As a reader, I enjoy historical fiction that stimulates my interest to learn more about a person or a time from the past. Good historical fiction, in my humble opinion, needs to be balanced- a blend of historical facts and accuracy with a riveting storyline and well-developed characters who lived, or at least could have lived, during that time. I don’t believe there is any required ratio between the levels of fact and fiction (maybe 60/40 in favor of facts if I had to wager a guess?) but clearly a well-researched story is ultimately going to garner more attention and a larger number of satisfied readers than one that relies on interesting characters to make up for a historical backdrop that is too thin or inaccurate. But the real question is not how much ‘history’ do you need in your historical fiction, but rather how do you obtain that information?
When it comes to research, at some point you have to tell yourself that it’s time to stop, that enough is enough. Although it is tempting to continue down yet another rabbit hole of information (and there are so many different avenues to explore) a good writer knows when it’s time. Time to put down all those references and sources and actually start writing.
Researching a historical novel is a challenging and at least for me, an ultimately rewarding experience. I have previously written four contemporary novels and Landscape of a Marriage, my first historical novel, was an eye-opener. I blame my public school education or more appropriately, my earlier lack of interest in most things historical for my struggles. Other than the dates I learned of all the major battles in a variety of wars that the U.S. participated in, I don’t recall learning anything of interest to me in all of those history classes I sat through. I was a good student, but never developed a love of history until I started reading on my own. My early favorites are still classics in my mind- Gone with the Wind (Mitchell), The Thornbirds (McCullough) and Trinity (Uris). Great characters and interesting storylines set in different times in the past. What a joy!
I was drawn to the story of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his late brother’s widow Mary for a number of reasons. The primary one is that Olmsted is a distant relative of my husband’s. Way back when, there were two brothers- Aaron and Benjamin- one is Fred’s grandfather and the other, my husband’s great, great, great grandfather.
But what really drew me into the story was the marriage of Fred and Mary, his former sister-in-law. Although ‘levirate’ marriages were fairly common in the 19th century in order to protect the children and the family name, I felt there was an interesting story lurking right below the surface and I set out to write it. My first step was to find out everything I could about the lives of Fred and Mary. I reviewed many different resources while researching Landscape of a Marriage. There are a number of beautifully written books on Frederick Law Olmsted and that was where I began, including A Clearing in the Distance (Rybczynski) and Genius of Place (Martin). I highly recommend them both.
These books helped me to understand quite a bit about the times and Olmsted’s professional accomplishments. I made careful notes and drafted an outline, filling in the most significant events happening during the tumultuous years of the second half of the 19th century in America- the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the women’s suffrage movement, the Gold Rush and the Second Industrial Revolution.
This provided the backdrop or the overall foundation for Landscape. Then I moved on to the Olmsteds themselves. I began with their marriage, the births of their children and significant personal and professional milestones along the way, including Fred’s work on such notable projects as Central Park in NYC, Mount Royal in Montreal, the Chicago World’s Fair and the reopening of Niagara Falls. The Olmsteds moved from New York, to Washington, DC, to California and back to New York before dividing their time between Brookline, a Boston suburb and Deer Isle, Maine. Each location would have an impact on their lives together and needed to be researched carefully to identify exactly how.
From there, I continued my research and Google provided me with access to numerous articles, posts and images that added to my base of knowledge. Who knew how interesting it could be to learn about the culture, the lifestyles, the clothing and the hobbies enjoyed during the second half of the 19th century? I remembered very little about the Civil War (except for those all important dates!) but never took the time to imagine what it was like for the soldiers, their mothers, their families. Before committing to landscape architecture as a career, Fred worked for the United States Sanitary Commission (the precursor to the American Red Cross) and his efforts revealed a caring, empathetic man who loved his country and fought to improve living conditions for the soldiers. This was a far cry from the critical and driven workaholic persona that frequently is assigned to Olmsted and it helped me to portray him as a loving and passionate man dedicated to both his profession and his wife and children. I hope readers who enjoy Landscape will be inspired to visit Olmsted’s parks and learn more about this creative visionary who transformed the American landscape forever.
Do you have a story to tell about a real or fictional person or an important time in history? The more research you do, the more likely it is that you will craft a story that you will enjoy writing and your readers will enjoy reading.