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The Book Builder's Blog

On The Book Builder’s Blog, C. D. Tavenor discusses the art of crafting novels, from the very beginning concepts that form stories to the editorial processes involved prior to publishing. The blog goes beyond just storysmithing; it considers all the pieces necessary to construct a complete book!

Guest Blog: Into the History Pages

Hi there, I'm Victorique and I mostly write historical fiction.

Research in historical fiction is synonymous with the genre. If you want to write in this genre, you’ll spend a lot of your time reading. Whether it is before you write a word in your WIP or after, you’ll spend a lot of time looking things up. And a rule of mine is, if you aren't sure, don't assume, investigate, and ask around if you know any experts.

If you feel daunted by the amount of sources out there, remember that research is often something that you must start on your own. It doesn't really matter where you begin, but you need to just start so that you don't feel as though you have no idea what you're writing, or you’re uncertain about whether what you're doing is right.

What if your interpretation of the past isn't correct? If you're a fellow historical fiction writer, I'm sure that you always have this fear at the back of your mind.

I’ve faced this worry a lot, even more so when I wrote a story set in an alternative Edo, Japan. It had bitten into me countless times, and I went back and forth between adhering to the strict chronology or choosing to take a different path.

But remember this: there is no correct way to interpret history. History is fluid, and we can only narrow it down to the facts known to us. Thus, the best sort of research needs to survey diverse sources. Seek out all sorts of books and articles. And then try to figure it out. Put together what you think works for your story, and what you’ll accept.

In historical fiction it is impossible to create the right interpretation. Rather the process forms what you think is the most likely and credible.

People can give different weight to different pieces of evidence. We don't have video tapes depicting past lives in every detail. Sure there are paintings and writings, but these aren’t necessarily enough to tell a story and may only be one side of the picture. As such, it is far more important to focus upon understanding the world these people inhabit.

Quite a bit of historical fiction still requires the author to fill in the blanks and make a narrative choice. And if you're still worried, keep in mind that the strangest things can happen provided the right circumstances occur. And if you feel as though you want to ask about certain things or look up timelines, a resource I use for such debates occurs at www.alternatehistory.com.

At Alternate History, writers show you that the strangest things can occur provided the right groundwork. Even a small event like the birth of a child, or a later death of somebody important can totally change the course of history.

This is called the butterfly effect, where changes may seem small upon the first glance, but would actually make the world unrecognizable a few decades later.

Consider the saying: “truth is always stranger than fiction.” It is very very true, and thus when writing a narrative in a historical setting you must always balance historical fact against the narrative. Thus, I choose to focus on the culture, understanding what sort of values governed them and the beliefs and traditions that influenced their decisions.

When you're working with a historical setting, you should focus a little more on the culture. However, you also need to understand that people were fluid. Sure, it was less likely someone might adopt a “modern” way of thinking or a radically different view of their world, there always are such people. They are the eccentrics, the outliers, the misfits. But most importantly, they exist in any society or civilization. People come in all sorts of colors, and revolutionary ways of thinking have always existed.

Take our modern life as an example, most of us accept the laws as enlightened while future generations will view us as backwards and foolish.

So I focus on having my characters’ personal beliefs depend on their past and culture. If they’ve lived an easy life, then they probably won’t question cultural norms. If they’ve had a hard life, they might push against the status quo.

So research! Immerse yourself in the literature of the period, and if there is take a course in it by an expert. Live your life for a day as if you’re a part of the culture you’re replicating in your writing.

However, I adhere to one steadfast rule: ensure your book doesn’t attempt to “show off” how well you researched its setting. At the end of the day, the work will live and die with the quality of the story..  

Victorique is in the midst editing her first book, and she runs a blog which can be found at this address: https://endlessmidnightmoon.com