In order to be an author of historical fiction, an author must get really down and dirty in their chosen timeframe. The more intimate the research can get, the more real the story will feel for the reader. We’re happy to describe our favorite parts of a historical era in detail (sometimes too much—just ask our patient family members) but it can’t be all sunshine and daisies.
I asked a few of the Lanterns what parts of their chosen era they don’t adore so much.
For me, Jillianne Hamilton, author of The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, it’s the clothes of WWII Britain.
“As of today I’ve written two WWII novels and outlined most of a third one and I can safely say that I strongly dislike the fashions my characters would have worn. Give me a late Victorian bustle or a Regency empire waist or a gentleman’s top hat any day—the fashions of 1940s Britain (when the Homefront Hearts WWII romance trilogy takes place) are not my favorite. I’m not a huge fan of the square shoulders on many women’s outfits and the men’s fashions were pretty dull.
Food wasn’t the only thing rationed in Britain during WWII. Clothing rationing began in 1941 and plays a major part in my next novel, The Seamstress on Cider Lane. Any flourish on an outfit that used extra fabric was considered unpatriotic since everything was in such short supply. Outfits sporting patches, alterations, and visible fixes became very standard by the end of the war.”
The Lines Between Us author Rebecca D’Harlingue finds the 17th century fascinating. However…
“My first novel, The Lines Between Us, was set in Spain and Mexico, and my second, The Map Colorist, in Amsterdam, both around 1660. Going back that far, you can take nothing for granted. For example, I found that Spanish women of the time usually sat on cushions on the floor. In Amsterdam, people slept sitting up in bed boxes. I guess claustrophobia wasn’t an option.
Perhaps the most challenging thing for me is the envy I feel when those who write about a later period talk about what wonderful primary sources newspapers or catalogs can be. Yes, there were news sheets in the Dutch Republic, but something going back that far is not available online. Plus, I don’t speak Dutch.
What I was able to use for primary sources for my novel set in Spain were literary works and travel journals of the period. I was lucky that I speak Spanish and had studied the texts in grad school. For the Amsterdam novel, I used the rich array of artworks from the period as sources of insights on daily life, clothing, and the home. I was excited to discover that in three of Vermeer’s paintings, there were maps on the wall from the publishing house that features in my novel. Somehow, that felt validating.”
Writing in an era where a plague was running rampant hit close to home for Judging Noa author Michal Strutin.
“Covid hit while I worked on my upcoming Renaissance mystery trilogy. During the Renaissance, the Black Death killed about 50 million Europeans, nearly half the population. Fortunately, plagues missed Venice in 1569-1572, the years I’m writing about, but I had to include a mention. Thus, coins for charity, the entry charge to a masquerade ball, were dropped in a bowl of vinegar, the disinfectant of the day.
Doctors’ plague clothes? The beaks were filled with herbs to combat bad odors “causing” plague. With small nose holes and glass eye holes, the mask provided protection. Doctors were covered head to toe and carried canes with which to lift clothes from victims. Perhaps the great art of the time drew peoples’ eyes away from the rats and filth that drew the plague to cities. And most people slept on straw-filled mattresses rife with bedbugs. I’m not fond of those either.”
Witchfinder’s Well series author Jonathan Posner loves writing in the Tudor period.
“I do have one frustration–Tudor first names! There are way too few of these, especially for the more noble families. So it can be difficult to find a set of different names for all my characters. In my latest book The Lawyer’s Legacy, I have a character called Robin. But Robin is a contraction of Robert – which is my lead character’s name! It’s not surprising that one of my beta-readers suggested I change one or other of these (although not possible within the constraints of the story).
And once you have used up Thomas, Henry, Francis, Richard, Nicholas, Edward, George, James, and William, you don’t have many more options. It’s not much better for the girls either–Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, Alice, Anne, Catherine, and Olivia are the main options, which is why I went all Shakespearean and used Ophelia and Cressida in my new book!”
Linda Ulleseit, author of The Ahola Spirit, having readers empathize with female characters and their societal expectations and limitations can be challenging.
“Every period has limitations that a novelist must keep in mind while writing. The strong female characters in my novels come from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Portraying independent actions can be difficult in a time when society and husbands expected women to be meek. An author wants the reader to understand the era but also empathize with the character.
In my novel The Aloha Spirit, the main character, Dolores, is married to an alcoholic, abusive husband. Many early readers were frustrated that Dolores didn’t leave him. But in the 1940s divorce was highly unusual. To a staunch Catholic like Dolores, it was impossible. Staying with her husband was not a choice Dolores made. Her choice was to take her daughters to California, from Honolulu, and raise them on her own while her husband drifted in and out of their lives.”
Jillianne writes delightful historical fiction featuring rebellious ladies and happy endings. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the 2016 PEI Book Award and Victorian historical fiction novel, The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, was longlisted for the 2022 Historical Fiction Company Book Award. Her WWII romance trilogy, Homefront Hearts, will be released by the end of 2023. Jill lives on Canada’s beautiful east coast.