Monday, February 17, 2014

How to Add Historical Flavor

By Rachel Heffington

As a novelist who has just released an historical romance as her first offering to the world of literature, I find much to ponder and admire in the screen-writing of period-dramas and other historical films. It's not just that I enjoy that sort of film (cough, ahem, cough)– I learn a lot from it. When I think of the historical films/shows and period-dramas I have seen, they seem to sort themselves into either of two categories:

Self-sustaining” or “Death by Syrup”

The BBC, in my experience, falls mainly under the former while many American shows fall under the latter category. Compare Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey saga to Michael Landon Jr.'s Love Comes Softly purgatory; Fellowes is a proper Brit—meticulous. Just as interested in costuming his characters correctly as he is in killing off the next Crawley. Michael Landon Jr. has seemingly yet to recover from his father's dubious bequest of “Little House on the Prairie” in the 1970's.
Fellowes and Landon are creators of two very different styles of film that label themselves “historical”. Allowing for the differences in goals, there are still lessons to be learned from this Fly or Flop pair: one has been successful in igniting a massive pool of devoted fans on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world; the other has garnered a handful of devoted fourteen-year-old girls and old people. Perhaps a cat or two.
Why? What is the defining attribute that makes me file Downton under “Yes” and Loves Comes Softly under “Heaven help us”? If you are an historical novelist you have the opportunity to learn from pairs like these and come away as a Fellowes...or not.

Attention to Detail:

Historical events and/or figures are vital to the well-crafted novel, but assuming you have been correct in that portrayal, how can you make your historical fiction snap and simmer in readers' minds? One method I like to use is the “truism trick”:
A truism is a statement of the obvious. Wait, you might protest, isn't that a negative? But when I ask you to state the obvious, I request it from the position of one of your characters. Here's what I mean: too often, well-meaning writers of historical fiction get mired in trying to be certain that the reader perfectly understands every aspect of the time period—they feel as if they must teach their audience the setting. The key to good historical fiction is the immerse the reader in the richness of that other world.
The average reader comes to a novel wanting to be taken away from their normal life into a fresh, new world; they are really cleverer than some authors suppose. You want your reader to feel like “Then” has become “Now,” not that they are walking through a Living History exhibit; they can go to a museum for a tour.

To your characters, their historic lifestyle is utterly normal. In fact, the best way to jolt a reader out of the setting is to over-explain. Historical detail frequently becomes unpalatable when delivered on a silver platter. Instead, look for ways to broadcast your details in tiny, accumulating doses. Look for places where you can slip in details; find products used and add vintage brands; if your character must apply lipstick, be specific with the company and color. If she orders a hat, do a quick Google search and find what else might be on display at a milliner's in the 1750's; if the clergyman is getting dressed for his first Sunday, slip in details about his attire; if the French aristocrat is forming a plan over breakfast to flee the country be specific about what he is eating. I had fun playing with this idea in my new novel, Fly Away Home:

Why did Mr. Shores always give me these half-penny jobs—especially the ones that rhymed? Why couldn’t he give me a real break for once? He could have sent me to Helsinki to cover the ’52 summer Olympics.
I’d have gone willingly.
I’d have frozen my tail-bone off.
I’d have lost all my fingers to frost-bite. Was Finland cold in the summer? Much I cared. I was stuck in this office writing obituaries while the rest of the world did pleasant things with pleasant people.

Think about how culture permeates our minds and transfer that back one-hundred, two-hundred years to whenever your story is set. Your job, as a bright novelist, is to invent your character's subconscious and to present it to the reader in such a clever, unobtrusive way that they feel they have lived for the space of a few hours in another realm.
The old adage that “the devil is in the details” is the other side of this Truism Trick: we have decided to be obvious; we must strive to be accurate.
Going back to my example of the film-styles: the thing that made me withhold a good opinion of the Love Comes Softly series (Downton and L. C. S. rely on tragedy for plot-movement) was the director's tendency to throw a modern, made-up, titanium blonde in a corset and hoop-skirt and expect purists to adore her. Not all his leads follow this list—I liked one or two—but I have a crystalline memory of seeing one actress push bottle-blonde bangs out of her eyes, prop a fist on her hip (valley-girl style) and drawl:
“You have a crush on him!”
It was a movie set in the 1800's. I cringed.

The good historic novelist writes his/her characters with a believable hand and doesn't try to “cast” Miley Cyrus as Queen Victoria. Discerning readers will be able to recognize what rings with the sound of steel, and what is just a bright, tinny sword.

I suppose we may close thus: “Self-sustaining” historical fiction bewitches the reader with a hundred quiet truisms, drawing attention to the plot with a web of gentle details. “Death by Syrup” chokes the reader with a morass of facts or a surfeit of modernistic confections. It isn't difficult to determine which direction your novel is headed: take a look and see where you've gone right and wrong. With a clever bit of brewing, your historical fiction will draw a crowd!  


Rachel Heffington is a Christian, a novelist, and a people-lover. Encouraged by her mother to treasure books, Rachel's favorite pastime was (and still is) reading. When her own library and her cousin's ran out of interesting novels, twelve-year old Rachel decided she would write her own; thus began a love-affair with word-crafting that has carried her past her teen years and into adulthood. Outside of the realm of words, Rachel enjoys the Arts, traveling, mucking about in the kitchen, listening for accents, and making people laugh. She dwells in rural Virginia with her boisterous family and her black cat, Cricket. Visit Rachel online at

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