. Often, I pass them over for the sake of keeping my momentum going, knowing I’ll have to go back later and fill in the accurate details with more research. The Glassmaker’s Wife is the novel that took me the longest to write, and for the most part it was because the time period was so distant, it took quite a bit of research to make sure everything was as accurate as possible.
- Research can be seductive. The facts are there to be discovered, but my favorite type of research involves reading the newspapers and magazines from a particular time period. I love knowing what things were for sale in various stores, what movies were playing at the theaters, what sorts of foods were being offered at restaurants, what types of beers were being sold in the taverns, etc. I love this type of research so much it’s easy to let it keep me from writing. After I feel I’ve immersed myself in the day-to-day lives of my characters, it’s time to put my narrative into motion.
- The culture matters. As much as the character interactions interest me whenever I’m writing a novel, no matter whether its historical or current, I can’t forget the culture of the time period. I have to know what was going on politically, socially, culturally. What were the larger issues that affected people’s lives. In the mid-1840s, for instance, western expansion was a hot topic, and indeed in The Glassmaker’s Wife, what they called “earth hunger” plays a large role in the plot of the novel, as does a religious group called the Millerites and their belief in an upcoming ascension. As much as I like to pay attention to the inner lives of my characters, when I write a historical novel, I have to understand that those inner lives are shaped by the larger forces of the worlds around them.
James Baldwin once said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” For those of us who write any kind of fiction that’s interested in what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart,” the history and the people are inseparable. In The Glassmaker’s Wife, a woman is accused, on the basis of flimsy evidence, of poisoning her husband. I can reduce the plot of the novel to this: a pinch of white powder, a scorched paper, a community hungry for a villain, and a young girl’s first taste of revenge. The lives of the characters and the actions they take are determined, in part, by the choices they make, and in part, by the choices their time period and their place make possible. Perhaps the greatest lesson writing historical fiction has given me is this: We live in our worlds, and our worlds live in us.