Lessons from Midwest Writers Workshop: Historical fiction

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“Historical fiction is history bent by imagination.” That quote alone above made Barbara Shoup’s session on writing historical fiction worthwhile.

For those of you who couldn’t attend the 40th Midwest Writer’s Workshop at Ball State, I’m writing a series of posts sharing some of the wisdom I acquired in my three jam-packed days in Muncie. If you want the full wisdom, be sure to sign up for next year.

Historical fiction

In her session, Barbara Shoup explained the two types of history from a writer’s perspective: the shallow past and the deep past. The shallow past is accessible through living people. You can still talk to people who were alive during that time period. It reaches as far back as what the oldest person you know can remember. If your grandmother is 80, the shallow past for you reaches back to around 1933.

Dealing with the shallow past is nice, because you can ask people questions about what it was like back then. But you don’t have to be beholden to their answers. You might think, if we can just ask a living person what it was like, why write a novel about it? Shoup said, “The first time a story is told, it’s fiction.” Your mother’s description of where she was when Kennedy was assassinated is already fiction because time and memory and experience have shaped that story. Writing a novel about it is just adding another layer.

The deep past, on the other hand, is no longer accessible through living people. It can only be known through research. Of course, you can read historical accounts of the period to get a sense of what it was like. Primary sources like diaries, letters and journals are useful. There’s nothing wrong with reading other novels set in the same historical time period, especially if you trust the author to have done her homework. Some other interesting suggestions Shoup made were advertisements, catalogues, paintings and music.

Use pictures to get a sense of how people dressed and what it looked like

Use pictures to get a sense of how people dressed and what it looked like

Advertisements and catalogues give you a sense of the stuff people used in their daily lives and the things they dreamed about buying. Looking through a catalogue, you can imagine the physical objects in someone’s house. Paintings give you an idea of what that house looked like. With music, you can imagine what they might have been listening to. Creating a story is a sensory experience–you need to put your readers there–and so you must be able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch what that might have been like.

Creating this sense of what it’s like to live in a particular world is harder with historical fiction about the deep past because we cannot experience it for ourselves. Research also helps to create the voice for characters of that particular time period. What did people believe then? What did they find important? What were the new ideas? What knowledge did they take for granted? What did they know and what didn’t they know?

As a sociologist, this is the part of history that’s interesting to me. You cannot assume that what’s true to you as a 21st century person was true to people from other historical periods. For example, most people don’t believe that higher education shrinks a woman’s uterus, but this was taken-for-granted truth in the 19th century. If you want to write historical fiction, you must try to climb inside the head of your characters whose world view is very different from your own.

If you find this very interesting, it’s easy to get carried away. When do you stop researching and start writing? Shoup says start writing early and don’t let the research overwhelm you. In historical fiction, as in all writing, the story comes first.

A nice organizational tip Shoup shared was the use of research notebooks. She uses a simple composition book and keeps all her research for each book in one place. She has notes, as well as pictures, maps and paintings she pastes to the pages. Who doesn’t love the idea of pasting pictures into a book, really? Also, the excuse to go to Staples and buy some more paper supplies.

Next week, agent Amanda Luedeke’s buttonhole session on marketing your book and finding your audience in which she packed a whole lot of information into 20 minutes.

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