To be truthful, I didn’t set out to write a book set in the mid-1800s, but when I put pen to paper what came out was a heroine who stranded in London in 1866. I happily wrote about a third of the book, then came to a screeching halt.
I knew very little about the mid-Victorian era. I knew what I wanted to have happen in the story, but I also wanted the facts of life in the mid-Victorian times to be accurate. So, research time. I jumped online—which makes research much easier than it used to be—and discovered that I would need to change some things, rearrange other things, and even add a new direction I hadn’t thought of before. All to accommodate Victorian reality in the fictional world I was creating.
I learned through trial and error, long hours of searching, writing, then rewriting when the facts I found weren’t accurate. Here’s what I learned along the way. Hopefully, it will provide you a few shortcuts.
1. Online sources are wonderful, but do be careful with them. Don’t look at only one and think you have the correct facts. Try to find at least 2 or 3 sources that say the same thing. Look for original sources as close to the date of your story as possible. Government, legal and court sources are fantastic when you can find them. So are church archives and newspaper accounts of events—though you need to be aware that newspaper reports from the past often included personal comments and conclusions in addition to the facts. Read them with a grain of salt.
2. Wikipedia is a great place to start, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Remember, this site is totally user-written, and the facts may not be totally accurate. Always check a second, and even third, source for whatever you find there.
3. Biographies and other historical writings are also good sources, but again, don’t rely on them alone. As much as historical writers try to adhere to facts, they might not have them all, or might misinterpret them. When you find a historical fact you want to use, look for an additional corroborating instance of it before you do, to assure accuracy.
4. Read novels and other books, essays, etc., written during the time in which your story is set. This will help you achieve accuracy in speech patterns and colloquialisms. But always keep in mind that you are writing for a modern audience. Too much adherence to the “letter of the verbal law” may make your prose inaccessible, and make readers put the story down. Concentrate more on the rhythms of speech from your historical era rather than the actual language. When you need to use the proper term for an object, etc., try to do it in such a way that readers can intuit its meaning from the way the word is used.
5. The internet is a fantastic source for photographs and images of all kinds. Viewing pictures will help your descriptions of buildings, furnishings, clothing and hairstyles sing with authenticity. They also help you define settings accurately because, in a way, you have “been there.” Caveat: don’t overload your prose with detail. Look for the essential details that will enhance the reader’s experience and that add to the impact of your story.
6. You will use only a fraction of what you learn in your research. The temptation is to put in all in, because it’s so fascinating (to you). Rule of Thumb: Only use what will move the story forward, what the reader needs to know at that moment to understand what is happening. More than that will bog down your story.
7. Last, but most importantly, don’t approach the writing and research with your story already set in stone. Times, laws, social structure, living conditions, etc., can be vastly different from what we imagine they were, and that difference can impact the direction of your story. Don’t fight it, or insist that things have to be the way you planned. Often, when research dictates a new direction, or a twist in the plot we hadn’t considered before, it actually makes the story better. That’s what happened with my story, and the change added a diabolical twist I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
Most of all, have fun with history. The very best part of using history in our stories is that, even if it does repeat itself, it’s dancing to our tune this time. And isn’t that one reason why we write?
A Matter of Identity: American Marina Weston, just turned 20, is left orphaned and penniless in London, England. Saddled with her father’s debt and tainted by the stigma of his suicide, Marina has only three options open to her in 1866: hire out for service; become a prostitute, or starve. With the help of caring friends, Marina is offered a unique opportunity and begins to build a productive life. But fate intervenes when she runs afoul of some very powerful and unscrupulous men. Marina finds herself at their mercy, thrust unknowingly into a diabolical plot that will put her sanity, and her very life, at risk. She must find the strength to overcome the evil conspiracy, but when one’s very identity has been undermined, what is left to hold onto? Will Marina emerge with her sanity—and her identity—intact, or will she end as a pawn in someone else’s game?
Bio: Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing teacher and the slightly twisted author of 4 suspense novels, the historical literary novel, A Matter of Identity, and the Write It Right workbook series for fiction and creative nonfiction. Susan is past president of SLO NightWriters and the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is presently the newsletter editor for both organizations. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook (susanwriter), Twitter (stuttlewriter), and Amazon (www.amazon.com/author/susantuttletheauthor). Follow her weekly writing blog at www.SusanTuttleWrites.com.