Researching Historical Fiction
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Tara Kennedy: Welcome. You’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Tara Kennedy from the WriteOnCon team, and I’m excited to chat today with book author Rosalyn Eves, and we’re gonna be talking about researching historical fiction. And I know your two books are based on an alternate Victorian England and also some Europe. What drew you to that time period?
Rosalyn Eves: I have always loved 19th century. I did my undergraduate in English and read a lot of 19th century British literature and then I ended up doing my dissertation on women in the 19th century American West, so I’ve always loved that century on both sides of the Atlantic. I would never want to go back and really live in that period, but I think it’s interesting to learn about and to research. So when I started writing the book I knew I wanted something 19th century, and I was trying to figure out where to put it, and I had lived in Hungary for a little while in my 20s, and so that seemed like a place. One, it’s a country that I really love, and I think it’s a place we don’t see very often in fiction. So I chose to make it a British girl going to Hungary so she would have the same kind of experience that I had where she didn’t grow up in that culture, but she was coming as an outsider and then learning to love the country and the language. So that’s how I settled on 19th century Hungary.
Tara Kennedy: And so talk a little about your research process. Do you try to do most of it upfront or as you draft or after?
Rosalyn Eves: Yes, all of the above. Usually when I’m starting a new project in a new place or a new time period I will start by doing some general research, just finding some general history books to get sort of a feel for the era. But then once I start researching, the problem with writing about historical time periods is a lot of times you don’t know what you’re gonna need to know until you get into the scene. For example, in the second book there’s a scene fairly early on where they are in a church in Vienna, and I was trying to figure out, do gentlemen have to take their hats off in church? I knew the ladies didn’t, but I didn’t know if men did, and it was such a really weirdly specific question, it’s not the kind of thing addressed in history books. And in fact I spent a couple hours trying to find the answer to that, couldn’t find it, and decided to just leave it out of the description of the scene.
So to answer, I do general research beforehand, and once I feel like I have enough of a sense of the time and place to start writing, then I start writing. I try not to do too much research while I’m drafting, because I get sucked into rabbit holes and don’t write because it’s really easy to put off writing to do research, because research is fun and it’s interesting and it’s sometimes infinitely easier than trying to put words on paper. So I try to just flag areas, like I’ll leave myself a comment to say look this up later. But sometimes you find stuff that you just have to know. Right now I’m working on a book set in 19th century America in the West, and I wanted to write a dance scene, and I realized I couldn’t write that scene until I knew — you know, a lot of what I know about dancing is very reliant on British culture and European culture, and I didn’t know if the traditions and the way they set it up were the same, and I couldn’t write the scene until I stopped and did a couple days’ worth of research on what kind of dances did they do, what was the tradition. And it turns out that America mostly borrows what Britain was doing. A lot of their guidebooks on dancing were sort of borrowed, cribbed from what Britain was doing. They were just probably about a decade behind. So fascinating. It’s really fun, research is one of my favorite parts of the process, because it’s always interesting, and I don’t have to deal with any sort of self-doubt because the research is just, it’s whatever it is, right?
Tara Kennedy: No, that makes a lot of sense. So given that you write historical fantasy, how does the fantasy element change how you approach your research?
Rosalyn Eves: That’s a good question. You know, there’s all different ranges of historical fantasy.
My friend Tara Sim has written 19th century Victorian fantasy, but she’s adapted the technology for the purposes of the stories, and so in some ways it doesn’t look exactly like you’d expect, and she’s also written a 19-century world that is much more open and accepting than the 19th century actually would have been. And then I think, you know, what I’ve tried to do is try to write something that would have been recognizable to people living there, like I want to stay as close as possible to what the historic time period felt like. And that’s just a choice that I’m making. Lots of writers — there’s a whole range of things. There’s a really fantastic fantasy series and of course right now I am spacing on the title — I’ll tell you if it comes back to me. But she writes 19th century Europe, and it looks nothing like the Europe that we know, because magic has changed that world so much, it might as well be a secondary world.
