How to Write Historical Fiction

Author Mariah Fredericks reveals how she conducted research on The Gilded Age for her new book, Death of a New American.
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Don't know where to start on your historical fiction novel? Author Mariah Fredericks reveals how she conducted research on The Gilded Age for her new book, Death of a New American.

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I love historical fiction. Growing up, I read Jean Plaidy, Mary Renault, and less well-known authors such as Elizabeth Byrd and Rosemary Hawley Jarman. For me, contemporary fiction could never be as captivating as stories where differences were resolved by chopping off heads. And it was all true. (Well, most of it.)

But I never thought I could write historical fiction. As a writer, I have a strong sense of voice, not visuals. I can barely distinguish silk from satin. Smells, textures, landscape—all the things you need for proper world building—I felt pretty sure these were not my forte.

Then Jane Prescott, lady’s maid from Gilded Age New York, started talking to me and I realized I was going to have to attempt to write historical if I wanted to tell her story. And while I did put a zipper in a 1910 dress at first, I have learned a lot since.

Voice

If, like me, you aren’t initially comfortable with the intricate details of physical description, try to capture the voice of the period. Read the fiction of the era. Absorb the attitudes. Be strict about vocabulary. I regularly Google the etymology of words to make sure that word belongs in the story. Make the reader feel someone from the past has just sat down and started telling them a wonderful story.

When it comes to attitude, read the newspapers of the time. We have a lot in common with our ancestors, but views change. Our sensitivities are not their sensitivities. That doesn’t mean you wallow in the prejudices of another time. But I like to portray my characters’ feelings with as much respect for their time as possible. If it was economically important for women to be married, I don’t want to condescend to a character who makes marriage a priority. (This does not mean, however, that I can’t write women who don’t.)

Levels of detail

My series goes year by year, so the first thing I do is a completely basic “What happened” in that year. So and so was president, we were at war with X, and Y was the popular craze.

Then I make broad research categories. My latest book, Death of a New American, takes place in 1912, the year the Titanic sunk. The action is in Long Island, members of the Black Hand fall under suspicion for the crime. That means major research on Titanic, wealthy houses in Long Island, and the Black Hand. Then as I start writing, smaller research projects present themselves: ugly wedding dresses, the layout of an elevated train car, and steak houses that existed in New York City in the 1910s.

Then there are fun accidental details. Women were not allowed in Keens Steak House until Lily Langtree sued; she arrived at her first meal wearing a feather boa. Sporting activities in Long Island included sailing, fox hunting … and ostrich races. Enrico Caruso was once accused of indecency at the Central Park Zoo Monkey House. Two of these details were included in my list "relevant to character or setting the scene." The Caruso anecdote was just cool.

While writing, if I hit a moment where I don’t have the information, I just jot it down for future research, such as “Stores on 125th Street in 1913.”

What to Include, What to Leave Out

It’s easy to get lost in research. I have friends for whom the hunt through history is their favorite part of the process. But you can’t use everything. So how do you include enough to give a real flavor of the era without overwhelming your story with info dumps?

Point of view is important. One way of sifting through detail is to decide what your character would notice. What is her goal or action in a given scene? If she’s fighting off a knife-wielding villain, she’s probably not going to take time out to observe the Italianate engraving on the knife’s silver handle.

No one is going to get this right for every reader. Some readers love the amount of detail I include, and some don’t see the point. But when you put something on the page, you have to know why it’s there. Ask yourself: is it relevant to my character? Does it help to set the scene? (You have a certain number of “Because it’s cool!” passes, but only so many.)

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Where to Find All This Information

Let us bow our heads and give thanks to the historians who comb through original sources and give us books like Gotham, City of Eros and Down With the Old Canoe. Let us give thanks to libraries that house those original sources. Let us give thanks to librarians who help writers track them down.

And of course, we have the internet. Two of my favorite research sites are …

The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections

This site is a godsend to historical fiction authors, particularly those who write about New York. Scrapbooks of New York City Views lets you search any address throughout time. You want to know what the New York City skyline looked like in 1912? They have that photo. An engraving of Olivet Chapel on Second Street from 1869? They’ve got it. The larger digital collection has images from around the world and throughout history, as well as significant correspondence and historic documents.

The British Library

For those who want to capture accents or speech rhythms of the past, this is a wonderland. It has 90,000 recordings of music, spoken words, and natural environments. You can hear a speaker advocating votes for women, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or testimony of Holocaust survivors. The manuscript collection is equally astonishing.

New York-centric sites I particularly like are ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com and the excellent Bowery Boys podcast.

Museums

Museums are also a fabulous resource for getting up close with the art and artifacts of the past. I’m fortunate to live in the same city as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tenement Museum, the Frick, and so on. But many museums have terrific websites that will let you explore the collection remotely.

Other Online Resources

When researching clothes, you can make great use of other people’s passion. You can find amazing images posted on Pinterest. Join social media groups devoted to your subject. A personal favorite is the Gilded Age Society on Facebook, where Gilded Age obsessives post articles and images from our beloved era.

So, that’s how I went from the woman who couldn’t tell silk from satin to a writer whose first two books were highly praised for the level of historical detail. Of course, the most important thing is to pick a time and place you love. Hopefully, you and your readers will be spending a great deal of time there!

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Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her family. She is the author of several YA novels. Death of a New American is her second novel to feature ladies’ maid Jane Prescott.

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