Weaving History into Your Novel by Kathy Otten #MFRWauthor

Today I’m turning the blog over to Kathy Otten who has written a terrific post on writing historical novels.

old booksI grew up in a house filled with antiques. Every item had a story. My mom would say, “That china was my grandmother’s, it was given to her by the Brittons who started the botanical garden,” or “That shaker chair belonged to my Old Auntie. It came from the old Finnley Farm.” The stories reinforced my sense of family roots and gave me a glimpse of the people who once used the items in their everyday lives.

When I started my writing career, I naturally gravitated toward historical novels. I enjoyed the hunt for the details. For me beginning a new book meant I would get to delve into a new area of history. I find it exciting. So the first thing I would say to anyone who wants to write a historical is, do you love history? If the thought of hunting for railroad timetables in 1874 causes your nose to wrinkle, historical fiction may not be for you.

How to Write Historicals

People who read historical novels want to be transported to another time. They want to experience a ride on a stage coach or watch medieval knights in battle. In order for that to happen, the author must thoroughly ground the reader in that time and place with the sights, sounds and smells of that time. Think about the difference in these two sentences.

She climbed into the stagecoach and found a seat.


She gathered her skirt in one hand before placing her foot on the first of two small iron steps. Grasping the strap just inside the open door of the bright red coach, she climbed inside. Her black bombazine skirt slid easily across the calf-skin seat as she moved close to the window.

Which sentence transports the reader to the old west? How much research went into the first sentence? Into the second? What does the reader learn about stagecoaches in the first? In the second?

Readers of historical fiction have certain expectations for that book’s particular time period. If the facts and information you present in your story don’t match with what they know, you could lose your credibility.

Don’t assume: Just because your favorite author had the heroine wearing a bustle in 1860, doesn’t mean it is correct. I made that mistake in my second short story. In it the hero shot the hat off the head of another character. I’d seen it done numerous times in westerns at the movies and on TV. Hollywood couldn’t be wrong. But guess what? You can’t shoot the hat off someone’s head. I even saw them try numerous times on Myth Busters. For some reason, readers hold authors to a higher standard. What they will forgive on TV will make your book a wall-banger. Whatever facts your reader learns from your story must be accurate.

Ground your reader with setting: While it isn’t necessary to use a real town, the town needs to feel real. Research the area. Avoid long descriptions and use the techniques of show vs. tell. As you use the five senses, choose the sensory details outside the reader’s normal experiences. Choose those distinctive to the time, place and setting. Describing pungent odor of horse manure and mud as the muck oozes over the heroine’s black leather shoes as she carefully picks her way across the street, more thoroughly grounds the reader in the setting of spring in a western town than the expected fragrance of fresh mountain air in the breeze.

Lost Hearts coverKeep in mind that man does alter the environment. In researching Lost Hearts, I learned that the native grasses of Oklahoma which cover a large portion of Indian Territory are now gone. Modern pictures of setting are not what my characters would have seen. Man creates lakes, dams, rivers, cuts down forests, and adds to the shoreline with landfill. Make sure your character doesn’t bathe in a lake that didn’t exist.

When you choose a location for your story look to see what ethnic groups settled where and when. Use that information to choose your characters’ names, keeping them appropriate for that time. In developing your characters, be careful not to impose twenty-first century thoughts and ideals just because you are uncomfortable with the mind set of society at the time. It can be difficult to create a heroine living in a male dominated society, who can still appeal to the modern woman. Think about your character’s education level. Limit their knowledge of world news and government politics to their social and economic level. A Boston debutante, an Irish immigrant or a Scottish Laird will each speak and react differently in the same situation. Their knowledge of politics and current events will vary.

Keep your dialogue historical: Readers expect to absorb the flavor of the period through the dialogue of your character. Regency romances use formal language and snappy banter. If your story takes place during a cattle drive, keep in mind the language of those men. Don’t forget to check the birthday of words and phrases with on-line etymology dictionaries. Lasso is a modern word. The men who lassoed wayward cattle actually called it a catch rope or a throw rope. I had a character use the word, Okay. An editor at a workshop I attended pointed out that the word Okay didn’t come into use until WWI. Words have birthdays. If you use a word before its time, the reader will notice.