But for me it was important to be realistic, and so I started with the magic system, what kind of magic do I have. In my world, it was magic was limited to the nobility, people that could prove they were of noble blood and noble birth. And so once I knew that and knew how they were able to limit the magic, then I started thinking through, well, what kind of historical events would have been different if only the nobility had magic. And one of the obvious ones was the French Revolution would not have happened if the nobility had magic and regular people didn’t. And so I started there with just sort of thinking through big historical timelines, like how would the world look different and then in what ways would it be the same. And I tried to keep it a lot the same in just like the little details of daily life, the kind of clothes they wear and the food they ate. But some of the big historical events were different, and some of the way that society worked was a little bit different, because the monarchs didn’t have as much absolute power because they also had to consult with whoever was in charge of the magic in their country.
Tara Kennedy: And does that create some challenges given that if the French Revolution never happened, it’s sort of hard to tell people, hey, by the way, there was no French Revolution here?
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, it’s a little bit tricky. I tried to work some things in, like when France came up I talked about, you know, the Bourbon kings or whoever would have been in power because, in my world, I did have Napoleon. I figured Napoleon was smart enough to have hired magicians to have come to power. But there’s no mention of the French Revolution. I don’t know if readers picked up on the fact that it didn’t happen, but because there was a Napoleon and so there was a transition in power, but it went back to the French kings. So you try and work some of those explanations in where you can. I think it’s more important that you as the writer knows how the world is different than for all that to show up on the page for the reader.
But I do think if you’re introducing magic, the first thing you have to figure out is how would it have changed society. How would it have changed social customs, how would it have changed history, how would it have changed governments, and then kind of work from there.
Tara Kennedy: Well, and that leads nicely into: could you talk a little bit about world-building? You know, and you said a little bit that you wanna layer it in, but not have it be the only thing, cuz the story has to go.
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, so I think, you know, I picked historical fantasy in the first place because I thought it would be easier because I thought, well the world is already mostly created, I just have to figure out how to work fantasy in. And it turned out that was a very false assumption. It turns out that trying to keep things realistic and follow the historical record sometimes can be more difficult than just making it up wholesale. But I think the same kind of rules still apply, right? When you’re world-building you start by considering, you know, what’s the landscape? And I knew that. What kind of economic system grows up as a result, you know, what does trade look like, what do governments look like. And a lot of that I already had, so I just had to figure out how does this work if we add magic. I think it changed — you know when you consider daily life, right, then you have to sort of consider, if people have magic, what are they gonna use magic to do?
And I created a world where magic was pretty highly controlled so that you don’t have people using magic in daily household tasks, for example, because that would have been a waste of a highly regulated resource. But they did use magic to establish social order. So you know in the 19th century you had the tradition of the debutante ball, where a young woman would indicate that they were available for marriage by going to these fancy balls and going around the circuit and the London season. And I figured if magic was so important to the nobility, then these balls would not only be a chance for people to show that they have, you know, birth and breeding and whatever else was important to them, but also that they have magic. And so the debutante ball becomes a place where a young woman also demonstrates her magical ability because the more powerful she is, the more prized she would be as a marriage partner. So little things like that. Just trying to figure out, you know, once I have the big picture in mind, like what are the ways that magic would show up in daily life?
Tara Kennedy: And do you have some favorite resources for research?
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, so I am lucky because I have access to an academic library because I teach part-time at the university in our town. But I think most academic libraries are still open to people if they’re willing to, you know, go in the library and you can use their system to look stuff up. So I start with general books on the topic like I mentioned. Sometimes their academic histories, sometimes their more popular history, that kind of depends on what I can find.
But what I really like to do is then I will kind of drill in, like I will look up articles on topics. One of my favorite articles talked about the Hungarian Revolution and how part of the popular movement in support of the Revolution actually took place on the dance floor in Hungary, and it talked about this tradition that they would have where the nobility who supported the revolution and the breaking away from the Austrian Empire would have these dances to raise money. They would encourage people to either wear very simple cottons that were spun in Hungary so they’re not supporting other European enterprises, they’re supporting local enterprises, or they would wear these silk dresses that were decorated in the traditional style with this lovely embroidery all over it rather than whatever was popular in Vienna or Paris, and that they actually won a lot of support in the dance floor. And that’s something I wouldn’t have found unless I started looking for academic articles that were specifically on the topic.
And then my other favorite resource for historical documents is trying to go back and find things that were written at the time. Some of the best sources that I had were I found a couple of travel narratives by British travelers who visited Hungary in the mid-19th century in a decade or so of when I was writing, because they were writing for an audience back home that wanted to know what was it like to travel to Hungary. And so they had all kinds of amazing details that don’t show up in historical books, like what they were fed for breakfast, what time the dance started, what social life looked like, what kinds of things people would go and visit, you know. And from that I was able to figure out that in Budapest one of the main places for dances was a place called the Redoutensaal that doesn’t actually exist anymore in Hungary. It was actually bombed during the war that followed the Revolution. So that’s something I wouldn’t have known even by going and visiting the city because that doesn’t exist, but these resources help me figure that out.
