What I didn’t know about writing historical fiction back in 2014 could have filled a book.
And I guess it did.
This wasn’t intended to be a how-to, exactly, but I had no idea just how much stuff would come out of my head when I began to retrace my steps this week.
Those of you considering writing your own historical fiction book should have a good idea of the amount of time and effort required and whether a task of this magnitude is something you want to undertake.
When I first set out to pencil my epic, I had the grand makings of a story covering a dozen characters over thousands of miles around the globe during summer and autumn of 1860, as well as several years back further in the early 1800s.
But, as much as the story idea excited me, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice.
I’d been writing news articles and opinion pieces, short stories and poetry, a memoir which will never see publication, and all sorts of odds and ends including advertising copy, pamphlets, journal entries, and even a practice novel.
I had never written anything as demanding or massive as a piece of historical fiction.
The idea of such a monstrous undertaking—birthing a slew of characters and studying their machinations while keeping true to the times, places, and sensibilities therein—scared the shit out of me.
Even knowing what a huge undertaking it was to write a book, having proved to myself that I could do it after spending half a year writing a practice novel, did not prepare me for the sheer amount of work involved in piecing together a believable historical narrative.
The story: Nineteen-year-old African American woman from a respected and wealthy family of abolitionists learns through her recently deceased father’s journals she not only has a long-lost sister somewhere in West Africa but that her father has all sorts of dark secrets which, if published by pro-slavery newspapers, will irreparably harm the abolition movement.
So many questions
As I began to write the story, scribbling longhand on notepads evenings after working at the newspaper all day, I quickly found myself needing to know everything from what kind of shoes children wore back then to how black ladies cared for their hair, and so much more.
Did 1860s women all wear bonnets like on Little House on the Prairie or were hats the fashion of the day?
How about food? What did a steak cost in 1860? And what kind of side dishes did they serve with it?
When did canned food begin to be mass-produced?
How long did it take for a steam-powered transatlantic paddle-wheel passenger ship to go from New York to Ivory Coast?
Were men still pouring powder and packing balls into their gun barrels or were cartridges in use?
One of my characters had been a slave in Western Africa in the area now known as Cameroon. Had to find out what the place was called way back then. Also learned that African slavery was a lot different than American slavery.
I didn’t just have to read up on clothes and food and horses and carriages and trains and steamships and hotels and money, I found myself needing to research what books were available then and which ones were most popular.
Getting it right
Thanks to periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, and essay collections, I was able to learn more about daily life in the mid-1800s than I had previously thought possible.
So many things we see in historical movies nowadays are either anachronistic or just plain wrong.
For one thing, nobody used the expression “OK” in the 1800s, and it’s doubtful anybody said “Fuck.”
There are a few pieces which have accurately portrayed just how bad ocean travel was back then but most books and movies neglect just how much illness there was aboard a ship. Between seasickness, lack of clean food and water, and communicable disease, it’s a wonder anyone ever survived the journey.
And then there was Africa itself. So many different landscapes and ecosystems.
In the movies and books it’s usually wild beasts and hostile natives which pose the biggest threats … but if you go back and actually read the accounts of the people who traveled there extensively, the most prolific killers were dysentery and malaria.
Every chapter I wrote required a whole new understanding of a variety of diseases, monetary systems, languages—did you know there are a dozen Bantu languages, of which Swahili or WaSwahili is one and that Swahili has over a dozen dialects? I didn’t. And then I did.
One quick paragraph exchange between a traveler and a guide in Cape Colony, for example, required a half-a-day’s worth of research to make sure my Xhosa character Mahlubandile spoke as he actually would have.
I read translations of English and pages of common sayings and even found some videos of people speaking Xhosa, like the one found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZlp-croVYw
And then there were the animals.
Were hyenas more likely to attack humans than African wild dogs? Where do elephants hang out? How does a lion warn you when it’s perturbed? What kinds of horses could you buy or rent in Africa in 1860, and which horses would fair best in a land rife with drought and disease?
