Historical fiction takes lots of research and requires more detail than one can ever know.
While writing journalistic nonfiction taught me many useful skills, it also instilled habits I’m finding hard to unlearn. Being literal-minded and trying to avoid mistakes, when I didn’t know, I fuzzed. I got pretty good at fuzzing.
In academic writing, when I couldn’t find the answer, I wrote a disclaimer. “Sources differ,” or “surviving manuscripts don’t indicate,” or “it appears likely that.”
Trouble is, fuzzing and disclaimers don’t make for readable fiction. Unclear whether my character would have worn a fedora or a bowler? My habitual solution is to call it a hat. The thirst for sensory detail in a historical novel challenges me instead to find out or make it up. My great fear, if I can’t find the answer, is that getting it wrong will make the whole story lose credibility with experts in the history of men’s hats.
Snowdrops! Sandhill cranes! The iciest winter in my memory is yielding to one of the earliest springs.
Climate change is real. So is normal variation over time. Europe’s “little ice age” contributed to the end of the Viking era and the population decline of the 1300s, even before the arrival of the plague. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of The Long Winter of 1880-81 haunted me, as a child, with the fragility of life without reliable furnace or groceries. Human and natural causes interacted to produce two of my favorite meteorological crises in English history (to study, not to wish on anyone): London’s Great Stink and Killer Fog.
In July and August of 1858, an intense heat wave caused the uncontrolled sewage in the River Thames to simmer and stew. The resulting stench brought the city to a standstill. In the new Parliament building on the riverbank, members with handkerchiefs over their noses met in the rooms farthest from the river to debate a response. The resulting system of sewers, fresh water, and embankments lowered the death toll from cholera almost immediately. That system is still in use today.
In December of 1952, unusually cold temperatures led Londoners to burn coal at record rates. The air filled with sulfur dioxide. Five windless days of temperature inversion (low air colder than the air above it) trapped the pollutants at ground level. Lack of visibility stopped ambulance services and other transportation except the subways. Movie theaters closed because viewers could not see the screen. The toxic smog killed at least four thousand people. It moved Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act of 1956, which promoted conversion from coal to gas, oil, and electricity.
For five hours this past Thursday, I was interviewed on camera for a documentary about the beginnings of Rotary’s commitment to eradicate polio. It’s comforting to know that most of that footage will end up on the cutting room floor.
Documentary film makers, historians, and journalists must always pick and choose. The late Professor Geoff Blodgett taught us Oberlin history seminar students, “The facts never speak for themselves.” No matter how objective you try to be, you have to decide what to include and how to arrange it.
In everyday life, too, there isn’t room for everything. I like the precept “Take what you like and leave the rest.” Without advocating denial, I’d rather give my time and attention to what brings joy, growth, connection, or meaning. The rest can go on the cutting room floor.
Do you struggle to schedule writing into your life? You can find dozens of tips online. Set an alarm clock. Write at the same time every day. Turn off phone and Internet. Commit to writing a fixed daily number of words or hours.
What few blogs tell you is that different writers do it differently. Sure, many follow a routine. That’s what we humans do rather than invent life from scratch every minute. It’s not some magical secret of a best-selling author’s success.
So here’s my practice, not necessarily yours. I work to external or self-assigned due dates. Blog entries must be ready to post on Mondays, writing for clients when promised, medieval mystery chapters in time for my critique group. I write at various hours depending what else is on the calendar—a morning or afternoon class, lunch with a friend—but quit by mid-evening to unwind for sleep. I draft in my head while driving or taking walks. If I can’t get onto a creative roll, I stay on task with research or edits.
Whatever your practice, two essentials can help your writing to happen. First, take it seriously. Treat it as your work, whether or not you’re getting paid. Second, don’t wait for inspiration. Show up and write. John Updike quipped, “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired, because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them, you’ll never write again.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.