Writing Historical Fiction

I have been curious recently about those writers who churn out book after book as though on an episode of “How It’s Made”. I watch in awe of the assembly line stamping the book’s spine with a different title on each, and a giant robotic arm packing them into boxes marked and destined for, “World’s Largest Chain Bookstore”.

In a meeting with my editor last spring when this subject came up, she told me that there is a simple formula these authors use—a formula that enables them to write books very quickly. This baffled me somewhat. Yes, I could understand having a basic storyline that changes primarily with the introduction of new characters. Someone falls in love, they go through a hardship, someone dies… the end. But it hadn’t occurred to me until this past weekend, when I read an article about writing historical fiction, that a similar formula cannot be applied to this genre.

Writing historical fiction is anything but “simple”. It is so far on the opposite end of the spectrum to writing contemporary fiction that the article made me revisit my process with The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. I have written contemporary fiction before, but hadn’t realized at the time how I took many things for granted. If a character needed to go to another country, they’d hop on a plane and go. Hold on, as I skid my heels into the dirt! When writing Gillian Pugsley, I didn’t know if she could just hop on a plane and go. It was the 1930’s. I needed to research how international travel was possible. Was it for the wealthy only? Was there only one airline in Britain? Which one? (Imperial Airways, so it seems). Did they only fly out of London? How often? Was it more common to travel by sea? Which liners existed then? What did they look like? How did the average person purchase a ticket? How often did they leave port and at which port did they arrive?

The list of questions was endless. I often felt as though I’d only written a sentence or two before the next question arose. It was constant research, whether it was in the details of how a stove was lit during that time period, or whether or not they even called it a stove, or the clothing my characters wore. Did women wear trousers at that time in Canada, or was it only in the United States? Was it seen as garish to wear them in England or trendy? Again, on and on… Often was the case that I’d research an area, coming up with a slew of new information only later to delete it from the story entirely.

Somewhere along the way, I relished all the niggling and fussy bits. It swallowed up my time, but it has proven a feast to remember. How could any historical fiction be churned out like a weightless product? After reading Elizabeth Crook’s “Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction“, I understood why my writing goes through the nitty-gritty and dissecting process that it does. I understood that rich historical fiction takes time to marinate—all the gaps need to be filled with the flavour and spices of that time period, and the characters need to bring that flavour to life. Having an idea then plotting a storyline out is one massive undertaking, something we readers take for granted. On the other hand, in my experience as a writer, the heart comes in the details—those well-researched, time-consuming, delicious details that instantly transport a reader to another time.

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