By Maggie Mooha
I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but when I am reading historical fiction, suddenly a word of phrase will come right out of the book and slap me in the face like a dead fish. It happens when I am reading something set in say, WWII and the main character looks out on to the street and thinks “Everyone is partying.” No one used the term “partying” in the 1940’s. I don’t even remember it in the 1980’s to be honest. Or a book set in the Regency period and some of the upper crust main characters are not only calling each other by their first names, but by nicknames. When these sorts of things happen, I am jolted out of the book with a big clunk. Clunkers like these can be avoided by meticulous research.
I know the term “research” conjures up visions of ninth grade term papers being copied off the Internet at the last minute (or in my day, the encyclopedia). Or, if you were one of those serious students, hours in a musty library opening book after book and not quite finding what you need.
The weird thing is, after I began writing seriously, I found that I actually enjoyed reading all those musty books, or at least the chapters that I needed for writing mine. Because I was motivated by wanting to do a bang-up job on my own tome, I found research really interesting.
The best part of research though, is travel. My first book was set on a tropical island. No, I didn’t set it there because I wanted to go to the beach. I thought of the denouement of my plot and it needed to be a rescue scene, so I began shopping for conflicts set in the time in which my book was set. There happened to be a rebellion in Grenada in 1795, Fedon’s Rebellion, and the book began to unfold in my head from there. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of reliable information about that rebellion. I found that JSTOR, a collection of academic essays that are available to university personnel was a good starting point. (Trust me, you can get in without too much fuss and read things on-line for free). Once the book was nearly finished, I thought that I had better actually visit Grenada to make sure that I understood how far apart the towns were, how steep the streets are, where in the mountains Fedon’s headquarters was, etc. I hired a guide from home and when my sister and I got there, he took us where we wanted to go (and a spice stand belonging to his friend and a couple of nutmeg packaging factories). These extra excursions were almost as interesting as what I had come to find out. People were working in conditions that were almost Dickensian… but I digress. In their little museum in St. Georges, the capital, I actually saw the document signed by President McKenzie who became the political leader after the Lt. Governor was captured by the rebels. It was the document that told the rebels that he would not acquiesce to their demands even though Fedon was threatening to kill all the English prisoners he held captive. (He did kill all but four of them). And for the first time, I actually saw a small painting of Fedon himself. The whole thing was pretty amazing.
The second trip was for the sequel to the first book, and we went to New Orleans. The book was just in the “thinking about it” stage at that point and much of what I learned there by taking “off the beaten track” tours, visiting the Creole plantations and the Chalmette Battlefield, I used in the book. Also, I found two books that were of a great help to me in the gift shop of one of the plantations. Trust me, I don’t think I would have found anything as valuable just cruising the Internet.
So, if you are a reader of historical fiction, thanks for reading. Yes, you have every right to be picky about details, but also know that writers have to take some liberties if their stories are going to flow. If you are a writer of historical fiction, you are in the same boat as myself and we need to keep that boat from springing leaks by learning as much as we can about the language, social structure, and attitudes of people whose time we are exploring. Don’t think I haven’t been “caught out” by a reader for missing a detail. It happens to all of us. We can only keep on trying for perfection. Personally, I enjoy the research I have to do. Nothing is more fun than learning something new.
Maggie Mooha is the author of Elizabeth in the New World and The Darcys of New Orleans. For more information about Maggie and her books click here!