Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Writing the past


Writer Robert Freeman Wexler asked me for any tips on research, as he is planning a novel set in the past.  Though I imagine he has quite as much common sense as I do, nevertheless I sent him a few thoughts and now post them here for any other interested parties:

Research/writing tips for stories with historical settings:
 1. Think of time as a place you can enter. Don't notice any more of it that you would of: a. any new place your observer might see, if seeing for the first time; or, rather differently, b. any usual place your observer might see.
2. Keeping 1 in mind, don't overdo the research, or you may feel compelled to use it.
3. Use primary sources when possible.
4. Use secondary sources when you need to know a general tendency--as, what the typical house structure was for a particular time and place and class, naming ways through generations in a certain region, etc.
5. When moving from research to writing, resist like mad any "namedropping" tendency. That is, do not attempt to prove that you are in a particular place and time by stuffing in references to Mae West or how to make yak butter or the seeds commonly found in the belly of a bog body or any other fascinating tidbits unless they make sense to mention in the context.

Update:  I completely forgot this! Park any P. C. sensibility at the door. Don't pay any attention to -isms, or you will write a novel that has modern people running about in supposedly past times. Many a big literary seller has done just that, even books beloved of many critics. I once caught some flak from a sf/f reviewer about a children's novel, The Curse of the Raven Mocker, because the people of Adantis aren't so keen on girls wearing dresses. But the culture ways of the Adantans are specifically drawn from a mixture of nineteenth-century Scots-Irish settler and Cherokee culture ways. Time has not treated them quite the same way as the rest of us, and so many elements are unchanged or changed in a different way from the way ours have changed. So stick to your time and don't pay a whit of attention to fashionable contemporary sensibilities.


My steaming-into-the-station book, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, is set in a time not all that far away and so rather different from Catherwood and The Wolf Pit. It's about the same kind of distance that Thackeray had to stretch in writing Vanity Fair, I suppose. While I did not live in the Depression, my elder relatives certainly did, and I grew up hearing stories that often involved hardship. I spent part of my summers in a house that was etched with deprivation, and which I used in great detail in the book. But there were a lot of other details to look up--bits about trains and signals, hobo signs, eucalyptus trees, con men, and more.


Of course, after twenty minutes staring at Pinterest, I have a cheap revelation that everyone does now have 15 minutes of fame, that reading is dead, that Melvillean "deep diving" is absurd, that time is frittered and wisdom extinct, etcetera! An hour afterward I recover and think that perhaps I had better put on my diving gear and go write a poem.



  1. this is really interesting, I think research is the heart of historical fiction and it is so vital to get the balance right. I particularly find it offputting when a writer puts a long chunk of history into the middle of a novel without contectualising it from the character's point of view.

  2. Yes, makes rather a clunk! when that happens!

  3. Too bad I don't write fiction. I miss the fascinating experience of inventing a world with the materials of the past and present.

  4. While I like writing memoir and autobiographical pieces (short ones), I don't have much luck when I stray into fictional territory. It's a very different thing, and I think I'd have to start pretty much from scratch.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.