Method Writing for Historical Fiction Writers

When I was in high school drama, I was intrigued by method actors. I thought they were a little reckless, a bit more edgy than the average actor. I was impressed by their dedication, by their ability to fully embrace the life of their character. While I didn’t end up being an actress, I satisfied that desire—of inhabiting an entirely different life and set of experiences (with the added bonus of time travel)—with writing (and reading). When I started working on my historical novel I Shall Be Near To You, about a young woman who disguises herself as a man and follows her new husband into the Union Army, I found that merely looking at pictures of soldiers and battlefields or reading descriptions of life on farms and or in the ranks just wasn’t enough for me. I needed to feel like I was truly bringing my characters to life.

GIVEAWAY: Erin is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: lionetravail won.)


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Column by Erin Lindsay McCabe, author of the debut novel I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU
(Crown, Jan. 2014), a book that Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy described as 
“A real gem…In the long, distinguished history of Civil War fiction, Erin Lindsay
McCabe has presented us a book that might be for the ages.” Erin studied
Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, and taught high school
English before completing her MFA at St. Mary’s College of California in 2010.



I began with the mantra “start with what you know.” As a kid I helped raise chickens, and learned to sew, quilt, cross-stitch, and embroider (though I can’t say I truly enjoy any of these activities), so I felt confident in the information and images I could relate about them. I stayed at an isolated cabin in the mountains with an outhouse (and chamber pots for nighttime), an antique woodstove as the only cooktop, and no electricity. Details such as struggling to feed the stove all day long only to have food turn out over- or under-cooked or pouring ashes from the woodstove into the outhouse or knowing the way your thumb gets sore without a thimble or the look of a tiny bead of blood when you prick yourself with a quilting needle—these are the kind of tidbits I wouldn’t have gotten from reading a book or looking at historical photos.

(Do you need different agents if you write multiple genres?)

It quickly became apparent the early scenes that resonated most with readers were ones that drew on my real-life experiences and so I set out to create more for myself. In the course of writing my novel, I attended a Civil War re-enactment. It was invaluable. Not just because I saw camps, weapons, artifacts, clothes, or picked the brains of the participants (although those were all incredible, useful experiences too), but because I got to hear the cannons and the muskets firing, and the sound of caissons and horse-drawn ambulances rumbling over rough ground. I learned that any time you can find a living history museum or a historical society or a heritage organization that can help you experience an activity or process, it is worthwhile to go. The tiniest detail you observe will add texture to your novel like nothing else. Watching a video of a soldier loading a musket just isn’t the same as actually seeing or doing it.

Another particular challenge for me is writing setting—and as a writer of historical fiction it’s even more difficult. To make it easier, I searched out buildings in towns that existed when my character would have been walking the streets. I visited the battlefields that appear in the novel. I had done a lot of research, studying battle maps, reading historians’ work and soldiers’ first hand accounts, finding descriptions and photos of the flora. Still, nothing compared to actually following the path my characters would have marched and finding the places where certain pivotal moments occur. Had I not walked through The Cornfield at Antietam, I would have never realized that the leaves made me itch, or that the light changed the farther down the row I went. While it’s certain that the landscape isn’t the same (trees have grown or been cut down, earth has moved, houses and barns have been razed), and buildings still in existence have been modified over the last hundred and fifty plus years, they have a flavor that gives a sense of time and place that you just can’t get out of a photograph.

(Hate writing synopses? Here are nuts & bolts pointers for you.)

If there are tasks or chores your characters would have done, I would suggest trying to learn how to do them yourself. I learned how to make soap from scratch (though I can’t say I went so far as to render the fat or leech the lye out of the wood ash), because that was a task my main character, Rosetta, would have done. I raised my own goats, helped deliver the babies, and learned to milk. I planted a garden and tried growing crops that Rosetta might have harvested (pumpkins, dried beans) and preparing food she might have eaten (pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, split pea soup, ginger cake). I now understand why shelling beans is such an odious task (for my efforts, I didn’t even end up with enough black and pinto beans to make one pot of chili), and I have no idea how families ever grew or harvested or canned enough to last them a whole winter. I ended up with a much greater appreciation for the day-in and day-out grinding work of a subsistence farmer, and it added to my understanding of the physical toughness and the practical mindset life in the 19th century would require. It helped me understand how my characters’ worldview might be completely different from my own.

Despite all the history books, maps, photographs, primary accounts, and videos—none of us can actually experience what life was like in the past. Still, by using “method writing” techniques, I was able to add authenticity and authority to my writing, garnering details and images that I hope will help transport readers to another time and place as they read my novel. And if stirring soap or pricking my thumb make me seem more reckless and edgy too—so much the better.

