Thursday, July 28, 2011

Guest blogger: Historical novelist Debra Brenegan

I'm very pleased to welcome Debra Brenegan, whose new novel, Shame the Devil, is a fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern. I asked Debra to discuss doing historical research for a novel.

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shame the devilThanks, Anne, for letting me blog for you today!  I am happy to share some of my experiences researching and writing Shame the Devil. 
First, if you’re writing about real people and/or historical events, your research must be as thorough and accurate as any biographer’s.  Sift through official archives, of course – authors are absolutely required to thoroughly and tirelessly investigate the people, eras and events they write about using as many primary and secondary sources as possible.
That said, a different sort of research, ancillary research, is also required to ensure the veracity of historical fiction.  It involves the petty little details that, if anachronistic, ruin the reader’s immersion into the story.  You know the details.  You’re quick to discover them yourselves.  I’m talking about details like what kinds of food your characters might eat, what bills and coins they might find in their pockets.  Did they have pockets or were their clothes pocketless?  And if pocketless, what did they do with their money?  Good fiction is detailed fiction – every detail a historical author uses must strive for accuracy. 
How to do ancillary research?  Here are a few suggestions:

·         Surf the Internet – Don’t overlook this obvious and very useful source! 

·         Read – Immerse yourself in other writings of the era to let the details seep into you.  Certainly read everything written by your protagonists in order to find out their favorite books, how they treated their headaches and how they took their tea.  Those facts can often be found in diaries and letters.  But, also read many other writers of your era to get the feel for the language and idioms used.  I found trying to write in a strictly-correct mid-nineteenth-century style to be almost unintelligible to modern readership, so I invented a hybrid language – a language that sounded old but is understandable in 2011.  Consistency within those choices is mandatory.  For example, modern usage of the words gay or gender are as anachronistic as putting nickels into pockets before it was possible. 

·         Watch films set in the period you write about – film makers have the same ancillary research problems historical writers have, so often, you can benefit from the research they have already done. 

·         Specialty sources – There are also scores of books dedicated to materials, songs, housewares, fashion, china patterns, boot styles, etc. from an given era.  I had several “Life in the 1800s” sorts of books that I’d page through when deciding what my characters would eat, how they would dress, or what tune might run through their heads.

·         Visit Museums – Museums are also wonderful resources.  Go and visit those out-of-the-way homes and ways-of-life displays maintained from the era you write about.  I went to New York and visited the Merchant’s House Museum, which was located literally a few blocks from Fanny Fern’s former dwelling.  I learned more about the “feel” of homes of that era and style – how narrow the staircases really were, how low the tables, how few the carpets – than I ever could have understood by simply browsing the Internet.  Not to mention the other dozens of museum displays I devoured.  Talk to curators – they are usually as delighted to help you with research as the archival librarians (who are also very helpful).
Know that some anachronism will likely make their ways into your work.  This happens with even the best historical novelists.  But, with solid researching, you can minimize these instances and maximize reader immersion into your story.
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You can visit Debra Brenegan at her website.

[Please note: If you are having trouble posting with Google ID, you can choose the Name/URL option even if you don't have a website. Copy and paste in any URL from another site, and it should work.]


  1. Historical fiction definitely requires a lot of research! I envy writers who travel to places where their novels are set. That seems like really fun research, and I'm sure that learning about people and different eras is fun, too. But that's definitely a lot of prep work before you can even think about writing. I have a lot of respect for historical fiction authors.

  2. I have never ventured out and tried historical fiction so you have given me a lot of great info. So much involved! But sounds like fun research if you are into that sort of thing. I'm not ready for that yet, but maybe someday! Thanks for the info.

  3. Yes, the research is the "harder" part of historical fiction, but it is actually a lot of fun if you are interested in your topic. The interesting thing about writing historical fiction is that there are some parts that are definitely "easier" than writing contemporary fiction -- namely, you already know the plot and you already know many of the characters!

  4. Great tips for writing in this genre. Thanks for sharing!

  5. There really is a lot of research involved in writing historical novels (and non-fiction). Like Kelly, I have a lot of respect for historical fiction authors.

    "I found trying to write in a strictly-correct mid-nineteenth-century style to be almost unintelligible to modern readership, so I invented a hybrid language – a language that sounded old but is understandable in 2011. Consistency within those choices is mandatory."

    This must be a major concern with historical writers of our generation: Modern readership. Thanks for elaborating on this!

  6. Nice to see some folks dropping by.

    Claudine, that language issue is such an interesting one, and Debra's experiences are much different from mine. Since she's writing about America's past, a hybrid of old and new English makes a lot of sense.

    The historical fiction I've written takes place before there was a language that can quite be called English, and sometimes in a part of the world where English wasn't used. Yet I've found that some editors want a kind of made-up archaic-sounding English for those tales. To me that makes no sense, since whatever period I'm writing about was modern to its inhabitants at the time. I'd rather worry about what's in my characters' heads than what's in my readers'.

    Another way my experience has been different from Debra's is in terms of plot. In her comment above she says of the writer that "you already know the plot..."

    I've written what I would call historical fiction, with no real-life characters and a completely invented story, but a realistic setting and context. It's a separate sub-genre, I guess. Never thought about that distinction before.

    Deb, one of my purposes in starting this series of guests was to learn what other writers do, how they think about their work. Your comments have been a real eye-opener for me. Thanks!

  7. Great comments, everyone! What a nice conversation. The language question is one I hear discussed a lot -- how to stay true to the language of an era without alienating readers. I found that it was essential to be accurate about word choice (people in the 1800s talked about people's sex not their gender, i.e. "the fairer sex") and idioms. I recently read a period novel set in the 1920s, where one character gave another character "two thumbs up." Wrong, wrong, wrong! But, I can't be too critical because even though I went over and over and over my manuscript -- and had many other people do the same -- I am sure some anachronisms crept in. We just have to do the best we can!

    And, Anne, your comments about writing historical fiction based on specific eras without real-life characters are dead on. There are many types, sub-genres, of historical fiction, as you point out -- not all of which are as closely linked to real-life events or characters as mine is.

    Thanks, again, for letting me be a guest on your blog!

  8. sounds awesome! I need to check this out.