Entire books can be (and have been) written on the subject of how to write historical fiction – which means that telling you how to write an historical fiction piece from start to finish is beyond the scope of any quest. However, there is a fairly straightforward way to get started.
- Identify an era of history that intrigues you. You’ve probably read quite a bit about that time period – and, if you haven’t, that’s where to start. Choose at least two or three nonfiction books about the era and read them carefully. If you’ve already read extensively about the time period, you can skip to step two.
- Pay attention to specific facts about the era that really grab your attention.
- What burning question do you keep obsessing over?
Example: I’m absolutely fascinated by the Underground Railroad / Civil War era in U.S. history (1831-1865). I’ve read untold numbers of nonfiction books on the subject, visited multiple battle sites (Gettysburg, nine times – so far!) and written plenty of non-fiction articles for magazines and entries for encyclopedias about this period in history.
One question that I’d love to have answered: what would trigger a slave’s decision to try to escape? Why, after enduring countless indignities, suffering for decades, would someone finally decide that the risks associated with running away (leaving family, perhaps forever, or having them suffer retribution for what you’d done; being chased by vicious dogs; enduring horrific physical punishments if caught; and more) were outweighed by the pain of staying?
There is no one answer and, in my case, no one to ask for illumination; if you were writing about, say, the World War II era, perhaps you could interview someone who could potentially provide insight.
In either case, this is where fiction can fill in the gaps and this is where your imagination needs to take over.
- Free write the answer to your burning question, not worrying yet about precise historical details, but staying within the confines of what was possible and would be believable in that era.
- What character is emerging? Perhaps you’re writing about a character or perhaps you’re writing as if you were the character. Either is fine.
I ultimately envisioned an enslaved man, Big John, who desperately wants to escape – but won’t leave without the love of his life, Nellie. My story begins when Big John decides to try to persuade Nellie, one more time, to leave. Surprisingly, this time, she agrees. Why? Because she suspects that she is pregnant and the idea of her child being born into slavery is too much for her to accept.
The result? My play, Freedom’s Light: A Stop Along the Underground Railroad; here’s more: http://www.morningjournal.com/general-news/20090426/new-original-theater-stage-productions-bring-latest-from-nyc-and-earliest-from-lorain-county-history
- Once you have done this research and identified your burning question, I’d be glad to talk to you about developing it further. (As for me, my next burning question about that era: how did an otherwise moral woman justify – to herself – the fact that she owned slaves?)
Submit your burning question below to receive credit for this quest. If you would like to discuss this more with me, please tell me in the submission box below.