Historical fiction is my absolute favorite genre to read—but the most intimidating to try to actually write. As a reader and history nerd, I love immersing myself in another time and place (yet still reap the benefits of indoor plumbing!), but as a hopeless pedant and reviewer, I find myself jarred out of the narrative when even small details seem off.
I don’t know about you, but I have set off multiple times to write some epic historical novel, having had visions of the end, where my heroine is standing on a windswept clifftop, looking out wistfully over the roiling ocean, with a ruggedly handsome hero standing behind her…and then I realize that relating the details of that historical world mean researching a lot of things we take for granted. And I’m terrified to get it wrong, because people will notice.
Who cares about the details of our historical world when we are so smolderingly pretty and the wind is blowing our hair back so majestically?
Even when you have the basic research down, such as the general time, place, and maybe even a big historical event as the backdrop, I can’t be the only one who stops writing mid-sentence and starts panicking. Wait, what year was the telephone invented, anyway? Was its use widespread enough to warrant my character having one in her home? If not, what did people do or use instead? Oh, crap.
Needless to say, my Google search history is full of odd things like “1880s underwear” and “what did people eat in 1880s san francisco anyway and really what is my life.”
Why do you keep asking me these hard questions?!
The trap, of course, is that you can get so caught up in researching that you never feel ready to actually start writing. So how do you know when to stop researching and start actually putting words on paper?
Luckily for us, we have two authors who know how to create a world out of the past—Ashley Hope Pérez (Out of Darkness) and Jessie Ann Foley (The Carnival at Bray) both wrote books which not only blew me away, but created authentic worlds in a time that is no longer our own.
Take it away, experts!
Ashley Hope Pérez on Historical World Building
First, a confession: when Jennie asked me to contribute a world-building post, my first thought was, “Eeek, I don’t know anything about that! I write realistic fiction, not fantasy or science fiction!” That was silly. Because whatever our genre of choice, all writers are world builders. We want to weave plausible, compelling, and unique realities for our readers to enter. To succeed, we need to create narrative spaces that feel sufficiently real to persuade people to care about the characters and circumstances we invent. So, even though I’m going to focus mostly on world-building for my historical novel, Out of Darkness, I want to stress that this work also had to happen for my contemporary novels, What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Because any time we step outside of our own experiences to invent a character, we have to figure out how that life is positioned in time and space, in culture, society, religion, and... well, you get the idea.
Although I’ve been using “research” to describe everything that comes before I am officially writing THE BOOK, world-building sounds sexier—and it more accurately describes what I do in this first phase. Certainly there is a good bit of old-fashioned research that goes into writing historical fiction; for Out of Darkness, I relied on non-fiction sources to help me depict the 1937 New London school explosion and to evoke life in a small oilfield town. But “world-building” does a better job of capturing the speculative nature of the work it takes for me to write my way into a novel.
This speculative dimension is especially relevant when it comes to imagining lives that have been largely excluded from the mainstream historical record, as is the case for the Mexican American and African American characters at the center of Out of Darkness. I still rely on historical sources to know what kinds of events were happening at the time, but I’m often imagining plausible experiences as opposed to fictionalizing historical information specific to this exact time and place.
What does world-building look like in practice? I tend to develop my characters’ world in tandem with my characters themselves. I do a lot of oddball brainstorming and freewriting... and I obsessively work through prompts from books like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. I make lists of what my characters have under their beds. I look up cracker brands, period cookware, and dance music from the Great Depression. I research how you would light a gas stove in 1936.
A lot of my world-building gets triggered by my questions about how my characters would come to be in the specific community I’m writing about and what their experiences there would be like. For example, when I discovered the name “Juanita Herron” among the lists of children who were killed in the New London school explosion, I began to wonder how a Mexican American student might have ended up in a white East Texas school in 1936. (Although in East Texas the last name was probably pronounced like the bird, put an accent mark over the “o,” treat the “H” as silent, and you get a fairly common Hispanic last name.) That question led me to imagine how a Latina might come to East Texas from San Antonio in part to have access to a better school. (Because of oil field money, the New London school offered opportunities that were almost unheard of at the time: foreign languages, extensive athletics, pre-professional training, and even courses for college credit.) Whereas most Latinas and Latinos would have been forced to attend the “Mexican” school in parts of Texas where there were substantial Mexican American populations, there were only “white” and “Negro” schools in the primarily black and white town of New London. That difference might have made it possible for Mexican Americans to enroll in the white school.
