On Researching Historicals

On her way to starting her new job as a full time writer, Erin frets that the research involved in her next project (The Teleportation of Gilbert Perez) threatens to eat her project. I note that she had similar concerns with Plain Kate, and we all saw how well that turned out, so I’m less inclined to worry. But it is true that the research involved in a historical novel can be daunting, as there is so much history to research.

You have a story, it’s set in the past, and you want to get it right, of course. You don’t want your readers to stop and say ‘that could never have happened!’ You want the names and places to correspond to the timeline you’ve established and, more than that, you want the novel to feel like it’s from the period, right down to the smells, if possible. But, as Erin notes, the desire to know everything about a period can easily swamp you, such that you never actually get down and start writing. So, what do you do?

Part of this might be related to Erin’s own writing style, which revels in the critical details that solidify the precise image on the page, or snap a character arc into place. She’s confessed to me that she’s always struggled with plot, and that plot is something she often discovers rather than crafts. My latest novel, The Young City, while it is set in 1884 Toronto, wasn’t swamped by the research. This may have been because, for me, the plot of the story was already in my mind. I knew where the characters had to go, and my research was confined to finding the quickest and best path through the historical details to get there. The Young City is actually rather flexible — it’s not about the history, but how a young couple from the present day cope with being thrust together in the past.

This isn’t to say that the history didn’t influence the story. The Taddle Creek element of the plot was there from the beginning, and that was the starting point for my research. Looking around the Internet and some textbooks, I learnt that the last portion of the river was buried in 1884, which fixed the date for the story. Then there was a trip to the Toronto Reference Library to look up old local newspapers from the period to get a feel for the period, plus other research on the history of Toronto that year. When I learned that 1884 was the first year women could vote (if they held property) in the municipal election, and that the year was not too far removed from the activities of Ms. Stowe and Ms. Trout, the first two female medical doctors in the country, the character of Faith started to take form.

But for the most part, my research was confined to searching out “gotchas” — historical details that contradicted aspects of my story or otherwise obstructed the plot. Then it was back to the drawing board to see how to get around this obstruction, or if the plot had to change. Further details that I discovered were thrown in, if they were neat or contributed to the plot, but I was able to tell my story without getting too deep into the minutae of Toronto in 1884.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself what the story is about. Is it the history, or what the characters find out about themselves in that setting? Is it about two young adults from the present making a life in 1884 Toronto, or a young couple transplanted into an alien locale with nothing but the clothes on their back and each other to turn to?

Erin tells me that, for Gilbert Perez, she might have to write an exploratory draft, just telling the story on the assumption that much will have to be changed or abandoned as the historical research contradicts elements. That may be the best way to go. But historical fantasies, in my opinion, have a tendency to be more than just the history. I have my doubts about how much text Erin will have to abandon.

Further Reading

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