When I wrote my first novel, The Lines Between Us, it took me many years and a lot of piecing things together. The book is a dual timeline, has diaries from two people, and letters from eight others. The reader learns about these through a woman in seventeenth-century Spain and a woman in twentieth-century St. Louis, Mo. I think you can see why I say this was like a jigsaw puzzle.
While this is an extreme example, historical fiction writers often find ourselves with a lot of information. We have to figure out what and how to incorporate information into a story that will grab readers’ attention and make them care about the characters. All of this needs to happen in a setting both compelling and believable.
IDEA + RESEARCH
A question that readers often ask is, “Where did you get your idea?” For my first novel, it began by wondering how a woman in seventeenth-century Spain would react when threatened by her father for causing him to lose his honor. What could a woman do, given her very limited options at the time? I began studying everything I could about the period. What was daily life like? What about politics, the economy, religion, literature? What did people think about the big events of their time? All of this would go into the creation of my characters and my story.
My work in progress, The Map Colorist, doesn’t have the complicated structure that my first novel did, but sitting at my computer, looking at the huge spreadsheet that I did of my notes from just two of my books on seventeenth-century Amsterdam, I definitely felt that I had another puzzle to piece together. I had started with the idea that I wanted to write a novel about a woman doing something unusual for the seventeenth century, and I decided that she would be a cartographer. I soon discovered that Amsterdam was the capital for map production at that time, and that the largest publication of the century was the Atlas Maior, a multi-volume atlas. More research told me that women and even older children were often paid to color printed maps. I had the “in” for my character. More research told me that there were four maps of areas of Africa in the Atlas Maior that had never been attributed. I had the map my character would create.
The research not only filled in historical details, but also some of the plot. There is a back and forth when writing a novel of historical fiction. There is a story, but it is defined in part by the background. What and how something happens in the novel could not happen exactly the same way in any other time or place. The tricky part is the balance between creating a character who is steeped in that reality, but is still relatable to the modern reader. All people have dreams and struggles. That is the universal part. The context defines the substance and details of those dreams and struggles.
As most historical fiction writers will tell you, sometimes in our research we go down rabbit holes, getting lost in some fascinating details that will never make it into the book. The thing about that, though, is that it’s not really wasted time. Every bit that we learn gives us a better sense of the milieu in which our characters live. It helps us understand them in such a way that they spring naturally from the setting, and are not just modern people that we plunk down somewhere in the past.
I will admit something: sometimes I just can’t find the information that I need. When that happens, I have to decide what I am going to do. Is it critical to have those exact particulars? Can I leave them out without the story suffering? Can I make my best guess, based on everything else I know? The answer will be different in every case, and thankfully I haven’t had to make this choice very often, but not everything in history is discoverable.
Although what we write is fiction, most historical fiction authors do everything in their power to get the details right. But we can also remember that this is fiction, and the reader deep-down knows that, even though we are often asked, “Did this really happen?” As long as the answer is, “It could have,” I feel my story is legit.
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Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.