September 21, 2016

How to Cheat When Writing Historical Fiction

By Sarah Loudin Thomas

I write historical fiction . . . but I cheat.

I only just realized this as my third novel was about to release in August 2016. I’ve long struggled with genre and fitting what I write into a specific slot. Maybe it’s historical. Maybe it’s romance. Maybe it’s historical romance. OR it just might be women’s fiction.

Regardless of my dithering, my novels are often characterized as historical fiction. Which is fine with me. But then I realized something . . . I don’t work nearly as hard as most other authors of historical fiction do.

I really enjoy the genre and often read it. Right now I’m enjoying Leaving Independence by Leanne W. Smith. It’s about a woman traveling the Oregon Trail with her four children in pursuit of a footloose husband. I love the descriptions of places and clothing and social customs. It all feels very real to me—like Leanne did excellent research.

Which brings me to cheating. I research very little. Oh, I look up timelines and newspaper headlines for context, but I’m not exactly immersing myself in the westward movement of the 1860s. I don’t have to research what the wagons were like. I don’t have to wonder about clothing and food. And if I read someone’s diary, it’s just because I want to.

All I’ve really needed to do is listen and ask questions.

The furthest back my novels have traveled is 1948. My father was born in 1941 and he remembers a good bit from those days. As did my grandmother who shared many a story before she passed. If I want to know what kind of stove someone would have cooked on in rural Appalachia in 1954, I call Dad and ask him.

It’s as though I’ve been researching all my life. I’m from West Virginia and one of our primary forms of entertainment is telling stories. This drives my husband nutty. He’ll look at me as Dad launches into that story about a dog named Sloomer and mouth, “We’ve heard this one.”

Yes, we have. And hearing it again will only drive it a bit deeper into my psyche and make it that much more real when I weave it into a story.

Turns out there’s more than one-way to skin a cat. Digging deep into research—becoming an expert on a specific time period—is wonderful. I have deep respect for writers who spend as much or more time researching as they do writing.

But when I took a notion to write historical fiction (not realizing that’s what it was), all I had to do was dredge up the stories I heard at my father’s knee. Stories he’s still happy to tell sitting on the porch of an evening.

Some folks say if you want to write, write what you know and that’s how I’ve managed to cheat at research. I write what I know from a lifetime of listening.  
Sarah Loudin Thomas grew up on a 100-acre farm in French Creek, WV, the seventh generation to live there. Her Christian fiction is set in West Virginia and celebrates the people, the land, and the heritage of Appalachia. Her first novel, Miracle in a Dry Season, released August 2014 through Bethany House. Book #2, Until the Harvest,released May 2015. Sarah and her husband Jim live in the mountains of Western North Carolina with Thistle–the canine equivalent to a personal trainer pushing them to hike, run, and throw sticks. Sarah is active in her local church and enjoys cooking and–you guessed it–reading. Her social media links are:  @SarahAnneThomas

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