by Rebecca DeMarino
A challenge to writing fiction based on the lives of real people and events can be daunting, but not impossible. When it is set in a historical time period, sorting out the facts from lore, stereotypes and misconceptions can make it tricky (or sticky) however.
I had concerns about writing a novel based on the real lives of my ninth great-grandparents, but as I delved into the research and began collecting facts, I found what was known to be less intriguing than what was not known. But nevertheless, writers of fiction must have a few facts. Here is my short list of what I learned in writing my debut historical romance, A Place in His Heart:
• Facts are truth. Right? Not always. Look for primary sources, but in lieu of those, use at least three secondary accounts. And no matter whether primary or secondary, remember as soon as an event happens, it’s remembered differently by those who witnessed it. It doesn’t matter the time period-events are witnessed and recorded by people who bring their own experience and interpretation to the story.
• Online research. Online research has never been easier, and what you can find is amazing. But a word of caution: know the source of the information you find. Sometimes you might not know the questions to ask. Wikipedia is a good place to start in that case, but use it only as a starting point and keep searching.
• A book in hand. There is nothing better than a good book for researching your story. And no better place than the library. However, the availability of books has mushroomed with resources like Google Books, Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Prints and Cornell University reproductions. With Google Books you can access complete volumes online, or you can order print copies. I love holding a book, and I’m a collector, so while I love a first edition, I’ve found reproductions of research books a blessing.
• Use experts. Without a firsthand account of my heroine, I could only imagine her thoughts, emotions and physical reactions to everyday life. So I stepped into her shoes when I took a one-day 17th century cooking class from Hearth Historian Alice Ross on Long Island, NY. The last half of my novel is set on Long Island, so this was a particular treat for me. I flew in from the west coast, thinking I’d go to bed early for the full day ahead, but I found quickly that isn’t how it was back in the day of my heroine. With hands on hips, my instructor informed me that there was work to be done. We sat before the fire and chatted as we carefully removed orange peels in one continuous motion. My fingers began to burn and ache as we cut the skins from several pounds of oranges into thin strips. I learned much about Alice in our genially conversation, and much about candied orange peel, which was more about food preservation than treats. And I had a first-hand peek at the daily, tedious work my heroine would have experienced.
• Overcome stereotypes. As a writer I wanted to stay true to my time period and setting. But I tried to keep in mind that human emotion, desires and motivations are pretty much the same in yesteryear as they are today. My hero, while a strict Puritan father, loves his children deeply, without reserve. And my heroine-though living in a time period of very large families-experiences years of infertility with all of the pain and sorrow of women today who find themselves longing but not able to bear a child.
• My final tip is to remember that research is for the author, not the reader. While it’s important to do the research, and tempting to regale your reader with all of the historical facts you now know, in a novel it is the characters your reader will engage with and the story is what they will love.
Research is important no matter your time period. I would love for you to leave a comment about your favorite research tip or most difficult challenge in getting the facts.
Rebecca DeMarino lives in the Pacific NW, and enjoys hiking, baking, genealogy and gardening. Her debut novel, A Place in His Heart, is a historical romance inspired by her ninth great-grandparents, Barnabas and Mary Horton, and is book one of The Southold Chronicles, releasing from Revell. For more information please visit her at www.RebeccaDeMarino.com or she can also be found on Facebook and Pinterest!