Historical Research for Novel Writing
*Today I’m turning the blog over to author Dorothy Spruzen to discuss how she does historical research for her books.
Welcome to you all, and thank you for having me. Samantha invited me to write something for her wonderful website, so I thought that I would share some of the tips I pass on to my creative writing students concerning historical research. I know some of you are readers rather than writers, but I hope this will nevertheless prove interesting.
I’m not going to give a discourse on how to perform historical research in the broad sense, but rather to point out some of the ways in which one might avoid embarrassing little blunders. Some reader, somewhere will pick up your error with a malicious sense of glee and self-congratulation.
For me, and I think for most people, if I spot an egregious error, my train of thought is broken, I’ve fallen out of the story, and I’m irritated. We need to get it right. I know many of you write historical mysteries, so here are some of the errors I have come across in my many years of reading and writing them.
The Blitz Business is my novel set in World War II England. Jamie, a fifteen-year-old mildly intellectually disabled boy, loves red fire engines; close to the beginning of the novel, he is found by air raid wardens wandering the streets in the middle of one of the most devastating raids of the Blitz. He is taken to a large fire station that is being used as a headquarters for the rescue services. Imagine his excitement to find beautiful red fire engines ready for action!
Only, I discovered, quite by chance, that they were all painted gray during the war so as to avoid easy detection from the air. The fact did not come to light during the course of research, per se, but through reading fiction set in that time period and written by a credible source—R.F. Delderfield (The Avenue, God is an Englishman), a well-regarded British military historian who also wrote fiction.
My fix? Jamie still had a red vehicle to admire because, as luck would have it, that station had run out of paint before finishing the last one!
But, be careful. It is unwise to depend entirely on secondary sources, further research was needed to confirm the fact.
In my first novel, Not One of Us, I had a young girl in New York City dial 911 in about 1950. The fact that the emergency number did not yet exist in New York City may be old news to most of you, but not to me, as British cities and towns had already had an emergency number, 999, for years. An American reader in my critique circle picked it up. Critique circles are invaluable, as every member brings his or her own experience and knowledge to the table.
Language usage is another issue. I bought a historical mystery set in the Victorian age, written by a Texan man and wife team who visit England regularly. The language errors are numerous; here are some of them:
Fix you something to eat?
Doctor’s office (referred to as “surgery” in the U.K.)
The authors had not recognized these idioms as being either American or modern,perhaps because many of them are often used by the British these days. They have failed to absorb the speech patterns of whatever historical works they might have (or should have) read.
I was born in England to a father who was born the year after Queen Victoria died and who had relatives much older than he. I remember their speech patterns, the formality of their oral exchanges with friends, not to mention the written ones, and so I developed the “ear” to recognize these missteps. Imagine my annoyance, when I read:
(Husband in the 1880’s)
“What time is it my dear?”
(Wife) “It is three thirty-five, xxxx.” (Maybe she was looking at her Swatch, too!)
This is a modern Americanism. Even when I was a child, we would have said, “five-and-twenty to four” instead of “three thirty-five.”
What would have saved the authors from these errors? A critical reader who knows the speech patterns, and reading novels not only written about that period, but written during that period. And there are plenty of books written during the Victorian era.
Now, one must be careful reading English dialog in old fiction.
Written work, even for dialog, was typically much more elevated than everyday spoken language, even at a time when spoken English was, by our standards, very formal. You will need to modify so your readers won’t be tempted to skip!
What saves the day? Research all contexts of your story. Do not rely on the unreliable. Encircle the subject, even using movies and other fiction. Look at the author’s intent (bias, misinformed, shaping to their story).
Remember, social history is part of our game. It is a context for people’s lives and actions and provides connections between different events. It sets your characters onstage against a particular backdrop: social strata; the kind of things they use and how they use them (clothes, food, utensils, tools, housing); their speech patterns and slang; and, how they are affected by social and political upheavals.
Always ask the hard questions: Who said that and why? Has anything changed? (Just because the town hall is there today, doesn’t mean it was there fifty years ago.) When, where, why, who, and how did it change?
I hope some of this has been helpful, particularly to those who write historical mysteries. Thank you for taking the time to read my piece!
D. A. Spruzen grew up near London, U.K., graduated from the London College of Dance and Drama Education, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte; she teaches creative writing in Northern Virginia when not seeking her own muse. A historical novel The Blitz Business was published by Koehler Books in August 2016. Long in the Tooth, a poetry collection, was published by Finishing Line Press in July 2013; Her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. The first two novels in the Flower Ladies Trilogy—Not One of Us and Lily Takes the Field—and Crossroads: Two Novellas, are available on Amazon.com in paperback and on Kindle. For ten years, she served on the board of Langley Residential Support Services, which provides services for the intellectually challenged, and has also served on the boards of several other organizations. Dorothy is also a visual artist, working in acrylics, watercolor and pastels.
Web: www. DASpruzen.com
Instagram: www. instagram.com/daspruzen