for a historical fiction novel has to move beyond watching Little
House on the Prairie reruns. For instance, men in the late
1800s didn’t necessarily wear 1970-style haircuts. While the movie Sarah,
Plain and Tall
may be historically accurate on many levels, authors need to remember
that women in the nineteenth century didn’t have eyeliner and lipstick.
They were, in fact, more “plain” than Glenn Close’s appearance in the
In researching the antebellum
period for my latest novel, Unwilling Warrior, I
read A Diary of Dixie by Mary Chestnut and Sarah
Morgan’s The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman.
I also studied books about photography process and purchased Mathew
Brady’s Civil War, a collection of photographs from the Civil War. In
addition, I watched Ken Burns’s documentary about the American Civil
War (PBS Home Video). I also perused Shelby Foote’s expert texts on the
Civil War and Michael J. Varhola’s Everyday Life During the
Civil War (Writers Digest).
I included the use of the
Internet in my research, although I’m aware that anyone
can put anything
on a Website. Best-selling author Tracie Peterson told me a good rule
of thumb is to find three different sources on a particular topic. If
your references say the same thing, the info is likely reliable.
For instance, I found a site
that had good information about fashion during the Civil War. After
scouring the site I read Godey’s Ladies Book
and discovered the two sources said largely the same thing, except that
Fanny & Vera’s site had more details about creating Civil
War/Victorian costumes for reenactments and such. Then I found a third
site, Garments by Glenda, where one can purchase outfits for
reenactments. It’s not just a sew-it-yourself kind
of site. As
a historical fiction author, learning fashion details of the time
period in which I’m writing allows me to add realistic description.
Thus, I’ve found these two sites along with Godey’s to be valuable
Besides the Internet and my
ever-growing personal history book
collection, I found the public library to be a treasure trove of great
information. Many references via the public library can be accessed
online with a valid library card.
Why historical fiction? For me,
I’ve been enthralled with history
ever since I was a girl in junior high. As a family we toured the
battlefields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. My father worked in the
University of Wisconsin’s Social Work Department and was a Civil War
enthusiast. His interest rubbed off on me. I imagined myself a Southern
young lady, hoping, praying that our soldiers would come back safely
from battle. (I even wrote that last line with a Southern drawl in my
head!) Basically, I believe it’s the Southern chivalry that enchanted
me. Old-fashioned, gentlemanly manners were something I never
experienced, growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the ’60s and
’70s. My father worked hard at correcting social injustices, and my
mother was a feminist. (God forbid any man dare hold the door open for
When I was in junior high, my
family and I visited friends in the
New Orleans area. The memories of those trips will linger forever. I
felt mesmerized as we toured sprawling plantations. While I was
appalled by the idea of slavery, I couldn’t help but appreciate the
beauty of the wide lawns, tall oaks, weeping willows, and the
verandahs. As an awkward preteen, I pictured myself all grown up,
wearing a silk gown with its full hoop skirt, accepting the hand of a
gallant young man. Together we’d waltz across the mansion’s polished
Which brings me to my next
point. No reference book can replace
personal experience. Historical authors, of course, cannot go back in
time—even if our characters do. But visiting restored plantations and
viewing reenactments can be very inspiring—almost like really being
there. If your chosen time period is World War II, for example, it
might behoove you to interview surviving veterans. I have recorded my
interviews with my grandfather’s cousin who served in WWII. Those are
firsthand accounts. Personal experience.
as historical novelists, we’re not after
textbook drama. We want to impart that willing suspension of disbelief
to our readers. That involves imagination.
And here’s where Hollywood can
play a part in research. For instance, I’ve seen the movie Gone
With the Wind only about forty-nine times. Novelists are
warned about the GWTW
factor and how historically inaccurate the movie is, and I agree. But I
must admit that watching the story unfold on screen evokes my
imagination. As a teenager, seeing GWTW fueled my
romantic interest in the antebellum era.
And then, as a young mother, I
read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind.
The novel is one of my favorite stories of all time. I fell in love
with the handsome Yankee army surgeon and sympathized with the
deceitful Southern girl on a mission, who blossomed into a beautiful
woman. I knew I wanted to write a story just as powerful and beloved.
And yet, one that was very different.
In 1991, I gave my heart to
Jesus Christ. Soon after, I realized I
was called to write Christian romance. My world changed. My writing
changed. But my desire to write a romance set during the Civil War
In 1994 my first novel was
published. A grand attempt. But due to
word length constraints, the story was only a shadow of what I really
had wanted to create.
Sixteen years later, I was given
my chance to write the story that’s
lurked in my heart for nearly four decades. My latest novel, Unwilling
Warrior, is the result.
Worlds collide in my book—the
North and the South, of course, but
also city life verses prairie life—as well as good versus evil.
is wrought from a childhood fantasy and
encouraged by the classics and years of research. It captures the easy
dignity of the antebellum era, the mayhem of the Civil War, and the
simplicity of the prairie. But more, it’s an enduring love story of two
people caught up somewhere in the middle.
So what about your historical
novel? Are you feeding your
imagination by watching movies, television shows, and reading stories
set in the time period in which you’re interested? If you are, that’s
good—but it’s not enough. Novelists must dig for those details that can
lend reality to their stories. Doing so will captivate readers and
leave everlasting impressions. It’s what best-selling fiction is all