Historical fiction: when the research trail goes cold

Last time we discussed two kinds of historical fiction:

  • historical-era fiction that uses a few props from a previous timeframe as a general backdrop for fictional characters, and
  • fact-based historical fiction that contains authentic details from books, newspapers, and artifacts that reference real people who lived and breathed. This type of writing also brings in popular social movements, architecture, music, literature, technology, and fashion. Moving beyond the available printed materials, I also love to walk the actual streets where my characters spent their days.

Balancing Truth and Imagination in Historical Fiction

One I’ve done the research and mapped out the known events, it’s time to weave in some imaginary details. Here are two examples of when I fictionalize:

  • The trail goes dry and I am left with gaps. I know that a character arrived at a certain place and time–for example, D.R. Anthony married Anna Osborn on Martha’s Vineyard in 1864– but have no idea how or why. So I fashion a courtship that is plausible, based on what I know of his character, preferences, current interests, and financial situation.
  • The factual record gives too many examples of certain activities in a character’s life and none of other important aspects. For example, although D.R. Anthony was involved in several major fires and numerous shootouts, I do not report every one of those episodes. If I did, there would be no room to develop his life as a family man or strong supporter of his sister Susan’s activities. (She frequently used his home as a base to campaign for woman suffrage.) To round out the picture of the man’s everyday, private life, it behooves me to fill in the cracks of reported events with snippets of pure fiction. However, even in these most creative moments I try to match documented thought and speech patterns.

For another take on this fascinating genre of literature, click here.