Writing an authentic historical scene should be as ‘easy’ as going to Grandmama’s house for the holidays. That is an unusual analogy—holiday travel to a relative—but hear me out. Where Grandmama lived was comforting, cozy, and safe, even when dramatic things happened. That’s what I strive for my readers to feel when they read one of my novels—comforted and secure, even when the crazy happens.
(How to Write Recent Historical Fiction.)
Grandmama’s house is not your house. Her residence is different from your style. It’s a magical place, particularly on the holidays. Stepping across her threshold means going back in time. From the sensory details of scents in the air to the aged artifacts on curios to bits of familial history woven in sofa throws, a writer should plan to write like it’s a visit to Grandmama. Achieving this comfort welcomes the reader, inviting and transforming during their stay sweeping through your novel.
Before writing any time historical novel, one should do basic research on the time period. For Island Queen, I built a timeline of all world events that would affect the Caribbean, Britain, and Scotland—all places where the main protagonist, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, would travel.
This part of my process, building a timeline, is similar to how I’d prepare to visit Grandmama’s house. When I lived in California, and she lived in South Carolina, I undertook substantial planning to decide how and when I’d get there. Understanding the mixed modes of transport and schedules—the combinations of planes, trains, and automobiles—I’d take what was essential.
It was also an exercise in budgeting. Mapping the routes, calculating arrival times, and determining all associated costs, from luggage fees to gas or taxi/Uber expenses, needed to be considered. Coming from the West Coast to a small town in South Carolina was no easy feat; it could never be a last-minute event. It required effort. The more I put into it, the easier the trip.
This type of planning, the timeline, and the money analysis are the basics, the minimal amount of pre-research required to get from point A to point B. A writer of any historical work needs to think about the basics: the journey their characters take physically, mentally, and spiritually from the beginning of a novel to the end. Tracking money, how it flows to and from your characters, how they make a living, and what they spend their wages on helps me increase my confidence that I understand this piece of the world. The more one comprehends, the easier it is to write accurate scenes.
Without the basics, it’s easier to write something anachronistic. Sourire de Reims Rosé is a possible brand of champagne that Dorothy and Prince William could share in 1789. Dom Perignon was not invented until 1936. Never work a detail into a scene that can cause credibility to be ripped away. A little research adds to the ambiance of a prince knowledgeable about wines, enhancing the novel’s credibility.
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The Sensory Details
Grandmama was the cook and baker for all family occasions. Getting to her house meant feasting first on smells: buttery fresh baked yeast rolls, sweet rosemary and savory sage from her basted turkey, or that citrusy lemon she used to add a tangy glaze to her poundcake. These scents and flavors are authentic to her house.
The visuals of her little dining/living room combo with a glistening dusted glass curio filled with awards and shiny trophies showcased the treasured family achievements she’d collected through the years. Her polished walnut table, with a white crocheted runner, held round metal chargers and ceramic vases. The chargers and vases changed colors—pink for Easter, orange for Thanksgiving, or alternating Red and Green for Christmas.
The sound of hymns or carols played on the old-timey phonograph greeting everyone upon arrival and continued until after dinner when all the dishes were washed. Then relatives sank onto the sofa or occasional chairs, hugging knitted pillows or cuddling sleepy littles. We watched TV until it was time to leave.
From my description of Grandmama’s dinners, you can imagine the room filled with gathering family. I’ve used smell, sight, sound, touch, and taste to enhance this scene, emphasizing comfort and safety. These details allow the readers to sink into a location and feel as if they are there. Sensory details touch the soul. It provides intimacy to the moment. It can only be achieved by going beyond the basics.
The picture I painted sounds harmonious, but the moment changes if I add a harsh voice, an argument over a politician, or a car screeching from Grandmama’s driveway. The charge comes from what I call ‘politics’ or adding contention into the setting.
There’s no such thing as apolitical. Everything has a position. Intense discussions happen between meal courses. Around Grandmama’s table, we spoke of the economy, war, elections, and faith. These tidbits sometimes left guests heated, but in a scene, striking conversations that color the protagonists’ world ramp the stakes. These red glaring signs demanding attention add texture and tension.
Nothing can make a moment feel more inauthentic in historical fiction than the absence of politics or, worse, anachronistic politics. To be pro-anything: choice, woman, religious freedom, etc., means something different now than it did when Grandmama was a child. Characters with a progressive attitude aren’t the same as those with a modern perspective in a historical setting.
Throughout history, the words ‘never have…‘ should be eliminated. Every ‘never’ that has been hurled my way can be dismissed with proper unbiased research. Women have always challenged authority. There have been men who didn’t find fault in differing skin colors and who thought of everyone as equals. It is the plight of every historical writer to prove on paper that they’ve done a respectful job analyzing the facts.
In Queen of Exiles, Queen Louise must confront the husband she loves with the fact that he’s stripping power from women, the same women who fought on the battlefields next to men, to gain the nation’s freedom. Modern language would call King Henry chauvinistic, a term not invented until the 1870s. This conversation is happening in the 1810s. The writer must be judicious in conveying the sentiment of fairness and pride without anachronistic language or ideas.
Novelists need to be familiar with the politics of the period in which they write. They must be true to themes even if it is the antithesis of what they hold dear. At their core, they must acknowledge the politics. In Queen of Exiles and Sister Mother Warrior, colorism is as bad as racial prejudice. These biases materially affect characters. It can’t be ignored. To faithfully tell the story of Hayti, one cannot leave this out and be authentic.
I know that it takes effort to show these characters are not like other girls in the hunt for the’ good’ protagonists. By digging deeply into the people and place of a historical setting, a writer will always find the reasons or justifications for a character to overcome any problems.
As a historical fiction author, it’s our duty to portray history honestly, with all its flaws and quirks. This approach will win readers’ confidence. Doing basic research will build plausible framing, and utilizing the senses will deepen characterizations, further adding to the authenticity of each scene. Working politics into the setting convincingly will convey the story’s truth, which should be every writer’s goal.