And right now I’m working on this 19th century American history where the character spends a considerable amount of time in the middle of the book riding the rails, traveling on the railroad. And some of the best sources for that have been finding travel guides that were written for travelers in the 1870s who were planning on going cross-country on the railroad, because these people would write these guides that would say, well this is how much your meal is gonna cost and this is what it’s like when you stop at this spot and these are all of the sights that you would see along the way. So I find that looking for stuff that was written around that time period can be really helpful.
Even novels can help that are set [in the same period], that were written by contemporaries. So for my Hungarian book, I read a lot of books by a man called Jókai Mór who wrote portraits of domestic life in mid-19th century Hungary, and so even though it’s fiction he’s paying a lot of attention to the details: traditions of country life and city life, some of the foibles of the aristocracy. I think trying to look for sources, trying to think outside of the box of history books and think about what would have been available at the time, what can help me get a glimpse of domestic life and things that don’t show up in history books, I think is probably one of the best ways to approach historical research if you’re trying to accurately reconvey those moments.
Tara Kennedy: That’s great. Now, given that you’re writing YA where the target audience is teenagers, are there any particular things you have to keep in mind given that they may be less familiar with the 19th century?
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, I think this is where readers come in handy, because I’m not always very good at gauging what other people know and what people don’t know because it’s all in my head. So I think it’s really important to have outside readers. My critique group is really good about saying, “What is this word? You use this like we know it and none of us have ever heard this before.” And it turns out it’s some sort of 19th century slang that I picked up somewhere that I then have to explain. And my editor is also really good about flagging things as, like, “I don’t think your reader knows this.”
I think one of the challenges for me is I learn so many cool historical facts and I want to stuff them all in the manuscript and I have to really pay attention to the story and make sure the story is the most important thing. One of the things that I think frustrated a couple readers of the first book was that the timeline wasn’t historically accurate. And the truth is the first time I wrote it, I had it completely accurate. I had the revolution occurring on the day that it was supposed to occur, and readers came back and said, “This takes too long. It’s too slow. We lose the sense of urgency as it takes all of these months.” And so I think especially when you’re writing fiction and especially when you’re writing fantasy, you have to kind of weigh historical accuracy against the story that you’re telling and make sure that the historical facts don’t get in the way of the story. And that sounds kind of terrible, but I’m not a historian. I’m not pretending to write actual history, and so I think, especially where I’m writing for younger readers, I try to make sure that I have an author’s note at the end that says, “Hey, this was not actual history.” Yeah, I think that for me is the biggest challenge, trying to convey a feeling of the place without getting bogged down in the details.
Tara Kennedy: Well, and that brings up an interesting question, because you said that originally they felt like it took too long, and do you think that might partly be a modern sense of pacing fighting with historical realities?
Rosalyn Eves: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, because you know these wars that they’re fighting where you have to move the troops around, you can have months at a time. This is something I ran into in the third book where I also had to compress the war, because the actual war started in September of 1848 and ran until August of 1849. And readers don’t want to read these months of drawn-out battles where nothing happens, people are just chasing each other around the frozen plains. And in the middle of winter especially people get snowed in, nothing happens. And so yeah, I think it can be a challenge, and I think it is a modern thing in this world where we have instantaneous communication, you know, it doesn’t take two weeks to send. And even with magic I could compress that a little bit, but you still are dealing with difficulties of how do we get a message from one place to another, you know, they had technological problems that we don’t face now. So I think absolutely, I think it’s modern pacing and I think also YA pacing. I think YA books, this is part of why adults like them honestly is because they’re much faster paced than a lot of adult books.
Tara Kennedy: No, I think that’s certainly one of the reasons I love YA. Do you think there are some similarities in the skill sets needed to write historical and to write fantasy?