The New London school explosion, 1937
Often, I find myself using “problems” related to world building to develop scenes and connections in my story. A question like, “How would my Latina character buy groceries in segregated 1936 East Texas?” opened onto possibilities for conflict (my protagonist ends up being rudely told to return to the back door of New London’s one grocery store during its designated “colored” hours). It also opened onto opportunities for connection. In Out of Darkness, my Latina character Naomi ultimately does her grocery shopping in Egypt Town, the African American settlement near New London. This is part of how she becomes close to the black teenager she’ll eventually fall in love with.
World-building sits right at the center of a fundamental paradox of fiction writing: you can’t write yet because you don’t know enough about your characters and their world, but you don’t know your characters and their world because you haven’t started writing yet. How to resolve this? You just have to start writing your way in without worrying about what you don’t know. In fact, you will discover what you don’t know as you go, and then you will do more research and imagining to address the gaps, and this work will result in new problems and possibilities, which will then feed into additional writing.
And while this cyclical process may seem frustrating in its ambiguity and endlessness, it’s actually a beautiful engine of possibility.
Now: go build some worlds.
Jessie Ann Foley on World Building
When I was studying for my MFA at Columbia College, our teachers used to play a game with us called “Take a Place.” In the exercise, we were asked to “see” a setting in our minds, and then imagine more closely its sounds and smells, its qualities of light, and any objects we might see there. At first, I was skeptical—didn’t you need characters before you could start developing a story? But eventually, after a trip to Ireland that sparked the first chapter of my novel The Carnival at Bray, I became a believer in Take a Place. It taught me the difference between simply telling a story and actually seeing it.
One afternoon, on a day trip from Dublin to Bray, I stepped off the train and saw a carnival standing at the edge of the Irish Sea. It was summertime, but chilly, overcast, and abandoned, which imbued the whole place with this forlorn feeling. I thought that would be a great setting for a story, and I wrote a little description of it in my journal. At that point, I had my place, but no characters to put in it. A couple months later it occurred to me that the obvious inhabitant of a lonely place like this carnival would be a lonely person—and the main character in The Carnival at Bray was born.
As a writer of historical realistic YA, the task of world-building is different than it is for a writer of sci-fi or fantasy. You don’t get to make up the rules of the world—but you do have a responsibility to use details that bring this world to life. For example, the first draft of The Carnival at Bray included a scene where a goat stands in a field, snacking on a Snicker’s Bar. In the rewrites, I realized that Snickers aren’t sold in Ireland, and I had to change it to a Crunchie Bar. Getting these micro-details wrong can create an inauthentic world and take your reader out of the story. If they can’t trust you to get your candy bars right, why should they trust you with the bigger stuff? Alternately, if you choose to skip over these specifics altogether, what you’re left with is a generic Anytown, Anywhere that lacks all the vividness and life that specificity can bring to a story.
Human emotion is universal—we all can relate to love and tragedy and friendship and the pains of growing up. But the backdrop of this emotion—the places, the smells, the sounds, all the specifics that make a realistic world realistic—can be just as important in helping your reader experience that delicious transportation that occurs when you look up from the page, surprised, suddenly, to find yourself back in your own real life.
Left: Jessie's photo of the actual Carnival at Bray.
A huge thanks to Jessie, Ashley, and all the authors who so generously stopped by this month to share their expertise!
And now we turn it to you, readers: do you have any questions for Ashley and Jessie? What's the hardest part about writing historical fiction? How do you deal with the details without losing your mind?
See you in a few short days for our NaNoWriMo 2015 support group!