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5 Ways to Take Your Readers Back in Time: The Importance of Historical Research

GIVEAWAY: Author Tessa Arlen is excited to give away a free copy of her novel, DEATH OF AN HONORABLE GENTELMAN, to a random commenter. Comment on this post within 2 weeks. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before.

There is nothing that jolts a reader out of a sense of place and time more effectively than using a modern voice for a Victorian heroine, no matter how richly detailed the description of her gorgeous crinoline and pantalets. “I need my own space,” certainly informs the reader that your heroine is upset, so upset she must be alone. But any young woman from the 1800s was more likely to murmur: “I have some letters to write.” And before her startled beau has a chance to respond, has left the room back rigid with outrage. Authenticity enhances atmosphere and keeps the reader in the world you have created for them. Otherwise you are writing a costume drama set in 21st century America. Here are five ways to take your readers back in time and keep them there...

GIVEAWAY: Tessa 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: rncarst won.)

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Column by Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, who lived
in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf,
Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She lives in
Washington. She now lives in Washington, DC. Her first novel is
which Publishers Weekly described as “Lively… Mystery fans eager for
yet another look at the quasi-feudal system that prevailed in England before
WWI will be most rewarded.” Library Journal said "Readers of this debut
set in Edwardian England will feel as though they've stepped into an
episode of Downton Abbey, complete with murder and intrigue
upstairs and downstairs." Connect with Tessa on Twitter.

1. A passion for the period. Become familiar with the time you are writing about: eat, sleep and breathe it. What time in history is popular for fiction? It doesn’t matter. There are thousands of historical novels about the Tudor period, but there is always room for one more if you are prepared to dig to find other perspectives on Henry VIII’s reign - other than his interminable love-life and his tendency to execute wives that disappointed. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are a testament not only to her diligent, painstaking research but to her decision to reverse our perceptions of two of the Tudor court of Henry VIII’s bad-boys: Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey. She made them sympathetic, loyal men who struggled to do their best for their monarch in trying times, while keeping the events that took place contextually accurate. Mantel created an entirely new perspective on a well-used period in history.

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2. Complete Immersion is the name of the game. When you are compiling your reading list for research add several works of fiction contemporary to the time you are writing about. This will help you tune in to the way people expressed themselves and what they were interested in. If possible listen to music that was played at this time, read the plays that were performed and find out about the period’s pastimes and hobbies. English Victorians for example loved to play parlor games that were often rowdy and boisterous with names like Clumps and Dumb Crambo! The politics of the age are a huge indicator as to what was going on in the world you want to your reader to experience. Find out what people ate according to their station in life. Nothing makes mediaeval history come alive more vividly than describing a feast in sumptuous detail: “They feasted on roasted swans, geese, heron and quail. A peacock was cooked and then reassembled in its feathers. There were meat pies and fish tarts, and thick soups of Egerdouce and Bukkeanade.” From Aliki’s Mediaeval Feast. Far more exotic than another description of the dress your heroine wore to the banquet! Collect photographs and prints of the time period, the houses they lived in, the clothes they wore and have them around you as you plan your story.

3. Homework before play. No matter how intriguing the plot you are cooking up and you can’t wait to tell this wonderful story, do your research before you start writing. Once you are a master of your subject you are less likely to commit horrendous mistakes like inadvertently describe someone happily pedaling their bicycle down a lane in 1830. Not everyone will know that you mistakenly invented the peddle-bicycle in 1830 instead of 1869 – but those who do will be infuriated and they might write a review in Goodreads telling everyone that your knowledge of the 1830s is sketchy! It took me days to find out how fast a motor car could go in 1912, and I am sure no one really cared that the top speed for a two-seater Bugatti was 60 mph, but I cared and it kept me on point. Accurate research is a habit.

4. On writing Brit-speak. If you are writing about English history subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary on-line and you will be able to check the first usage of a word and whether it is of N. American origin or English or Scots. So much less in keeping to say: “He landed his Farman airplane on a grassy field, four miles outside of Oxford.” When the English referred to these contraptions as aeroplanes in 1912. Or: “He ran up the steps to the stoop of a London row-house.” Rather than: “He ran up the steps to the portico of a terraced house in London.” And be aware that in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales they use the same basic vocabulary but often use different colloquialisms. If you are writing about the British aristocracy two very useful books to have in your library are Burke’s Peerage and Debrett’s. This way you can research the ranks of the aristocracy for accuracy when creating your upper-crust characters and not call a baron: Sir Esmond.

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5. Real people. A wonderful way to keep your time period authentic is to include both historical and imagined people, places and events without informing the reader which is real. Try including a historical figure if he or she was involved in whatever kind of situation or political movement the novel is about. This will help create a strong sense of time and place and allow the reader to see the issues that were relevant to the time you are writing about. If you have several historical figures you can give each of them a brief bio at the back of your novel under Historical Notes.

Beware! Historical research is addictive! In the years it took me to research and write the first book in my Lady Montfort historical mystery series: DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN, I began to find the other-world of the early 1900s a far more attractive place than the one we inhabit today. But that is the delight of writing historical fiction.

GIVEAWAY: Tessa 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: rncarst won.)

This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

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