Rosalyn Eves: I think so. I think both of them require an attention to detail, and I guess contemporary does too. I think sometimes we undersell the importance of world-building in contemporary because it’s so familiar, but if you’re gonna create a world that feels real to people, it has to have details of daily life that people recognize. I think one of the challenges of writing historical is — I read something the other day, it was a quote from someone that said the past is a foreign country. And I think we forget that sometimes, that the way people lived, the attitudes that they held, the way they viewed the world is so different from how we view the world today. I think sometimes that’s a hard balance to find between — you don’t want to write characters that are totally anachronistic, you don’t want to write characters that could go to a contemporary high school. But you also — I don’t think you can write characters that are 100% authentic to their age either, because they would be so foreign to what we know, not to mention the fact that they would probably be sexist and racist and homophobic and really uncomfortable for readers to read. So you have to find that balance of creating characters that feel like they’re not contemporary, but that they’re also relatable. And so I think that’s a challenge in both fantasy and historical, right, that in a fantasy world you have people that grow up in a totally different world with a different worldview, and you have to somehow convey that while still making them feel like people that we know and care about.
I think in the world-building, though, there’s a lot the same. I think you can’t write a fantasy book without having a Bible for the world-building, you know, something that explains the details of how the government works and what the history is and how the culture runs, and the same thing is true for historical. I keep track of the same details, the only difference is that with historical, as much as possible, I try and find sources for those details, where with fantasy I’m just making them up and trying to keep track of them. But I think both of them, you have to work at making sure the world feels cohesive, that people understand how the world works and what people believed and how that affects their motivation.
Tara Kennedy: When you mentioned having a serious Bible, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, so I write mostly Microsoft Word, but I really love the headings function that lets you put headings in and then you can find them when you’re navigating, because I use that and I usually divide my research up. So for my series I have a document. It’s about a hundred and twenty pages just of notes and links, but I try and organize it the same way I would organize a fantasy world, which is by country. So here’s Hungary. Here’s what the government looks like, here are some of the major industries, here’s what fashion would have looked like, here’s what the specifically Hungarian dances looked like, here’s a section on food, and I’ll create a new heading any time I run into something that’s not already covered on one of my headings. And that just helps me find the notes that I need when I need them or discover that I don’t actually know anything about this topic and I have to go do more research.
But if I was writing a straight up secondary fantasy world, I would have to do the same sort of thing. What is the country, what are some of the customs, what are some of the major industries, what are cultural rules that might be different from rules that we have today. I think 19th century society was very thinking about class, and if you go to a social event you would have to be introduced to people that you didn’t know. But the introductions were always made by presenting the person who is lower on the social order to the person who was higher on the social order. And if you were at the same level then they would present you to the woman first and then to the man. So like social rules like that, I think if you have those rules in your fantasy world, you have to write them down somewhere because if you’re like me, otherwise you’ll forget and then you’ll have a very inconsistent world. Does that answer your question?
Tara Kennedy: It does answer it. Yeah, it does. And I think everybody, as you said, everybody has that problem regardless of the genre, that they have to keep track if they’re writing a series. But it’s always interesting to hear what people’s strategies are.
Rosalyn Eves: Yeah, I also have a separate document that is just about the magic system. And that was mostly thanks to my editor because going through initially, I guess I kind of felt like I’d read some YA fantasies where the magic wasn’t terribly specific, you know, they just wave a wand or you do something and magic happens, and my editor was not buying that. She’s like, “No, we have to know how magic works. We have to know the rules specifically enough that people can envision what happens and why.” And so I had to sit down and hammer out a pretty complicated document. Most of it doesn’t show up in the book, but I had to know how do spells work, why do they work this way, under what conditions would they not work, what happens if they don’t work. Brandon Sanderson on his website has some really great rules of magic if people are working on that part, but I think that has to be part of your world-building. You can’t just do hand waving and magic happens. There has to be reasons to why it happens, there has to be consequences of its use, you know, people have to pay some kind of price whether it’s physical or emotional or some other kind of price for the use of a resource.
Tara Kennedy: Yeah, I think that makes sense. And then what are some of your favorite books that you’ve read recently?
Rosalyn Eves: Okay, why didn’t you ask me about this earlier? I just read Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea, and I thought it was beautiful. It’s just set immediately, it’s about a year post-9/11 about a hijabi girl who’s dealing with still the fallout from 9/11, and it just was so beautifully written and kind of eye-opening into a perspective that I don’t think we get very often. I really loved that one.
I should probably warn you that even though I write historical and historical fantasy, when I’m drafting, which is what I’ve been doing the last few months, I mostly read contemporary. I can’t read stuff that’s too closely related to what I’m trying to write or it makes me want to stop writing because it’s so beautiful and polished and I’m writing a terrible draft.
