Defining your setting in detail
Let’s assume you have decided on a setting, ie. a definite time and place, for your story, and now you want to dig out the details to make your fiction believable. One of the best ways to start is with the most knowledgeable historian for the area you plan to write about. He/she will guide you to the most important archival material available on the subject, material that is often available nowhere but in its local repository. Here, you may uncover gems such as diaries, journals, local newspapers, and photographs. All of these might be currently unpublished and unavailable on microfilm. Details from these sources give your story credibility and help you develop a plot that fits the era.
Another great resource for historical fiction writers is newspapers on microfilm. By reading issues published at the time and place of your story, you can grasp the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. Advertisements by businesses, listings of social events, the weather, and editorials on politics appear in these old “rags”. They also include train and boat schedules, prices for farm commodities and dry goods, and perhaps recipes (“receipts” in 19th century parlance) and household hints.
In addition, one of the most valuable assets you can gain from reading old newspapers is the manner in which the language was used in the time and place of your story. The meanings of words and phrases change quickly and local use of them varies from region to region, even within the same state. Your characters’ dialog will be defined by words and phrases in use at the time, so pay attention.
Steeping yourself in the language of the newspapers will help you “think” in that language when you sit down to write. Note, however, that the “newspaper as a major source of info” only holds true from about the mid-1800’s on. In earlier eras, newspapers reported very little local material other than ads and events. Social happenings did not make the pages of the press and therefore you will have to dig them out through other means.
Aside from newspapers, diaries and journals from your setting are of immeasurable value. Here, you learn the personal concerns of those who lived at the time, their routines, how the weather affected their lives, and much more. In addition to these first-hand, true-to-life sources, you will want to read the fiction published in that day—books your characters might have read. Also look for recently released fiction similar in setting to what you plan to write so you can get an idea of how writers are approaching such projects. If none exists, great! Yours will be the first. Of course, it’s not great if you’ve got your heart set on a time and place that no one is interested in reading about (a non-viable market).
On the other hand, it’s often said, “write your passion”. Perhaps a market will develop where none currently exists. A good example is Amish fiction. Beverly Lewis pioneered the genre and now dozens of new titles appear every month. All it takes is one breakout title and a new genre craze is born. It could happen to you!
Helpful Research Links
Click the link below to download the free PDF containing dozens of historical writing links to aid you with your project.