Story-Writing Tips: Historical Fiction
Expert: Beem Weeks
By Beem Weeks
Putting together a believable historical story, long or short, requires more than a plausible plot. You must pay extra attention to the little things, the details. While preparing to write my novel Jazz Baby, I consulted many sources for those authentic details. A high-school history book proved immensely helpful in creating the right mood for a story set in 1920s Southern USA.
Knowing the era is as important as knowing your characters. You can’t have a young girl in 1925 rural Mississippi (or any other place in 1925) making calls on a private-line rotary phone, much less a mobile phone she carries in her pocket. In fact, my character was poor, and thus would not even have access to any kind of phone even though they existed in her day. Besides, she wouldn’t have anybody to call. Thus:
KEEP DETAILS CHARACTER-SPECIFIC: Don’t just verify what exists in a period of time. Determine how widespread it is, and consider the likelihood your characters would have access in their particular places and circumstances.
Fashion is important, as well. Knowing what people wore in any particular era is key to verisimilitude. Emily Ann, the POV character in Jazz Baby, had no concept of tennis shoes or fashionable jeans, let alone modern name brands and today’s common designer styles. She did live in the era of flappers, but she would not be exposed to those outfits until she traveled to the big city. Still, would she dress that way—and why? Where would she get the clothes? Would she even know how to wear them properly? We have to consider these issues before deciding how to dress our characters from one scene to the next.
DETAILS SUCH AS FASHION ARE REGIONAL AND CIRCUMSTANTIAL: Lots of guides, many specifically for writers and media producers, show fashion of different eras, but you must pay close attention to where, when, why, and by whom clothing would be worn.
Sure, it’s obvious that Emily Ann wouldn’t see Gulfstream Jets flying overhead or hitch a ride in a Corvette, but you’re not always safe simply putting her in a Model T Ford. I wanted her to hear something important on the car radio while parked, but I dared not assume a radio could be found in the Model T. A bit of research, and I learned radio did not come into any automobiles until 1932. Most readers won’t know such a detail, but some sure will know, so for them the facade collapses beneath such inaccuracy. Keep it as airtight as possible.
DON’T ASSUME DETAILS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY: Don’t just research the technical detail. Verify all the details that flow from it. If a radio had been available in the 1925 Model T, verify how many and in which areas radios were sold. Don’t have her flipping through various stations late at night when maybe only one station operated in that region—and only during the daytime. If you want her to hear a news announcement, confirm that would happen on local radio back then.
Patient research shines a light on more facts than you might be looking for. Just as whether a car radio would have turning dials or push buttons, verifying might lead you to realize you can’t refer to an FM station back them. Would a character drop a letter in a street-corner mailbox, or did they not exist in small southern towns because people simply left mail in their roadside mailboxes for pickup?
RESEARCH ALL THE DETAILS: Don’t stop once you have your first question answered. Look closer, read more, find the photos—whatever it takes to get a strong sense of life in that time and place. You will very likely discover even more details you could get wrong without the extra effort.
Pay attention to language, as well. Slang changes from era to era, and from region to region. A young white girl in 1925 Mississippi will not greet her pals with a “Yo, dawg! ’Sup?”
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE: As much as possible, read from the era and place, talk to people who lived through it, watch media showing the lifestyle, and consult as many sources as you can find. Not only are you verifying the authenticity of what you want characters to say, but you will likely discover very interesting and flavor-adding ways of talking that you had not considered.
Cultural norms are critical elements of authentic time and place. My story is set during Prohibition, which to many evokes images of either abstainers or scofflaws. However, “bonded liquor,” prescribed by doctors for “medicinal purposes” and sold by pharmacists, was quite popular in many areas, albeit under watchful government eyes. Cultural changes that older readers recognize might not be so familiar to younger readers. In Emily Ann’s world, African Americans were prohibited from patronizing restaurants, and segregated in places like theaters, restrooms, and even from whites-only drinking fountains. Emily’s fraternization with blacks could have cost her her life.
STUDY THE CULTURAL NORMS: Learn about how people felt, thought, and acted, and consider the true consequences of your characters’ actions in those contexts.
Behavior often is not best described by laws. Though women received the vote in 1920, many were still viewed as the property of fathers and husbands. For a girl who found herself orphaned at 13, the official social-services response rarely happened if kinfolk might be able to “handle the situation.” Thus, Aunt Frannie arranging a marriage that we might find outrageous today would have been applauded as admirably expedient back then. Likewise, looking up the official 1969 USA drug laws would not offer much help in deciding how your young-adult characters actually acted during a campus party.
OFFICIAL POLICY OFTEN DOES NOT INDICATE HOW PEOPLE REALLY ACT: Look beyond laws, policies, procedures, and other official records of how things were supposed to be in another time and place. Ferret out real accounts and weigh your characters’ actions against what really tended to happen.
The point of all this is simply to remind you to check your facts while looking beyond the facts, stay loyal to the era you choose, and wow us all with your brilliant stories.
* * *
Beem Weeks is author of the historical novel Jazz Baby and many short stories. Watch for his work at www.FreshInkGroup.com.