Writing Historical Novels

historical fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

February’s Montana Women Writer’s meeting featured a discussion on Writing Historical Novels led by Karen Wills and me. Karen read the following quote  by Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter from M.K. Tod’s blog Inside Historical Fiction:

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period. 

An excellent segue into my favorite topic, research. Below is a handout listing some, I’m sure not all and in no apparent order, details historical novelists use to fill in Ms. Smith’s circles.

Facts of people’s lives – names, birth, marriage, death dates and places
Food – what, how produced, hunted, gathered, prepared, served, preserved
Water – supply, how does it get to people/animals
Other drinks – coffee, tea, alcohol, juices
Living quarters – structure, furniture, room set up

Lighting – inside and out
Social structure – social classes, details in each level, reactions, impact on society and individuals
Education – schools, apprenticeships, home learning
Manufacturing – for local use, exports
Imported/exported goods – what, from/to where, how transported

Purchasing goods – where, how often, from who, display or set up of goods, barter or currency
Money – coins, paper, denominations, country’s currency
Occupations and their how-to
Heating and cooling – homes, people, animals
Clothing – fabrics, colors, patterns, how are they made, by whom
Public Health – clean water, sewage, diseases, medical practices

Personal Hygiene – cleanliness, teeth, hair, clothing
Socials – what, where, with who
Games & Sports, pleasurable past times
Story telling – oral, books, legend, lore
Neighborhoods – city, town, rural

Patriarchal or Matriarchal – societies, families, governments, values
Rules spoken and unspoken – within family, community, groups, government
History of place – country, state, county, town
Civil laws – who writes them, how they’re upheld, justice system, consequences
Geography – terrain of land

Maps
Governments – leaders, issues, controversies – past & present
Politics – local, national, global
Military – preparedness, uniforms/armor, weapons, strongholds (fort, bunker, cave, etc)
Weather/Climate – seasons, temperatures, precipitation

Communication – (usually before phones at least before cell phones)
Travel – local and distant/international, land, sea, air, walk, ride, vehicles,
Ethnic & religious customs – national, local, family, personal
Religion – beliefs, ceremonies, conversion, spreading the Word
Stereotypes – common of the time and place

Language – written, oral, dialects
Death, burial, cremation – traditions, rites

            If you think of any that aren’t on the list, please let me know and I’ll add them.

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