GIVEAWAY: Erin is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: lionetravail won.)


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20 thoughts on “Method Writing for Historical Fiction Writers

  1. rickshaw

    I work in a similar fashion. I have a long questionnaire that i use to interview my characters. I find that fleshing out their background; first date, favorite candy, favorite book, worst dating experience, favorite childhood memories, etc… Helps me get in their head and find their voice. Great article, thank you for sharing.

  2. Marie Rogers

    This is such good advice, and it is applicable for many kinds of writing. I like to put myself geographically in the footsteps of my characters. I never thought of it as “method writing”, but it helps me to get into their skin and understand them in ways I could not otherwise.

  3. NeverGrowUp

    Thank you for your insights into your writing process for historical fiction. I agree that the “boots on the ground” approach is the best way to get a feel for a place, be it weather, foliage, terrain, people, whatever. I went to London 2 years ago for this very reason, to walk the streets and parks as well as browse the museums and popular landmarks. I truly felt as if I was walking in the footsteps of my protagonist, which was both fun and surreal.

    P.S. Your novel sounds like a great read! Just added it to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. 🙂

  4. rncarst

    Thanks for some great thoughts. Research is always tough and time consuming but the internet has made it much easier, especially for some of the more obscure places used for a book’s setting.

  5. jdrhawkins

    Thanks for the great article, Erin. I, too, am a Civil War author. I found that the most difficult scenes to write were the battle scenes. I tried to make them as realistic as possible, which meant they had to be pretty gory. I found that reading soldiers’ journals gave a lot of insight into what they were thinking and feeling during those terrible times. (P.S. I would love to win a copy of your novel!)
    J. D. R. Hawkins

  6. trobison

    Loved this article, as one who can appreciate the yearning to walk where her characters would have walked. I went to South Carolina to tour plantations and the city of Charleston this past summer. I’ll admit that I did not “live the lives” to experience my characters, but standing in historic places simply energized me! I will be reading your book enriched by your personal dedication to the story.

  7. MaryM

    I’m intrigued to read more about your writing process, and I have to say that your “method writing” certainly shows through the vivid imagery in the book. This story was unforgettable, and I loved it.

  8. mconners

    Thank you so much.

    Today I am struggling with a historical fiction novel loosely based on my family’s experience. The ideas you presented are wonderful. In a week, I am planning on visiting our local historical museum to begin the process of learning more reference material. In May, there will be a reenactment near our town so I will be visiting the event.

    Thank you again, wonderful advice.

  9. hendenk

    Great article! I write in the same time period, can appreciate the difficulty of creating the depth and texture of detail you describe. Will be attending my first Civil War re-enactment in April, looking forward to experiencing the era first hand. Well done!

    Kay Henden, writing as Ellen Keigh

  10. Joe Snoe

    I admire you for what you did to get the story; and I love what you wrote here. It applies for contemporary fiction too. I went to Brazil to research my current novel, and my beta readers can tell when it sounds more like a diary than imagined. If I write my second novel, I was thinking of taking lessons on how to shoot guns and maybe rifles just to get the experience. I also thought I might do the unthinkable and get a smart phone.

    I read the sample pages to “I Shall Be Near You.” I was smiling from the first paragraph. Really good.

  11. whatsonthebookshelf

    I am working on a historical fiction myself, and am about to fly away from home and family to walk the same city streets as my main character. I just need to feel it I guess. Thanks for affirming that I am not crazy, or at least not the only crazy one! I would love to get a copy of your book. With Pat Conroy’s endorsement, I am truly intrigued.

  12. leadrian

    Great article. I write historical fiction and look forward to a life-changing move with my parents and sisters at the end of this year that will give me the freedom to do some serious method writing! My living conditions will be similar to what yours were. “Write what you know” can be discouraging words for a writer, especially with our urban or rural-urban lifestyles, but this article was encouraging. Thanks!

  13. Leilani61

    I was intrigued from the moment you said “Civil War”! I live near Dearborn, Michigan and the Henry Ford Museum. Every Memorial Day Weekend they have a Civil War Remembrance. It’s great.

    What a great article. I especially liked the advice about trying out tasks the character would do. I wouldn’t have thought about that. Looking forward to checking out your new book too.

  14. kylegwhite

    Thank you for this unique and thought-provoking post. While I do not write historical fiction, I’m a student of history and can appreciate the extra effort it took for you to put so much realism into your work.

    Kyle White


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