Historical Fiction: WorldBuild an Era, Not a Year
There’s a scene in Reality Bites (1994) where the main characters sing Scholastic Rock songs after their
college graduation. The movie may be steeped in the sensibilities of the 90s, especially the debate about selling out and corporate greed, but the characters’ pop culture references are from the late 1970s, the era of their childhood. “Conjunction Junction” is what they grew up watching and what remains part of their cultural DNA.
That scene perfectly illustrates that research for writing historical fiction is needed not only for the year in which it takes place but also for the time period that covers the characters’ lives, particularly during their formative years.
Historical Research: The Specific Year
The first time I had to set a book in a specific time period, I cheated. The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, a steampunk romantic mystery set in Victorian London, takes place in an alternate world. That meant I had some leeway with events, the layout of London, and the general elements of daily life. The last included heating, transportation, clothing, and class structure.
However, that ‘cheating’ could only go so far. I needed a Victorian London that was recognizable to readers and that meant I had to know more about that time period in the real world. Specifically, how the Ashkenazi Jewish community lived and worked in London. Thankfully, there are a number of contemporary first-person accounts, including a terrific book about housekeeping by a Jewish matriarch.
It’s those small details that matter most in a historical, especially clothing, food, and social structure. Anyone who’s watched Bridgerton knows the importance of the last element. It all matters.
As writer Jacqueline Woodson said: “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”
It’s a Time Period, Not a Year
But historical fiction is more than about getting the details of the specific date correct. It’s about getting the details of what happened in the lives of the characters correct.
My upcoming mystery, Above the Fold (due to be released in 2023) is set in the 1980s. Those references should be easy for me, as I lived through the 1980s. But Trisha Connell, the main character, is about a decade older than I am. Her cultural touchstones are not mine. Trisha’s are rooted in the 1960s and, particularly, the 1970s of her teenage years.
In other words, I needed to heavily research 1956-1984 in order to have a full picture of what my character experienced in her life. In this case, since my book is set in New York City, that includes events that affected everyone in Manhattan during that time and, more specifically, the 1970s punk scene in lower Manhattan.
Trisha, essentially on her own, lived through Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, and walked Alphabet City. She lived through the crime wave of 1970s New York that earned it the nickname Savage City. Earlier in her life, she was just the right age to visit the 1964 World’s Fair and see the debut of the animatronic Lincoln.
I needed to know how these experiences shaped her worldview, how going from seeing the promise of the World’s Fair to the cynicism of the 1970s would change a person. I needed to know specifically about what formed her.
Be Location Specific
I mentioned my research of the punk scene in lower Manhattan in the 1970s. I could have chosen any number of events and movements in 1970s New York City for Trisha. Manhattan has always been a city of neighborhoods, from the Irish in Lower Manhattan in the 1850s, to Little Italy, Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, and others, from rich to poor, blue-collar and white-collar.
That’s true everywhere. Inner communities inside larger ones happen in any community, large or small. For example, I grew up in rural Vermont. There were distinct neighborhoods even in my small town, from those who lived out on the farms, to the older area of town where the wealthier lived, to those clustered around Main Street to those who lived on dirt roads. People went to a different school depending on the neighborhood. There were some things in common, of course, just as all Manhattan residents experience the subway, Penn Station, Grand Central, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and events like the World’s Fair.
But all of them experience the city differently depending on their neighborhood and upbringing.
There’s a terrific example of a community within a community in Alex Segura’s excellent new book, Secret Identity. It’s set in 1970s New York City. The main character works in a failing comic book company. She experiences Manhattan through that world. Segura doesn’t attempt a wider focus on Manhattan but narrows in on this specific community and it makes it immersive and fascinating.
For Above the Fold, I picked the micro-community that best suited Trisha and her formative years. For her contemporary setting, I set her down into a thriving newspaper as a crime reporter in 1984. One, because having been a breaking news reporter, I felt I could do right by the emotional vibe of the newsroom. Two, because the work suits the character.
Someone writing, say, a medieval romance, is going to have to choose their focus in the same way. Will it be set in a castle or a town? Will it focus on the lords of the realm or those who toiled more anonymously? Is the area around them quiet or a scene of constant warfare, such as the Scottish and Welsh borders in England? All these decisions will affect the research needed.
I tend to form the characters of a story before the story itself. My research is generally to find out what’s the best situation for them to have grown into the person they are. But, often, my research provides me with additional nuance and, sometimes, creates new ideas. There are writers who do this backwards by choosing a community and a time, and the research helps them decide on their characters. Either way works.
People are complicated, an amalgam of their experiences. We all grew up differently, even if we all had the same birth date. If you dig down into the specifics of a character’s whole life and let that influence how they react to the current time period around them, the research will come to life through them