Time Travelers

When you write historical fiction, you must be able to transport yourself back to the time in question, to understand how the world felt, tasted and sounded to your characters.


The rough feel of pottery, the taste of dandelions or the way your vision is obscured by a bonnet. Check. Check. Check.

When you write historical fiction, you engage in various kinds of research. You have to  know your dates and the theories behind the movements and conflicts that shape a time. But you must also—short of having an actual time machine—be able to transport yourself back to the period in question, to understand how the world felt, tasted and sounded to your characters. What prompted them to think the way they did?

We are shaped by the time and place we live in but don’t always stop to acknowledge how the environment shapes our thoughts. For example, the last few decades have seen dramatic changes in communication technology, reducing response time to seconds. The impatient can barely wait for a text response to arrive. But I can remember how long it took for a letter to arrive from Europe. I can imagine the wait for such a letter hundreds of years ago, how your life could change in the interim. In my book, “After the Fire,” a story of Revolutionary War occupied New York City, delayed and mislaid letters derail lives. I am no longer patient enough to wait weeks for a response. Would my character, Sophie, a 17-year-old girl in 1774 have expected to do anything different?

The rituals of daily life affect the way characters think, the choices they make. Having lived in an old house in England, I know how miserable it can be to let the fire go out because you forgot to get up early and scuttle coal. Whose daily schedule now revolves around scuttling coal, caring for barnyard animals or loading a musket? But such acts defined rural life in the 18th century and to write about it in a convincing way, you may want to experience it yourself.

For me, the best part of research has always involved paying homage to the relics, the daily artifacts of history now found in museums and historic restorations. By touching these things and breathing in their scent, I can better imagine myself in another time. When you write historical fiction, every detail is worth noting. Notes must be taken on tableware and automobiles, the headstones in cemeteries. What would your characters have read or dreamt about?

Such immersion in the past is the closest thing to time travel any of us get and sometimes for a few brief thrilling moments, by surrounding yourself with these relics, you can actually let go of the present.

In the novel “Time and Again” by Jack Finney, the main character longs to travel to a specific year in the past so he must place himself in a room with no reminders of any time after that. He must let go of any knowledge of the present to physically transition to the past.

While making the physical transition is impossible, it’s a method similar to the one historical fiction writers use to create characters true to their era. Writers have to immerse themselves in the reality of the time they write about, refusing to acknowledge anything that came after, that their characters could not possibly know.

This hyper-focus on the daily details of another time makes research my favorite part of writing. You become in a very real sense, a time traveler. And for the seconds that you are there, actually there, in the past, it is very thrilling.

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Miguel Hernandez July 01, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Good points and I do wish the those who write, direct or star in historically-based films would aslo follow your advice. This movie gendre seems to be filled with anacrhroistic language and characters who (at least for me) destory the sense of authenticity that these kind of films must have to be believable.
Miguel Hernandez July 01, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Whoops! Sorry for the typos I was too quick on the submit button. I meant to write anachronistic ( a $10 word for wrongly dated things and genre another overused term for --of this kind and finally, the word, also, went klafooey on me. Think its a Brooklynese for gone haywire. But I don't know how wire to bale hay ever got to Brooklyn. Never saw any while growing up there
Joan Vos MacDonald July 02, 2012 at 12:57 PM
No need to apologize about typos, Miguel. I am no stranger to them myself. Writers do tread a fine line though between accuracy and creating characters or scenarios readers can relate to. If Revolutionary War era characters spoke as they actually did, readers might not understand many of their expressions or references. On the other hand, you do have to be careful about using modern words or having them express thoughts completely out of character for the time. It's tricky.
Miguel Hernandez July 02, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Yes, understanding 18th century expressions and references is tricky. In reading some of George Washington's letters for a grad school paper I was often stumped to fully understand them. However I came across, "A Guide to Eighteenth-Century English Vocabulary" on the web and found it helpful.
Denise Mourges July 07, 2012 at 02:12 AM
What a wonderful and clear transference of what it truly takes to write historical fiction: Get into it! This blog makes one pay attention to so much we take for granted.


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