Okay. First, introductions: my name is Heather. I write historical fiction. I’ve been doing it for about ten years. I am a pretty good writer, and an excellent researcher—too excellent in fact, and yes, there is such a thing. More on that later.
For now, I’ll just tell you that it is probably the main reason why I am not yet published (“yet” being my operative word here). So what can an unpublished writer of historical fiction do for you? Well, I can teach you what I know about research, which is a lot.
I have four degrees in history, two of them graduate degrees, two of them from UCLA, and additionally I spent 7 years in the doctoral program in the history department at UCLA, where I advanced to candidacy and then pulled the plug to pursue my writing dreams.
And the first thing I will tell you in this blog is that all this academic work did very, very little to help me with my historical writing. A professor told me once that the higher you go in education, the more difficult it is to write creatively—and she was correct.
It seems like four degrees would do a lot for one writing historical fiction, but here’s the crux: most of your research—the really good and important research—is going to be designed to help you get a feel for your time period. You are going to mainly be chasing down the nitty-gritty’s of daily life. In your romance, what kind of underwear, if any, do your hero and heroine wear during your time-period?
You need to know this for the scenes when they take off their clothes.
How often do they bathe? Do they use soap? What do they smell like? What do they eat? When do they eat?
If you’re writing a medieval novel with battle scenes, what are your soldiers wearing under their armor? How do they go no. 2 if they’re already all suited up and four hours into an eight-hour melee? (Hint: they just let that shit go… literally. Dysentery, you know).
Speaking of going to the bathroom, how did aristocratic ladies relieve themselves when dressed up in court costume at Versailles? Well, they peed on the floor—no joke. Pee, walk away. It stank at Versailles. People also pooped in the corners… aristos had some serious digestion issues, probably all the sugar and white bread they were eating coupled with the filth of the time-period. This led to some explosive problems.
The eighteenth-century was gross. And yes, of course you’ll have to know some of the broad political movements and intrigues, more so if you’re writing in the style of Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel. But honestly, you can get a lot of that stuff off the internet.
Wikipedia is naturally a good place to start, though let me caution you against relying too much on Wikipedia: when I was a grad student, UCLA had a strict “No-Wikipedia” policy, and we used to joke about messing around with the information provided there (since anyone can do that) as a means for flushing out those amongst our students who were using that platform in their papers. As far as I know, none of us ever did it, but I guarantee that if we were thinking about it, others at other schools were thinking about it too, and it only takes one a-hole to carry it out.
So where do you find out what kind of underwear people wore, how they went to the bathroom, and what they smelled like?
I shall tell you: you’ll use a variety of sources, all of which I am going to share with you in this blog, including: maps, diaries, newspapers, travel accounts, books on fashion, novels—both historical (as in written during your time-period, if after the eighteenth century) and contemporary. You’ll use the blogs of other historical fiction writers—Two Nerdy Girls just recently announced the end of their fabulous blog, though everything is archived—fantastic for clothes. You’ll use documentaries and period movies.
And of course you’ll use books. I will show you what Amazon can do for you; what not to buy on Amazon; and when your local university research library will come into play (hint: it’s not for the books, it’s for the article databases). And finally, I’m going to show you when and how to just make shit up. We do not know everything about the past, and there will come times when you just cannot find the answers you are looking for.
For example: in all my years as an academic studying social and cultural history, and then the years that followed writing historical fiction, I’ve never found anyone to explain how women dealt with periods during the eighteenth-century.
They did not yet wear underwear, so there was nothing for them to seat a wadded-up rag into. The closest I have ever come is a footnote I found once in a translation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that suggested the reason Madame de Tourvel does not go out with Valmont one evening is because she is menstruating. I took this to mean that she was unfit for being seen in public because she was bleeding into her skirts—“Freebleeding,” as I believe it is called today.
Yes, that’s a thing—look it up. Makes sense given the no underwear detail, and the fact that the afore mentioned Versailles ladies were peeing on the floor, so why not bleed into some flannel petticoats? Anyway, we’ll talk about when to make speculative leaps such as this, or when to just leave something out. For the record, no one thus far has menstruated in any of my books. It’s a detail that furthers nothing in any of my plots, and so it was easy to just leave out.
Finally, throughout all of this, I’m going to do my very best to teach you what I have yet to learn myself: when it’s time to pull the plug and write.
Remember how I alluded to there being such a thing as too-good a researcher? Well, the more research you do, the bigger and potentially more bloated your book will be. And in today’s market, epic-length novels—even well-written ones—are a hard sell to publishers from an unknown author. My experience has been that agents won’t even look at my work: they see my word count, and my query goes straight to the slush pile.
So great Heather (you’re thinking), you’ve been blathering on for quite a while now, and all I want to know is how do I get started today!
Biography, my friends.
Find a biography, and read it cover to cover—it’s one of the few books you’ll be reading all the way through in your research. Find a good biography for your time-period—something cool about somebody you like—and read it like a novel (as in try not to highlight too much or take too many notes).
You’ll get a great crash course in your era and setting, you’ll learn some great stuff about the society and culture, and you’ll get a good feel for the way people lived their lives. Plus! You’ll have a great potential character or cameo for your book, because people just love that shit. So find yourself a biography—maybe somebody will even go to the bathroom in it.