If you write Civil War stories remember to check the names of battles. A northerner might talk about the battle of Antietam, while a Southerner would refer to the same battle as Sharpsburg, or say Manassas instead of Bull Run. Which brings to mind an on-line discussion I came across in which readers from England complained about American authors who use American terms instead of British, when writing stories which take place in England.

Show, don’t tell. Avoid long descriptions. Weave the action of everyday life around dialogue. Show the hero loading his gun as he argues with the heroine during an outlaw attack. Be careful not to include a history info dump. In my book, Lost Hearts I wrote an entire paragraph about the system of signals outlaws used to warn each other of deputy marshals in Indian Territory. My editor wisely suggested I delete it as it took the reader out of the story. Just because I found outlaw signals interesting, didn’t mean they belonged in the story.

Where to look?

Books: For settings I use maps, census information, text books, encyclopedias, and Audubon guides to plants, animals, and birds. To search out customs, characters, and sensory details, I use etiquette books, letter collections, diaries, memoirs, catalogues, archived newspapers and other books written during the period. If you write vintage (WWI and forward) use recordings of music. You can also read other authors whose stories take place in the same time period in order to see how they handle certain topics and details. I also look at the bibliographies in the backs of books to see where the author got his information, esp. Time Life collections. If a title catches my eye, I try to find it. If I can’t I’ll have the library get it through inter-library loan.

Interviews: Don’t be afraid to ask. Historical information can be difficult to find. Interview people who lived during WWII or Vietnam. Ask fellow authors and reenactors. I belong to a Civil War Yahoo discussion group and everyone there will offer suggestions for finding the answers if they don’t know. Visit historical societies and museums. Research librarians are also more than willing to help you find answers. I went to a gun show once, not only to see the guns my characters might have used, and to feel the weight of them in my hands, but to ask questions and learn how they were loaded.

old rifleThe internet: And of course, just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. Double check all on-line sources. As you socialize on line, with Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, keep an eye out for helpful links and blogs. Pinterest and reenactor clothing sites are good places to find period clothing. You Tube is also a fun resource. I watched a bunch of reenactor videos to see how to load and fire a .45 Colt revolver. Again, double check everything. Not all reenactors maintain the same standard of period authenticity. Wikipedia is a good base to jump from, but not known for accuracy. Also search on Amazon. Many historical published diaries can be downloaded for free.

Take careful notes: Document where you obtained your information. Include the book, link, website, author, title, and page number so you can easily put your finger on the source if someone asks. While it takes time initially, it will save you from having to go back and hunt through books and websites looking for the same information all over again. This will also save time as you research your next book. Everyone has stories to share of mistakes made by authors so glaringly obvious the book became a wall-banger. Don’t let that be your book. Take your time. Historical accuracy and authenticity are important. And double-double check everything.

Have fun and think of all the trivia you’ll have stored in your head for playing Cash Cab and Jeopardy.

Kathy Otten

Author Kathy Otten

Bio: Kathy lives in the open farm country of western NY. She is a mom to three grown kids and lives with her husband of 32 years. She writes historical romance, contemporary romance, historical fiction and young adult fiction, in every story length from quick reads to short stories, to novellas and novels. She enjoys taking long walks with her dog through the woods and fields. In the winter she likes to curl up with a good book and one or two of her five cats, while the snow blows outside. In between her job, family, and pets, you can find her in front of her computer and weaving stories of laughter, heartache, and love for the crazy cast of characters swirling around in her head.

You can contact Kathy at her website: www.kathyotten.com or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/KathyOttenauthor

Kathy’s most recent novel is A Tarnished Knight:

Tarnhished KnightBlurb: Fleeing her abusive husband, Victoria Van der Beck is captured by down-on-his-luck bounty hunter, Ryder MacKenzie. As she comes to love this man who hides his face in shadows, she wonders if he could be the valiant knight for whom she’s been longing. Is he the champion who would save her from the evil prince, or is MacKenzie just a paid lackey determined to return her to her husband?

