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Worlds Apart October 2008

Back to Basics II

Getting Started


Last month we looked at some ideas about how to choose an historical period in which to set your story. We also considered the question of where to set it: the seventeenth century, for example, did not look the same all over the globe. So now, let us assume you have made those decisions based on your interests, prior knowledge or other factors, and you are all set to begin. On the final assumption that you have never written historical fiction before, you are immediately faced with the question of what to do first.


To some extent the answer to that question depends on your own personal approach to the art and craft of writing, but one thing is certain: you will have to begin researching you time period and location.


If you are fortunate enough to be an historian or at least a person with a significant background knowledge of your chosen historical setting, then you are well on the way, but the fact is that most writers of historical fiction are not themselves historians. However, they always have a love of history, and as they develop their skills they acquire a significant familiarity with the time periods and locations about which they are writing.


If you do not have a background as an historian, then you will most likely have chosen an historical period and location which is of personal interest to you, and when you set about writing your novel or short story you are beginning the fascinating task of bringing that time and place alive. You will create characters and place them into their historical context, give them a personality, a style of speech and recreate for your readers the world in which those characters lived. I never fail to find those challenges both interesting and exciting, and you will as well.


As you turn to research you can develop your story line and begin to establish your characters in your mind. Remember that if your characters don’t live in your mind, they will never do so in the minds of your readers. Likewise, if the historical world you build for those characters is not clearly pictured in your imagination, you cannot make it real for your readers – most of whom will not have your familiarity with it. They will only have your words to rely on.


In this, the 21st century, the first place your research tasks will take you is the Internet. The World Wide Web is without doubt the most remarkable vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge and communications that has ever been seen since the Sumerians invented writing more than five thousand years ago, but beware….All is not gold that glitters, and all that is found on the Internet is not necessarily true or accurate. Check out the sources you consult on the Web. Cross-check the information you find. In short, don’t believe everything you read.


Once having done a preliminary Web search you can start to refine what you’re after, and this will be largely determined by the story you are going to tell. Always keep your plot line in mind and keep referring back to your main characters. The characters you create will also determine your areas of research. If they are rural folk, military officers, politicians, city-dwellers, outlaws or whatever else, the world you build must be their world and must ring true in the imaginations of your readers.


Next month we’ll look at the creation of characters as you engage in research.


Write on,