(1) Are you tied down to a certain year? Is there a commonly-known historic event in your story? If so, it is probably necessary to be a little more careful in your accuracy, which is actually a lot easier than you think, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. Is the War of 1812 going on? Then there can’t be any visitors from America. Were there gas stoves, yet? Did beds have bedsprings? And be especially careful about weapons—the gun people are sticklers.
(2) Does the history overwhelm the fiction? There is always a temptation to include all your bright, shiny, hard-earned research and bog the story down. Does the reader really need to know how the candles were made, or how long it took to travel from England to India?
(3) What will you do about language? My own rule of thumb is to use period phrases and words, but only where the meaning is clear from the context—there’s nothing more wooden than having a character explain what she meant.
(4) What will you do about societal strictures and sex? Courtship usually went according to a strict format—will you ignore this, or incorporate it into the story? One of the reasons we are drawn to Jane Austen’s stories is because the context sets up an immediate tension—there were strict rules about interaction between the sexes. Will you incorporate it into the story to create an external conflict, or will you inject modern manners into the past?
(5) Finally, will you confess any liberties you take with historical accuracy in an author’s note? Again, this probably depends on what your readership is expecting. If they are expecting a loose rendition of history, there is probably no need. If you are crafting a detailed work of historical fiction, then they will expect an equally detailed author’s note. I used an author’s note only once, so far, and it was because I’d taken liberties with the historical timeline. There’s no fudging the timeline, so I felt I had to confess.
Writing Scenes Rather Than Reports:
A few examples to show the difference between scene and report, to show different ways to present scene . . .
What I did on vacation—A school report
My family went to Majorca for two weeks. We built sand castles on the shore, and one beach was so awesome we went back four times. We ate new foods. My sister lost her sandals one day, but it turns out that this guy had a crush on her and had taken them to get her attention. My little brother wasn’t as obnoxious as he usually was. And I didn’t try to kill myself.
What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene)
Majorca used to be popular with American military families stationed in Germany, so Mom and Dad knew a lot about it. I didn’t want to go—my sister was fighting with her boyfriend and I knew she’d use me as a sounding board. I’d have to hear all the reasons he was a jerk and then the zillion and one reasons why she’d take him back
Once we got there, I found a cave at the beach, maybe a half mile from my parents. I sat inside, arms around my legs, and stared at the so-so waves crashing into the rocks below me. No sister. No little brother. No thoughts of suicide licking at my brain.
Instead, I heard only swoosh and whoosh and crash.
I closed my eyes, relieved.
I liked the sounds of swoosh and crash. I didn’t like the voices of death.
What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene, a variation)
I ran and ran and ran. Down the beach, up the dunes. I fell, cutting my wrist on a stupid pop can. I peed behind the Porta-Potty once I reached it because the smell inside made me gag.
And then I found the cave. Not Aladdin’s cave. Not Blackbeard’s either. It was all mine. Tessa’s cave. I imagined no one else had ever crawled inside, abrading knees and sinking fingers into cool sand. No other hands had feverishly fashioned a sand throne to elevate the occupant to the height of the cave’s ceiling.
No other had found comfort in the ocean’s hum as it echoed from the cave walls.
No one else had found sanctuary in a beach cave on the shore of some silly island I couldn’t find on a map. In a country halfway around the world from home. In a hot land so unlike suburban Bismarck that I didn’t recognize the smell of the air and the grit against my skin and the taste of food on my tongue.
And no one else had used the cave to fight demons that tore at the mind, weakening resolve. No other had used Tessa’s cave to block out voices that called for death. Death to the one who’d crawled inside. Death to the one who’d fashioned the sand throne. Death to the one who sought sanctuary in the cave on the shore of that silly island that I couldn’t find on a map, in a hot land halfway around the world from home.
What Tessa did on vacation—Fiction (less exposition, more scene)
Tessa couldn’t catch her breath, but she kept digging. Digging and clawing up sand, mounding it. She had to finish before her parents called her back for dinner. Had to finish her sand throne so she could survey her kingdom from on high.
She flexed her fingers a half dozen times to relieve the cramps, but didn’t even look at her nails. The sand was so thick under them that she longer felt the gritty irritation, just a comforting pressure. She stared instead at the uneven pile of sand that reached more than halfway to the cave’s ceiling.
“Tess? Tess, where are you?” her brother asked, calling from the beach.
Tessa looked over her shoulder, praying he wouldn’t find the cave’s hidden opening. She held still, unwilling to make the slightest sound. Her shallow breaths sounded frantic in the otherwise silent space.
“Tess? I’m gonna tell you were hiding.” Davey’s voice grew less strident as he moved away. “Te-saaa!”
Tessa turned back to her throne and then scrambled down to the bottom. She started cutting steps into the hardening sand, shaping them just like the porch steps at their house. This was her special place. She wouldn’t share it with Davey.
She dug her fingers into the sand.
She wouldn’t share with anyone.