Random Inspirations

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5 Ways to Make Your Historical Fiction Sizzle

on November 26, 2014

I’ve been immensely enjoying my time writing The Mermaid’s Wedding, book 2 of my California Mermaids series! Not only does it allow me to stretch my imagination and indulge in my fascination with mermaids, it has also helped me to rekindle my love of history.

The Mermaid’s Wedding takes place in 1912, and Oceania and Xavier travel to San Francisco to meet with the conductor of the symphony, who has offered both of them positions. I’ve visited San Francisco twice, but I didn’t know much about its history. Therefore, I headed to the library to load up on books about the subject.

Here's a picture of early twentieth century San Francisco that I came across in my research. (Courtesy of timeshutter.com)

Here’s a picture of early twentieth century San Francisco that I came across in my research. (Courtesy of timeshutter.com)

As I began to read, I became enthralled in San Francisco’s rich history, and voila–I realized that I just had to share some awesome tips for writing historical fiction with you! So, here they are:

  1. Lose yourself – We write best when we’re entirely immersed in a subject, so by all means, hole up in your office amidst a pile of books. Or, if you’re like me, hang out in the library courtyard sipping an almond roca latte while–yes–being surrounded by a pile of books. Losing yourself in your research will allow you to pick up on the fine historical details and nuances that will bring your time period and setting to life.
  2. Remain accurate to the big picture but use your imagination for the rest – It’s important to know the key historical events and landmarks of the time, as well as how people talked, their modes of transportation, and what was fashionable. But for other things, feel free to use your artistic license. For example, I write about the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1911. I learned in my research that Henry Hadley was the director of the symphony at this time, but I’d already had a character in mind for the director. Therefore, I called him a different name and let myself go wild with my descriptions. Most readers won’t notice this discrepancy, but my imaginary director adds a lot of personality and flavor to the story.
  3. Only write about a period you’re passionate about – I’ve been interested in the turn of the century (the twentieth century, that is) ever since I was a little girl obsessed with Samantha, the “bright Victorian beauty” from the American Girls books. Therefore, deciding to set the first California Mermaids books in 1912 was a no-brainer. Originally, I’d wanted to set them in 1901, but I’d realized that I wanted them to take place after the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906, and after the symphony was established, so 1912 it was. But I digress… My point is that you should choose to write about a time period that has always interested you, and a place that you’ve either visited or dreamed of visiting. History can either be scintillating or terribly dry and boring, depending on your interests and personal preferences.
  4. Keep a “question notebook” during the writing process – I began researching my topic before I began writing the book, but realized that many of my questions arose as I was writing. For example, what was the most affluent area close to downtown San Francisco, where Xavier’s family would be likely to live? What was its proximity to cable cars? The questions went on and on. I actually began to write them down on a page of my inspiration notebook, since I didn’t want to thumb through my reference books right away and interrupt my creative writing momentum. After I’d finished writing, I would look up the answers and fill in the blanks, or change little details.
  5. Have a good relationship with your librarian – The librarians are awesome! They helped me to find the perfect nonfiction history books in two minutes flat. And not only have they proven helpful during my research, they’re amazing resources for all things literary in the community. As writers, we need to network with as many literati as we can, and librarians certainly fit the bill!

Writers out there, how do you research your topics when writing historical fiction? Did you find these tips useful? I’d love to hear your questions and comments!

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