Ryder MacKenzie never believed anyone could love him, for he was cursed the day he was born. He only wants to be left alone to live on his ranch in peace. But rustlers have stolen his cattle. He’s been ambushed and his horse killed. Now his one chance to get his life back is to simply return a society princess to her husband. Maybe his luck is about to change. At least she isn’t pretty.

Rating: Spicy
Page Count: 396
Word Count: 100387
978-1-62830-057-4 Paperback
978-1-62830-058-1 Digital
Buy from: The Wild Rose Press

My thanks to Kathy Otten for the wonderful, informative post. You can show her some appreciation by leaving a comment below. I don’t know about you, but I’m interested in outlaw signals!

Everyone who comments is entered for a chance to win my monthly drawing for a trade paperback copy of my erotic science fiction collection Alliance: Stellar Romance.


36 thoughts on “Weaving History into Your Novel by Kathy Otten #MFRWauthor

  1. Very insightful post, Kathy. Thank you. I’m writing my first historical piece. What I thought would be a quick prequel novella for a contemporary novel has turned out to require more research than I thought.
    Thanks again for the research suggestions.

  2. Thanks for the tips and reminders, Kathy.
    I don’t write historicals per se, but history is always part of my books. For the second book of the Amy Hobbes Newspaper Mysteries, Labeled for Death, Amy researches vineyards and grape varietels and spends time at the U.S. Davis vineology library with a handwritten book of pressed grape leaves. I’m currently researching the Great Flood of 1860-61 for Delta for Death.
    Even though the Hungarian vampire family in The Kandesky Chronicles is pure fiction, they’ve lived among humans for centuries and events have touched them. I researched clothing so that I could describe what they wore in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
    What fun!

  3. Great info, Kathy! I learned a lot of what’s ended up in my own stories from my years spent as a Civil War civilian reenactor, as well as research books I’ve devoured over the years. I’ve been told by readers that they really feel they’re in the period I’m writing.

  4. I don’t wrinkle my nose at railroad timetables, I seek them out. I often get so lost in the research, I have to stop and start writing the story. Readers do appreciate the author whose story transports them to another time. Great post with good tips.

    • Hi Linda,
      I often get stuck reading old newspapers on line. I like the ads for businesses and the prices of things on sale or the menu specials at restaurants. Often there are addresses which I like to match up on old maps. Yes, very easy to get lost in research, but it is so much fun? Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  5. Thank you for some really great research tips. I love to read diaries from different time periods. I once spent an hour researching how someone would clean their floor in early 20th century America. It ended up as one line in the book but forever in my notes.

    • Hi Linda,
      I love diaries too. Many are free on Amazon in e-format. I have one I’m reading now by a nurse who worked at Armory Square Hospital, and I’ve been reading another by a doctor who was in the Civil War. Sometimes it takes hours to find that one little detail, but details are what makes the story. Best Wishes for your WIP.

  6. Never thought about reenactors as a resource. Thanks for that tip! I know a few of those those folks! I never dreamed I’d ever wind up writing historical, but it’s been quite a ride and I’ve enjoyed it. But it can get frustrating. Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for stopping by. Glad you’re enjoying the ride. 🙂 Yes, it can get very frustrating and I’ll usually dig until I get a headache then tackle it again another day. Good luck!

  7. Great post, Kathy! I use a lot of the research you do for my novels. I remember one instance when I was writing my WWII, I found out that the word “Teenagers” was a 1950s word. Teen girls were called “Bobby-sockers” then.

    • Hi Ilona,
      My mom was a bobby-socker. Her high school year book (1954)showed all the girls in white blouses with cardigan sweaters, poodle skirts, bobby socks, and saddle shoes or loafers. And when my grandmother was a teen, in the twenties, girls were dolls.

  8. What you mentioned about words having birthdays is so true. I wanted to have one of my Regency characters say “hello”, until I checked it out in the etymological dictionary. And then there was the time I had my Regency heroine lighting a match. Umm, no. Fortunately, I got that straightened out in edits! Love the tip about old diaries. Thanks for the interesting post.

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