I also read Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Picture Us in the Light which is set in I think Albertino, California, a community that’s mostly Asian-American. And I just thought again, it was such an interesting, dynamic, and she writes such beautiful books. Like they’re — I don’t know, just really moving and so well done.
I also liked Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, which is a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Brooklyn with an Afro-Latinx family, and that was great. It was just a lot of fun. I’m a sucker for Austen retellings anyway, and it was a lot of fun.
I did finally get around to reading Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, which was fantastic, but I think most people already know that so I’m probably just speaking to the choir.
Tara Kennedy: That’s great. I know the third book in your trilogy comes out in March. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and/or give us some more info on — you said you’re working on an American historical fantasy also.
Rosalyn Eves: It’s actually more historical than fantasy. It’s a little teeny bit speculative in that there’s some actually some science rather than fantasy. So it’s been kind of a departure. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.
Yes, the series. So one of the things that I discovered when I first started researching the time period was, you know, Hungary is just this wonderful little underdog country. They have been on the losing side of every major war for the last 500 years, and yet as a people, they’re just kind and generous — most of the time generous — and resilient. So I discovered, you know, they had this revolution, and the initial revolution in 1848 was pretty much a bloodless revolution. They were able to get all these concessions from Austria without any fighting. But within a matter of months Austria was already undercutting that. They were encouraging some of the other countries that were inside Hungary, like Croatia, like Romania, which in the 19th century those were all part of Hungary, to rebel against Hungary. And by September, October, Hungary was in the middle of a civil war that it would end up losing, and by the end of 1849, they were back where they started. And you know, there’s just a lot of pathos around that kind of losing war.
So the first book just sets up towards a revolution, and then books two and three are really dealing with the aftermath, and book three, especially deals with war, some of the reasons why we go to war, how do we avoid war. And it was kind of hard to write because I wanted to have characters who were realistic teenagers, and realistic teenagers don’t have much say in battles, you know, they’re not directing the war effort. They’re not. And I wrote it — I was drafting it right after the most recent election, I think when a lot of people were also feeling sort of powerless, and how do we have a say? Anyway, I’m not sure that those questions come through as clearly as I wanted them to, but those were some of the things that I was wrestling with when I wrote it, and I’m actually pretty happy with how it turned out. I didn’t realize when I set out to write this trilogy that I was going to have to write a book about war because honestly, I find fantasy books that are just about war are sometimes boring, and so I tried to focus a lot more on the characters and their journeys. And there are battle scenes, but they are not the majority of the book because that’s not what I like to read.
And then you asked about what I’m currently working on. I’m currently working on a 19th century fantasy that takes place–or it’s not fantasy. I just said it wasn’t fantasy. It takes place around the 1878 eclipse that went through Wyoming and Denver, which was kind of a cool moment for American science. It was sort of the first moment that Americans as a whole went, “We can contribute something to scientific knowledge.” I think up to that point America had been much more about industry and expansion. And so I wanted to write a story about a teenage girl who is drawn to astronomy, but doesn’t really know — but has grown up in a small farming community in southwestern Utah and doesn’t know, how do you bridge that gap between what you know and what’s familiar and what your heart is drawn to. So she ends up getting involved in a railway heist that sort of propels her into this unexpected adventure. And then there are some famous scientists that show up, like Thomas Edison and Maria Mitchell, who was the famous 19th century female astronomer. And anyway, it’s been a lot of fun to write and do the research, and I hope people like it. My editor hasn’t seen the whole thing yet, so whatever I’m telling you may be contingent on whether or not she likes it.
Tara Kennedy: Well, that’s so great. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today.
Rosalyn Eves: Thank you for having me. It’s always fun to talk. Like I said, I love research, so it’s always fun to talk about that.
Tara Kennedy: It was a lot of great info.
Rosalyn Eves: Thank you, thanks for having me and I’m looking forward to WriteOnCon in February.
Rosalyn Eves grew up in the Rocky Mountains, dividing her time between reading books and bossing her siblings into performing her dramatic scripts. As an adult, the telling and reading of stories is still one of her favorite things to do. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching writing at a local university, she enjoys spending time with her chemistry professor husband and three children, watching British period pieces, or hiking through the splendid landscape of southern Utah, where she lives. She dislikes housework on principle.