I’ve been writing historical fiction for a long time, so you’d think by now I would have learned. But when I am at the beginning of a new project my tendency is still to start researching the fun stuff—the nitty-gritty details. After all, those details often bring great inspiration for story as well as fun metaphors that a character of that time period would understand. They cause me to feel the time period and the characters in way that makes everything come to life in my head. It’s why we write historical fiction. Are you with me?
Except I’ve learned that in most cases combing through period details isn’t the exactly right place to start. In fact, if I start there, I often end up with a bit of disconnect in the overall story and it takes me a while to realize why.
For most of us, reading the big picture history of our story’s time period—and even a little bit before it—is not the most exciting part of research. It’s the part I’d prefer to skip past. To skim. To capture the highlights without trying to understand all the moving parts. In fact, for most of us, little of the big picture history of the era of our story will actually appear in the story. So why take the time to research and understand it?
There are three major reasons we as authors need to understand the bigger history of our time period, at least in the country in which our story takes place.
So before you dive into discovering what material your heroine’s dress would be made of or what kind of carriage your hero drives, pull back and look at the bigger picture for a minute. Who is leading the country? What are the big political and economic and religious issues of the day? Is there a war happening—beginning or ending? Is there a major drought or flood? Are the people of that country insulated or focused on the world beyond them? How do they get their news? When we can set a firm backdrop of an era for ourselves before we start writing, our story gains so much. It might not be the most exciting of all the research you’ll do, but it will be some of the most important.
D'Ann Mateer has loved the marriage of history and fiction since she first began reading. Armed with a B.A. in history from Southern Methodist University, she has authored four traditionally published historical novels first under the name Anne Mateer which are now re-releasing under her given name, D’Ann Mateer. She is currently writing for the upcoming Guideposts’ series Secrets From Grandma’s Attic.
D’Ann is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers’ League of Texas, and Historical Novel Society. She enjoys helping other writers through freelance editing, judging writing contests, and teaching online classes. D'Ann and her husband, Jeff, enjoy reading, exploring historical sites and historical homes, and spending time with their grown children—and now grandchildren! D'Ann and Jeff live in the Dallas area.
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