I met Michael Jensen online. He was part of a trio who organised a unique promotional opportunity for gay themed writers like myself. It was a fiction giveaway which resulted in gaining subscribers to our newsletters (so as a bit of shameless self promotion, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter – click here).
But back to Michael. He is an author and editor. His books of gay historical fiction include two series, The Drowning World, which is set in 5500 B.C., and The Savage Land, which takes place on the American frontier. Man & Monster, the second book in The Savage Land series, was a Lambda Award Finalist (under the title Firelands).
Michael is also the co-founder of AfterElton.com, which covered pop culture for gay and bisexual men, and eventually become one of the largest and most influential LGBT websites on the internet. In 2006, AfterElton.com was sold to MTV/Viacom in a multimillion dollar deal. As editor, Michael interviewed hundreds of writers, directors, and actors, breaking numerous stories and advancing the issue of LGBT visibility in Hollywood.
Michael lives in Seattle, WA with his husband, writer Brent Hartinger.
Today he tells us all about writing historical fiction.
If you’re anything like me, you hear that word, think of a college term paper, and immediately get the heebie-jeebies. I mean, who wants to spend all of their time researching the economy of Papua New Guinea or the religions of southern Africa or the impacts of industrialisation on 18th century Pennsylvania.
And yet, any good novelist will have to do at least some research if they want the details in their book to ring true. If you’re writing a book set in Seattle, you need to know locals call the main freeway through town “I-5” and not “the I-5.” If you don’t, at least some of your readers are going to get pulled out of the story and wonder what else you might be wrong about.
And if you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll most likely have to do quite a bit of research. I know that sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. And to help make it a little bit easier, I’ve put together some research tips for you.
1) Make sure writing historical fiction is for you
I know that might seem obvious, but sometimes the obvious things are the ones we most easily miss.
When I was in college, I got it in my head that I wanted to be on the water polo team because I liked swimming laps for exercise. So I went out for the team and pretty quickly discovered that playing water polo involved a lot more swimming than I ever wanted to do. Fortunately, I figured that out before I’d put months and months of effort into it.
So before you start writing historical fiction, first make sure you’re going to like doing the research because you’re going to need to do a lot of it. Think back to those term papers and research projects you had to do. Did you enjoy the work? Loathe it? Try and trick someone else into doing it for you?
Hint: If the idea of reading a non-fiction book about history makes you pull the covers over your head, you probably aren’t cut out for this.
2) Set aside time for research. Then set aside some more.
Obviously, this depends on a couple of things. How well do you know your subject already? How long a time span will your novel cover? How well known is the era you’re writing in?
The amount of time you’ll need to set aside for your research will depend a lot on those factors.
For my first two novels, Man & Beast and Man & Monster, I ironically had a lot of material for some topics, but a lack of material for others. Both books are set on the American frontier of the late 1700s, so I had a great deal to work with about how people lived, worked, dressed, and survived on the frontier. But the person my book was based on, John Chapman (you probably know him better as Johnny Appleseed) didn’t leave much of a historical footprint when it came to actual facts known about him. That meant that I didn’t have a lot to research about him, so I needed to do other kinds of research to plausibly capture what someone of his age and station in life might have been like.
If you really want to get the feel of your book right, you’re going to need to dive into the research so you can make the details of your world believable. You need to know how people in your era talked, what slang they used, even what kind of curse words they used. What kind of clothing did they wear? How was it made? You need to understand how politics, religion, and the government shaped the day to day life of your characters.
Honestly, the amount of research you can do is probably endless, which bring me to my next tip.
3) Know when to stop researching.
After nearly a year of researching Man & Beast, my husband sat me down one day and said, “Enough. Start the damned book!” And he was right; I had more than enough material to write my novel and get the details right. But I’d fallen into the trap of always wanting to know a little bit more, so I could capture the world a little bit better.
But readers aren’t reading to be dazzled by your research. They’re reading because they want to read a great book with a riveting story. And while your research is important and necessary because it helps build that story, endless descriptions of the streets of Boston or what the Queen of England ate will get in the way of your story and ultimately annoy your reader.
Knowing when to quit is a skill that comes with time, so don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect the first time out. I’ve got pages of notes I took never used in either Man & Beast or Man & Monster. But I’m totally okay with that because I wouldn’t have the facts I did use without collecting all of the other info, then sifting out the nuggets I wanted to use.
4) Reach out to experts.
One of the wonders of the internet is that almost everyone is just a Google search away. Can’t find out how a Russian fur trapper in Alaska in the 18th century might have travelled from Moscow to Sitka? I can promise you there is almost certainly some academic at a university just waiting to answer your question.
For Man & Beast and Man & Monster I needed help with some Delaware (technically Lenni Lenape) words that I wanted to make sure I had right. By searching online I was able to find an expert in the Lenni Lenape who was delighted to help me. Not only did that guarantee I had the words right, but by doing that extra research I was able to add a level of detail and authenticity of which I’m really proud.
So don’t be shy. Your expert will almost certainly be flattered to be asked.
5) Wikipedia is a great place to start, but that’s all.
I use Wikipedia all the time, both in my research and in my day to day life. But when I use it for research, it’s strictly a place to begin my research. As wonderful as Wikipedia is, it isn’t as nearly as trustworthy as a published book, an article from a reputable journal or newspaper, or an original source like a journal. When you do find something on Wikipedia you’d like to use, consider that only as your starting point. Go to the bottom of the page and check out the links to the sources provided. Check your facts there, then check them against another reputable source. Only then can you trust what you have.
6) Google Earth is awesome!
One of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction is the time and expense it can take to visit the places your story is set. Of course you don’t have to do that, but doing so can really add to the depth and texture of your story. But historical fiction can be especially tricky since the further back in time you go, the more that will have changed.
But there is still real value in seeing where your book is set, even if a great deal of time has passed.
My horror novel The Eye, is set on the Georgia coast and takes place both in the past and in the present. It wasn’t possible for me to actually travel to the book’s location, but Google Earth’s satellite images were huge in helping me place the exact setting I wanted. A crucial aspect of The Eye involves a hurricane striking Georgia in a very specific way, something I could determine quickly and easily by looking at Google Earth.
7) Don’t forget original sources. (HINT: Inter-library loan is your friend!)
Google Earth and Wikipedia are both wonders of our modern era, but sometimes nothing beats going all the way back to the beginning. For Man & Beast, I was able to get my hands on some of the original journals written by the very first folks who settled the region of western Pennsylvania where my book was set.
Keep in mind, a lot of these kinds of resources might very well not be online. They’re just too obscure. But using inter-library loan, your local library can usually request those materials from another library system and have them delivered directly to your library. This can cost a couple of bucks, but is often well worth it!
Hopefully these tips will help you as travel back through time gathering all of the information you need to breathe life into your historical novel!
Michael Jensen has several books out, including the Lambda Award finalist Man and Monster. To check out his works and to read his latest blog posts, check out his website.
Next week’s special guest is thriller writer, Nigel Bartlett.