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Today’s post comes from Donna Schlachter.

Not so very long ago, I didn’t think I could write historical fiction. My excuse? I didn’t know enough ‘history’ to write a story set in bygone times.

Then I saw a photo in the newspaper of the police officer who accompanied Lee Harvey Oswald from the courtroom when Jack Ruby shot him.

And I was hooked.

I read many books about that time period (early 60’s) and decided the civil rights movement wasn’t what I wanted to write about. My story was about a police officer who is assigned to investigate the shooting of a presidential candidate (not the president), and the lady journalist who is assigned to write a series of stories about the assassination.

In doing my research, I realized there was only one instance in the 1950’s where both parties nominated new candidates. In other words, no incumbent. And that was exactly what I needed.

Hence my book, Counterfeit Honor, set in – where else? Denver, 1956. I could visit the site of the fictional murder—the Brown Palace. I went to the original police station, now a performing arts building. I strolled through alleyways in the downtown area, and I went to the confluence area where several scenes take place.

You, too, can write historical fiction. Here are the steps I took to writing this first book, and it’s the same process I’ve used to write a book set in 1882 Florida, when I’d never even been to Florida until I was almost done writing this book. And it’s the same process for my 1860 Pony Express novella, my 1858 Oregon Trail novella, and my 1948 Colorado ranch story.

  1. Come up with an idea. Don’t worry about the time period right now. Just come up with the story, the plot, the characters.
  2. Decide on the time period by making the setting and time period characters in the story. Ask where these characters and setting fit best. Is this a story of lost love found? Maybe World War II. Is this a story of going beyond what is comfortable? Perhaps the setting should be 1850’s America during the Westward Expansion. A story about faith that divides is well-set during the Civil War.
  3. Narrow down the time frame by doing some research on what else was going on in the area and the world during these years. For example, if traveling by stagecoach instead of train is integral to the plot, set the book before the Transcontinental train is completed.
  4. Then read everything you can lay your hands on set in that time period. I like to get books from the children’s library, since they contain the most important facts. I search out diaries, newspaper accounts, archives, anything written in the time period.
  5. Watch movies set in that time. If your book is set in the 1900’s, watch movies made in that time period.
  6. When at all possible, visit the place where your book is set. Online research, reading, and movies are all great sources of information, but there is nothing like standing on the actual site. For example, I’d heard that in Florida the air is so humid you feel as if you’re drinking each breath. I didn’t understand that until I stood in the middle of a swamp in Florida, listening to the insects and birds, drinking the air.

One of my most memorable research trips was to follow the Pony Express route in Kansas and Nebraska. I stood where the riders had raced across the prairie a hundred and fifty years ago. I stood in the wagon ruts going through Scotts Bluff. At times, I could have sworn I heard the pounding hooves.

Be brave enough to take that story that’s been floating around in your mind, that you’ve kept submerged for years, perhaps, because the setting was in a time period you felt you knew nothing about, and write down your idea. Make the time period and setting as important as the characters and plot. Then research. You don’t have to learn everything about that time period. Immerse yourself in what is going on in YOUR story, YOUR setting, YOUR time period.

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