By Stephenia H. McGee
Has it ever happened to you? You write a fabulous story, it goes out into the world, and then…you get the email. The one that informs you that you used the wrong name for a chandelier or had a character see a play two months before it came out? Or worse, you see a review that says women of that time would have never done such and such? Rest assured, if you write historical fiction, then there will be readers who either know the era better than you do or will look things up just to check your facts. Impress them with your attention to detail by being thorough in your research beyond mere textbook knowledge.
Research goes beyond just finding the who, what and when of your era. It can also add depth to the story by giving you a feel for the ways of speaking, mannerisms, and thoughts of people in that time. The way a Victorian woman thought is drastically different than the thoughts of a modern woman. One of the best ways for getting inside the head of historical figures is to read primary sources.
For my latest book, I dove into several firsthand accounts not only to get the actual historical facts right, but to really understand the inner thoughts and feelings of people living through the time period. For Eternity Between Us, a lot of my characters’ adventures are based on the first-hand accounts of historical women Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow, and the characters’ thoughts on how and why the war started are taken from the contemporary letters and documents of an array of Southerners at that time.
In her book Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, Belle gives a detailed account of her personal adventures, some of which I used in the story, as well as Belle’s thoughts on the Civil War. This primary source, though historians believe Belle’s accounts may have been exaggerated, made for excellent research material and gave authenticity to the characters.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow, renowned Confederate spy in Washington, recounts the search of her home and a detailed account of her time in the Old Capitol prison in her book, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. Those were all real events that I wove into the book. Sometime history is more unbelievable than fiction! I even used several of Rose’s personal opinions as dialogue for my character.
By engrossing myself in the contemporary writings of the time, I was able to add historical authenticity to my characters by mirroring the thoughts and opinions of people who lived through a time with a culture very different from our own. Without the depth of this kind of research, my facts may have been correct, but I might have lacked the depth historical readers appreciate.
The national archives are full of digital forms of newspapers, books, and letters from an array of American writers. Take the time to learn to think like they did, and your historical fiction will sing with authenticity.
Stephenia H. McGee is the bestselling author of six historical novels. Her newest title, Eternity Between Us, releases October 9th. For more about Stephenia and her work, visit www.StepheniaMcGee.com
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