by Annette Lyon
Some of the most beloved novels of all time are historical fiction, written well after the period described in them. Think Gone with the Wind, A Tale of Two Cities, and Les Miserables.
These books (and many others) have much in common, including the fact that when you read them, it feels like they were written during the time they were set. The time period is accurate and real.
How did Margaret Mitchell, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo do it?
A Dynamic Time Period
They didn't write about any day in any year. They wrote about a time in which there was turmoil and conflict (great building blocks for a story!). Those time periods are also ones in which readers can readily identify. Saying "1860" is far more generic to a reader than "The U.S. Civil War." Immediately we have an image in mind, complete with inherent conflicts, a setting, and much more.
These authors most certainly read up on the time period they were writing about. I don't know if it's true, but rumor has it that Dickens read a couple of hundred books on the French Revolution for A Tale of Two Cities. While I don't think you need to go that far in your research, read and dig around enough to know what you're talking about and be able to present the era in a way that's believable and real.
Story over Research
If there's one key to writing great historical fiction, this is it.
Keep your knowledge of the period in check. Yes, Dickens and the others knew boatloads about the Civil War or war-torn France, but they didn't flout it. They used whatever bits and pieces helped bring the STORY alive.
And that's the key right there. Story must take precedence over research. A chain of facts does not make a plot.
It's tempting to cram into your book as many of the details, facts, and figures you've learned. Or at the very least, cram more than you should. Chances are that less than 10% of what you research will end up in the book. But it's that 90% or so that you can draw on that allows you to create a rich environment for your characters to play out their stories in.
Beware the danger of making your story into a giant history lesson. Remember at all costs that the historical details are NOT the story, that they are there solely to ENHANCE the story. Yes, they may play a big part of the story and provide many of the conflicts. (But now we're back to the history being there for a reason: creating a rip-roaring story, not for setting the scene.)
I like to think of the time period as the hanger on which the story is draped. It's definitely there. It makes a big difference in how the story and characters work. But it's NOT the story in and of itself. In some respects, Gone with the Wind could have been written about several different wars, because it's the characters who create the story, not the war itself per se. (Remember how Goodnight Saigon, based in Vietnam, is a retelling of Madame Butterfly? MB certainly wasn't written during the 60s, but the underlying story is timeless.)
Any time you find yourself throwing in facts for the sake of telling more than your reader needs to know, pull back. Don't over explain elements from the past; it doesn't sound natural. If you use terms that might be unfamiliar to modern readers, find a natural way to work an explanation into the text.
For example, I had a reader for my upcoming historical novel indicate that he/she didn't know what a tick was and that I should explain. It would have been ridiculous for me to stop the scene and go on about how before mattresses, people filled large fabric "pillowcase" type things with straw, and they slept on those, and that's what a tick was. That would have been an intrusion to the narrative.
Having my characters stop and talk about it would have felt equally false. Why on earth would one of my two female characters describe a tick when they both know full well what it is? People don't chat over things they already know about. (It's what I call the, "As you know, Bob" mistake in dialogue.)
Instead, I simply had a character refer to the person who would be sleeping on the guest tick and that they'd need to get it filled with straw before she arrived. Natural conversation, but the information that the reader needs to know gets across.
Historical writing can be rewarding and exciting. Just don't let the history get in the way!