I remember a comment a friend of mine made after reading a very inaccurate historical novel. She said there ought to be a rule that you can’t write a historical novel unless you’ve been camping at least once. I think she might have a point.
One of the goals of the historical writer is to bring the past alive for those in the present. You can do all the research in the world into the history, politics, customs, costumes, etc. And an imagination is a great thing, but the more ‘hands on’ experience you’ve had the better I think your story will be. Experience, even a little, can help you add the details that will make your scene come alive.
So, my advice is, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to do so, live a little in the past. The experience will do wonders for your imagination and help with the details that will make your historicals come alive.
For example, your western heroine is cooking over an open campfire. Think about how and what you would write in this scene. What would she do, feel?
(pause for thinking – come on, really think about it for a moment)
OK, now that you’ve thought about it, did you have her feel the heat on her face? The breeze will blow smoke in her eyes no matter where she stands and she’ll have to watch out for her skirt tails as she squats. And that night, her hair will smell of smoke when the hero hugs her.
Trust me, I’ve cooked many a meal over an open fire. We did a lot of camping with the Scouts with our boys as my husband was the Scout Master. I know what it’s like to heat water and then take a bath in a bucket. (Makes you appreciate the shower, let me tell you). And you know all those cowboys sitting around the campfire drinking coffee out of tin cups – you know how hot those cups can get when you pour hot coffee into them (ouch!).
In one of my western ms. I have the hero teach the heroine (from back East) how to ride a horse. Just to make sure I got a good feel for those scenes, and how long it might take to learn to ride as much as I needed her to ride for later in the story, I took riding lessons.
I can now brush, bridle and saddle a horse, and of course tell it to go where I want him to go, not just around and around the corral. Lots of fun, and I figure if an old lady like me can learn to be fairly proficient, the my hero, who is not only great with horses, but a great teacher, can teach the heroine to ride well enough and soon enough to fit my ms.
I’m always amazed at the way some historical heroines run up and down steps in long skirts. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve worn long skirts/dresses, I have to pick up the hem to go up and down stairs. And you haven’t lived until you try wearing a hoop skirt a la Scarlett O’Hara. There is a real skill to maneuvering and sitting while wearing a hoop skirt. I only did this once when I was very young, but I remember wearing the hoop skirt and sitting down without thinking first. And so I sat on the back of the hoops – a mistake, as the front of the skirt came up and hit me in the face. Fortunately this was not in public.
And I can imagine that those American colonial women, or any 18th Century lady with panniers had to turn sideways to get through a door way (think of Grace Kelly’s costume in the masked ball scene of To Catch A Thief). Unfortunately, I’ve never danced at a Regency ball, but would if I was writing Regency.
I know as a Campfire Girl in my youth, and going through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts with our sons, I’ve cooked over an open fire, made soap, made adobe bricks, dipped candles, made cornshuck dolls, churned butter, chopped wood, etc.
I’ve been lucky enough to come from a large mid-western family with a great oral tradition, so as a child I heard stories of my ancestors. In Kentucky Green, when the heroine churns butter, I have her say the rhyme that my grandmother said when she was a little girl and had the job of churning the family butter.
Experience can make facts you find in research books come alive for you. I’ve known that spiral stairways in medieval castles spiral up counter-clockwise. This is so the person going up (an attacker) has his right/sword arm against the wall, and the person going down (the defender) will have his sword arm unencumbered by the spiral.
My husband and I had the wonderful experience of touring several English castles one summer, and I had just finished explaining this right hand/left hand business to him as we started up a staircase in Bodiam Castle. Now just knowing why the stairs are as they are is totally different from us going up one of those staircases — and meeting another tourist coming down swinging an imaginary sword as he’s explaining to his wife why the stairs are that way!
I notice a lot of medieval heroines are experts with herbs/healing. But how often do we actually see/feel/smell them digging in the dirt tending to the herbs? I admit I do very little gardening, but the earthy, moist smell of the garden, the texture of the soil, the dirt on your hands and knees, the smell of a garden after a rain or the smell of a garden on a hot, dry afternoon — all this should be in the text if you have a scene where the heroine’s in the garden.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel through most of the US, either going to visit grandparents as a child, or following my military husband from duty station to duty station. My story for Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold came from the setting, as I was always struck by the clean, high mountain beauty of Durango each time we went through there. And my visit to the Molly Brown house in Denver gave me not only the feel of houses of the period, but useful information for this story.
We may be able to walk up castle staircases or plant some flowers. And if you have the chance to do any of the everyday tasks we expect our historic heroines to do, then I strongly urge you to do so.
Living in the past can be a lot of fun (especially when after a few days you can come home and have a nice hot shower), and it can only help you bring your historical novel alive for the reader.
A short list of some of the places I’ve been that will take you back in time.
http://www.logcabinvillage.org/ Log Cabin Village in Ft. Worth, TX
http://www.nps.gov/york/planyourvisit/hours.htm Yorktown Battlefield, VA
http://www.historyisfun.org/Jamestown-Settlement.htm Jamestown Settlement, VA
http://www.julianca.com/historic_sites/index.htm Julian, CA a gold rush town
http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com/history.html Old Town San Diego, CA
http://www.okhistory.org/mwp/index.htm Museum of the Western Prairies, Altus, OK
http://www.williamsburg.com/ Colonial Williamsburg, VA
http://www.mountvernon.org/ Mount Vernon, VA
http://www.nps.gov/mima/ Minuteman National Park, Lexington & Concord, MA
http://www.chicagohs.org/ Chicago Historical Society, IL
http://www.nps.gov/casa Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL
http://www.mollybrown.org/ Molly Brown House, Denver, CO