After a few hours of reading, I hit the super-secret writer jackpot—sometimes stumbled upon during research—when I learned there was a type of horse used in some regions of Africa back in the 1800s but that is now extinct.
Some breeders and scientists are looking at trying to bring this species back.
This horse handled the difficult climate better than most horses and this made it a great choice for hunters and explorers.
Of course, horses in general don’t fare so well in the jungle, and that’s why most explorers relied on porters—native men and boys—to haul foodstuffs and equipment.
By carefully reading up on the issue, I was able to find an interesting fact which may not amount to a major point of my story but which adds to the overall authenticity of the writing.
Then there were the maps.
Before I started writing my historical fiction, I had no idea just how important maps would be.
I quickly learned they were necessary, and for much more than going from point A to point B.
During my (mental) travels from Jackson Michigan to Pennsylvania to New York City to Douala to Cameroons Town to Adjumba to Cape Colony and on up near Orange Free State to the fictional town of Janssen, I learned with the help of maps that there are a lot of places that no longer exist, and towns, villages, cities that exist now but which did not back then.
Railroad maps helped me figure out where trains would have run and where they didn’t. Nautical charts helped me plan my two voyages. Topographic maps helped me figure out where my mountain-dwelling peoples existed and where characters would be crossing deserts.
The Google Maps street-level function allowed me to travel a number of my routes—mostly wilderness areas but also some cities—as my characters would have traveled them in 1860.
In fact, there’s highway R46 in the Western Cape area of South Africa which goes up through what is now the Winterhoek Mountain range, that allowed me to travel as my main characters would have—at ground level.
I spent several days one week doing nothing but clicking on the road ahead to get a better look at the scrub and sand and peculiar rock formations and the sky and hills.
I could see my characters baking under the hot sun as they pressed on through the unforgiving shrubland.
I also happened upon an original 1860 map of Africa by J. H. Colton. This map, considered superior in its day, was printed using steel plates for clearer reproduction, and was hand colored.
The map shows a number of cities and water bodies which have since had their names changed, or which disappeared altogether.
I bought the thing off ebay for fairly cheap. You can’t imagine how excited I was to get a piece of paper made in the very year my story takes place.
I had it framed and put it atop one of my bookshelves.
Lost in learning
It’s kind of funny. When I first started looking into writing this novel, I read blogs by folks who said they had to be careful because they often found themselves lost for hours in research because they enjoyed the learning aspect of writing historical fiction so fascinating.
After five years of work, I have to agree that the research is a big part of the fun of writing historical fiction.
While there were the obvious facts necessary to create a convincing historical tale of this type—learning all about slavery and travel and clothing—there were also a number of fine details I wanted to make sure I could include to help enhance the overall world I had created.
A number of my research materials cursorily might seem of no use but I learned things from those odd books and movies that I believe helped me round out my story in ways I never could have imagined before I began this process.
Captain Bligh’s version of The Mutiny on the Bounty has nothing to do with America or slavery but his highly-detailed notes on life at sea and surviving on a small boat with few supplies told me things I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
The Book Little House in the Big Woods taught me a number of neat lessons about travel, food, clothing, and daily life such as how a door is made when there are no nails nor hinges, and that a cast iron contraption called a “spider” was used to heat cooking pots in a campfire.
I learned just about everything I needed to know about horses from reading most of Cormac McCarthy’s books.
The PBS series The Civil War by Ken Burns gives enormous insight into the daily life of soldiers in the 1860s and therefore life of that time period in general.
I learned more than I’ll ever need to know about lion hunting thanks to a fairly long volume on the Great White Hunters of Africa. This came in especially handy when my main character faces down a rogue cat in the climax of my story.
Stories like Things Fall Apart, Homegoing, The Story of an African Farm, and The Poisonwood Bible helped flesh out what life would be like in different parts of the African continent.
I now know what lion spoor is and that hunting a big cat from a horse is extremely dangerous. How to treat Blackwater fever, and what to do with fresh cassava.
