Time Travel – the work of historical fiction

Time-TravelWriters of historical fiction are challenged to convey a true picture of the historical setting in terms of characters, dialogue, setting, plot, conflict, theme and world building. Basically time travel for readers. But what does this really entail? How do writers inhabit the mindsets of their characters to create that feeling of being there?

Many authors have responded on A Writer of History with their perspectives. Given that I’m challenging myself to create a novel set in 1870s Paris, I thought I would pull together some of their advice and my own musings. Following is a shopping list of research topics relevant to understanding an era – some will be more important than others depending on the type of story.

  • the political situation, political motivations, broader issues of the era
  • the important figures of the day, prominent people
  • the cost of goods and the types of goods available
  • social customs, arrangements and attitudes
  • the popular books people were reading
  • the type of soap used, toiletries
  • types of clothing worn and fashion of the day; clothes people wear can actually change the way they behave; where people get their clothing
  • how people valued things
  • jokes they told and insults
  • the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of the time and of different stations in life
  • fears
  • constraints of the time period
  • the (sometimes massive) changes that were going on during the time
  • words used at that time, what’s said and what’s left unsaid, speech patterns and rhythms; language and idiom, slang and swear words
  • food and cooking, recipes, who does what
  • furniture and decor
  • housing and architecture, building materials, sources of heat and light
  • entertainment and diversions; popular music, pastimes and hobbies; where people go to meet friends, who else might frequent the places they visit
  • landscape and physical geography; flora and fauna
  • transportation, conveyances and travel
  • sounds, smells, tastes, touches
  • family environment and household matters; family dynamic; family responsibilities and obligations
  • governments and government institutions
  • religious structures and religious norms
  • international alliances
  • military actions and wars (recent and impending), revolutions, military organization
  • layouts of towns and cities
  • material culture
  • everyday life, everyday struggles; What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t?
  • historical timelines and major events affecting your story
  • occupations and professions
  • medical practices of the day and medicines; psychological know-how
  • legal system, laws and regulations; the way law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how); rights of women
  • manners and mannerisms
  • beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic)
  • morality
  • news of the day, important news stories
  • neighbourhoods
  • gossip and scandals
  • international trade
  • class divisions
  • weather and weather patterns; unusual weather events (famines, natural disasters)
  • sex
  • death
  • disease
  • existing and emerging technologies
  • what those who were considered subversive were doing
  • music
  • educational institutions, norms, curriculum
  • changing mores
  • folklore and myth

Well now, that shouldn’t take long, should it?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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13 Responses

    1. You are very welcome, Alana. After I pulled it together, I must say that I felt rather overwhelmed. I think deciding where to concentrate efforts to serve your novel is critical otherwise authors will spend all their time researching!

  1. This is great…. I’m contemplating a similar task but in Edinburgh. You’re a longer way down the track than I am, so I will follow your journey with interest. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post and helpful list for the historical novelist. I’m new to your blog but will return, as we share many interests. My debut novel, Even in Darkness, covers the entire 20th century in Germany and so involves both world wars. Do stop by http://www.barbarastarknemon.com for a look! Some people think the 15 years of research I did for Even in Darkness was a bit excessive, but perhaps you won’t! I loved every minute of it! Again, thanks for this informative blog…

    1. Great to hear from you, Barbara. Many thanks for stopping by and I hope you find many tidbits of interest. Congratulations on your novel! How interesting that your grandfather has also inspired your writing.

  3. I’m doing something similar for 1730s South of England, a completely new period for me. I don’t know what to start with first, so much to assimilate! I reckon it will take me at least a year to get at least a good enough understanding to be able to outline the novel, let alone start writing. Maybe I’m just slow.

    Thank you for your blog. I randomly came across it the other day and I’m so glad I did, extremely informative.

  4. A great list, Mary, thank you. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we gather but the real struggle, I find, is to wear all this research lightly enough so it doesn’t get in the way of the story!

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