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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?

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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.