I also looked through product catalogs and fliers—filled with blood and liver medicines, teas, ointments and balms, clothing, farm tools, and yes even snake oil liniment—women’s magazines, news editorials and advertisements, songs of the day, and a wide variety of stories from in and around the time and the sorts of people I was writing about.
Cormac McCarthy once said books are made of other books. I believe that. After all, how could any writer read a powerful story and not walk away from the novel changed in even some small way.
I tried to keep track of all the materials used in the writing of my historical fiction novel though I lost a good chunk of them when I moved back in 2016—also lost two trunks worth of my newspaper clips, journals, writing books, etc. that I don’t want to talk about.
I read a ton of different stuff in the run-up and during the writing of my historical fiction book. Most of the works I read had some direct connection to the time/place/flavor of my story. But I also read historical fiction of completely different times and places just to get a feel for how a good historical fiction story should unfold.
But, here is a pretty robust list of books, movies, websites, and etc. that I sought for guidance and inspiration. Some of the following I had read previously and revisited for research’s sake:
- Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives ed. by Suzanne Miers, Igor Kopytoff
- Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley
- South Africa Memories by Lady Sarah Wilson
- A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
- White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris
- Homegoing by Yia Gyasi
- Light in August by William Faulkner
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beacher Stowe
- American Woman’s Home by Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Mutiny On Board H.M.S. Bounty by William Bligh
- American Slave Coast by Constance Sublette and Ned Sublette
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup
- Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project (Library of Congress) Numerous but not all as the collection is massive
- The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
- The Village Saint by Bessie Head
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Incidents of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
- Beadle’s Dime Song Book No. 10
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
- African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories at afriprov.org/african-stories-database.html
- A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- King Solomon’s Mines by H.R. Haggard
- Godey’s Lady’s Book (women’s magazine 1804-1878)
The Civil War by Ken Burns
The Color Purple
Intruder in the Dust
The Birth of A Nation
Various YouTube videos on trains, horses, ships at sea, ships in storms, cooking tapioca from scratch, how to care for African American hair, loading and firing of various firearms, and I’m sure others I’m forgetting.
Revisions, revisions, revisions
And then came the revisions. It must have taken half a dozen passes at least just to get most of the major details to jibe with one another.
I wrote the first entire draft by hand with pencil and yellow legal pad. Then I typed the story, adding and rewording and deleting as I went.
I then went over the story a few more times, each pass adding more detail and smoothing the edges until it felt like one complete story.
After maybe the 10th or 12th pass, I sent the manuscript to two readers for their reactions.
I considered their criticism and kudos and went to work revising the book again. Then I let the book set for half a year while I wrote my next book.
When I came back to the historical fiction piece, I realized I had rushed some sections and left out some major developments that needed to be addressed.
After a couple proofreading passes, I once again sent the manuscript out to two different readers, not the same ones as the time before, for feedback.
This time, I got lots more good suggestions on what the story lacked and where it shined.
I made some major cuts—two chapters of dream sequences were deleted and/or condensed to a paragraph—as well as further developing some characters.
Then, after some more proofreading, I sent the manuscript to two more people who had not yet read it.
They were quite complimentary of the work but brought up some points that made me realize I had woefully slacked on the meat of the story once my troupe arrived in Africa. So, I spent the next six months revising and adding-adding-adding details to the second half of the book, reworking the beginning, and crafting the ending.
This process took the book from 86,000 words up to 107,000.
Once more, I sent the manuscript to a reader … this one a woman who specializes in historical fiction.
She mentioned a few bits here and there but for the most part said the story was solid, entertaining, and well-written.
All in all, the process of writing a historical fiction novel was enjoyable. It was a huge amount of work over a six-year period but I’m glad I did it.
Will I write another historical fiction book? I don’t know. Right now I think not.
The rest of my novels have been dark literary thrillers, and that seems to be what I most enjoy writing.
But, I don’t regret having written my historical epic. It was a story so loud, colorful, and relentless in my thoughts that I simply had to get it out of my head and onto paper.
I can only hope others enjoy reading about my characters and their stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.