So you want to write a historical novel. Then it would be useful for you to know some history. Not just the kind of history you learned in school concerning who was the king of England during the American Revolutionary War or who was the Union General at the Battle of Vicksburg but the everyday level history like describing the posser your Victorian Era maid used on laundry day or how often a London homeowner would have to hire a gongfermor.
Getting details wrong is simply embarrassing and will throw your knowledgeable reader out of the story. Have your Victorian gentleman using a zipper on his pants is anachronistic. Although invented in 1893, the first practical marketing of the zipper didn’t occur until 1906 and it wasn’t called a “zipper” until 1923. In the movie Django Unchained dynamite is used in 1859 though it wasn’t invented until 1867.
The easiest way for a British Victorian writer to show vulgarity and boorishness in a character was to have them mis-use a title or screw up a mode of address. A man would never address the eldest daughter of an acquaintance the same way as the next eldest. Nor would a son address his father in the same way as a daughter would. A medical doctor is addressed as “Doctor” but a surgeon only by “Mister.” Do you know the difference between a parish priest, a curate, a rector, and a vicar? A modern writer, especially one not native to Britain, would have to do considerable research in order not to look foolish navigating their characters through the maze of Victorian class-based etiquette.
The kind of historical research necessary to bring your story alive is just plain fun. The housewife in 1920 Springfield, Illinois gets up in the morning and puts in her front window a colorful square of cardboard labelled in each quadrant with a different number. This particular day she makes sure the number 25 is in the uppermost position. Why? So that later that morning when the iceman knocks at her back kitchen door he will have the twenty-five pounds of ice for her ice box. Or in some locales there was a hatch in the wall behind the inbuilt ice box so the iceman could load in the ice without disturbing the homeowner at all.
In the same home late one evening a thug sneaks up behind the lady of the house as she is reading a book in her easy chair. He reaches from behind and begins to choke her. Defending herself, she stabs backwards with the knife she was holding, wounding him and driving him away. Why was she holding the knife? To slice open the pages of her book, of course.
A public library in 1920 Springfield would have been a quiet place. The Library of Alexandria in the ancient world was a horribly loud place because hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read silently. To read was automatically to read aloud.
Many details of the modern world are only explicable by reference to historical conditions that no longer exist. Why do women’s blouses button opposite from men’s shirts? Because a century and a half ago a lady’s maid would’ve been buttoning up her mistress’ blouse and the buttons weren’t backwards for the maid. Right handed women who dress themselves have been fumbling with buttons ever since because rich women used to use lady’s maids. Why are the letters on your computer’s keyboard arranged in the particular order they are? So that common letter combinations were as far apart as possible to keep efficient typists from tangling the keybars and jamming the machines. Now, after generations of touch typists have been trained on those deliberately inefficient keyboards, it’s impractical to change.
Fortunately there have been some excellent books on the history of everyday living published in recent years. Here are a few that I have found useful:
- Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
- Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and How to Be a Victorian
- Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
- Robert Garland’s Ancient Greece
- John Strausbaugh’s The Village
- Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday, and Napoleon’s Privates
- Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
- Michael Olmert’s Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella
- Particularly excellent examples of well researched historical fiction are George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (along with Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), Against the Day, and Mason and Dixon, and Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory.
The meticulous research that supports the writing of historical fiction is hard work and great fun. Bring your fiction alive with accurate detail that is evocative of place and time and that grounds the reader in the everyday lives of your characters.