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Writing Historical Novels, Part One

By Carrie Turansky

In January of 2012 I had a short conversation with an editor and I asked her, “What are you looking for?” She smiled and said, “I wish I could find a novel set England at the same time as the popular British TV series Downton Abbey, with a brooding hero and a loving governess heroine, giving the story an echo of Jane Eyre.” I returned her smile and nodded, wishing I could write a story like that. I loved Downton Abbey and Jane Eyre, and I had a desire to write historical fiction, but writing a novel set in another country and stepping back in time one hundred years would take a lot of research. Still . . . I couldn’t get that editor’s words out of my mind.

I shared those ideas with my friend Cathy Gohlke, who had recently published a beautiful novel, Promise Me This, which is set in the Edwardian Era. She encouraged me and loaded me up with research books, and I set off on my journey to research and write The Governess of Highland Hall, book one in the Edwardian Brides Series.

Are you ready to jump in and research your next historical novel? Here are some tips to help you find your way.

Start Your Research
Begin with the big picture to get the general background information about that time period and location of your story, then focus in on the exact time, place, and social circles of your main characters. You need to get to know your characters’ corner of the world so well that you can move around there in your imagination, and you can picture your character walking down a street or sitting at a table in a restaurant and know exactly what the character would see, hear, feel, and smell. You need to research until the historical part of your novel becomes almost second nature so that you can focus on the story.

Where do you research?
Start by looking online for articles and information about the time and place. Many of these articles will reference books and other articles. Follow it up by visiting Libraries, archives, and historical societies.

The Difference between Primary and Secondary Sources
History books and biographies can be very useful in research, but they are what are known as “secondary sources.” You should always try to track down “primary sources” when possible. A primary source is something that was created during the time period itself, such as a newspaper, magazine, journal, diary, historical document, movie or radio broadcast, or a firsthand account from someone who actually lived through the moment and recorded an oral history, interview, or autobiography. Historians and biographers build their works by examining primary sources. As an author of historical novels, you should always try to go directly to the source when possible, so you get an unfiltered view. Many of these primary sources are available online today.

Contact Experts
Search online to find experts on the time period of your novel. Contact them to ask for help with specific questions. You can contact university faculty or authors of books about your time period. Or, if you are writing about recent history, you can talk to older people who have experienced living through those events first-hand.

When I was working on the Governess of Highland Hall, I was hoping to find someone who lived in England and had knowledge of the Edwardian time period. I read a review online for another novel set in England during that time period. The reviewer gave the novel a low rating because she believed there were many historical inaccuracies. That sent tremors through me. Because no matter how much research you do, you are bound to make a few mistakes. I found that reviewers contact information, sent her an email, and asked her if she would be willing to read my book before it was published to help me spot any mistakes. She agreed and helped me find some things that needed to be changed, mainly phrases that sounded too American. I was very grateful for her help!

Take a Research trip!
It’s great to travel to the location where your novel is set in order to absorb the atmosphere and see the setting first hand. It also gives you an opportunity to visit local archives, museums, historical sights, and meet residents who may be a gold mine of information.

Last summer my husband and I traveled to England and toured the area where the Edwardian Brides Series is set. We stayed in the Berkshire – Oxford area and visited Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed. Then we visited the Costwolds, which has some lovely little villages that look like they did 100 years ago. And finally we toured The Peak District, taking in a grand English country fair. What a great way to carry out my research!

Stop by my website for more writing tips and info on The Governess of Highland Hall and the Edwardian Brides Series.

Carrie Turansky SeptCarrie Turansky is the award-winning author of eleven novels and novellas, including Snowflake Sweetheart, Surrendered Hearts, and Along Came Love. She has won the ACFW Carol Award, the Crystal Globe Award, and the International Digital Award. She lives in central New Jersey with her husband, Scott, who is a pastor, counselor and the author of several parenting books. They have five adult children and three grandchildren.

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4 Responses to Writing Historical Novels, Part One

  1. Great tips for writing historicals. Well, for writing any book, actually. Hope to see you in Indy!

  2. Great suggestions. I’ve used the Newspaper Archives website for primary resources.

  3. Sally Shupe says:

    Loved this post. Since I love Jane Eyre, I will have to check out your Edwardian Brides series. They sound great!
    tscmshupe [at] pemtel [dot] net

  4. Pingback: Writing Historical Novels, Part 2 | ACFW Blog