It may take a nation to raise a child, but it practically takes the ninth-century Qarawiyyin library in north-eastern Morocco—the world’s oldest—and the Library of Congress—the world’s largest—to create a work of historical fiction. Or at least a good work of historical fiction which places the reader right smack dab in the middle of the life and times of your characters. A world which treats them to the sights, sounds, and savories of biblical times, the fifteenth century, the nineteenth century or whatever period you are writing about.
All creation should be a labor of love, or why bother, but writing historical fiction, like well-researched and fact-checked nonfiction takes a special dedication. You have to be willing to scroll through the microfiche, dig through the archives, call strangers, and sometimes even fly to the city or village where your main action takes place. But most of all you have to be ready and willing to read! And read, and read, and read some more.
Thankfully, I have always been a big reader. Since the beginning of my writing career at the age of 9, I have written and read across genres. I have written Nancy Drew style mysteries, tried my hand at Harlequin Romance bodice rippers, and published contemporary literary fiction, which has prepared me (especially the bodice rippers which were set way in the historical past) to appreciate the necessity of the deep dive into research that really brings a book to life. So when the idea of a three book mystery series set in 1920s Harlem reared its fanciful head one day as I was innocently walking past a Black History Month display in a New York Public Library window, I was ready. I knew straight off, after I had created my main character’s names: Harlow Ophelia Jackson, BB Smith, David Kingston Castle, and Declan O’Sullivan, roughly outlined the plot and chose the year the first book would open (1926), I had to get myself to my local library. I checked out books ranging from general histories on the Roaring Twenties to thick tomes on the Harlem Renaissance.
Much like when I was writing my yet to be published novel Mad River, which follows the political awakening of a young black girl which leads her to Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, I read books as narrow as what happened during one specific summer to books that were as surprising and wide-ranging as the history of educated antibellum blacks in New York and gay men’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon as far back as the 1890s.
I also read two years’ worth of articles in the New York Amsterdam News (on microfiche and it’s a weekly!) and carefully combed through precious volumes of out of print works that couldn’t be removed from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I went deep. I happily immersed myself in the real lives and events that shaped the lives and events of my fictional people.
As any writer or editor will tell you, most of what I learned didn’t make it into my books. It’s not supposed to, otherwise, I’m writing history and not literary historical fiction. The point of the deep dive into research is not only to be able to place your characters in a building that actually existed and not in the middle of a river but to also overlay a patina of truth. Not everything or person in Speaking Is Easy (the first book in my Harlow Ophelia Jackson Mystery series) is real but if I’ve done my job, everything and person feels real, or rather true.
During my research, I absorb the world I am studying. I learn the speech patterns, the style of dress, the social mores, as well as the current events of the time and where people ate, drank, worked, and celebrated. So by the time I start writing, that world is known to me and recognizable to my readers. And when I add something that didn’t actually take place in say 1926, it feels like it could have.
It is one of the hardest lessons a writer of historical fiction has to learn and it is best learned early. Edit, edit, edit and less is more. Every writer learns this at some point in their career or should, but it is doubly true in historical fiction and I would argue doubly difficult. It’s one thing to excise a passage that you have labored over for days and quite another to cut a passage that you have labored over for days and spent hours researching in the cloistered reading room of the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwartzman building.
One of my proudest research moments came when I discovered the municipal books of the city of New York. These “Green” books give you the names and addresses of city departments like the department of education or city hall. I was desperate to figure out exactly where the precinct Declan O’Sullivan worked out of was located. Some news articles had it as the 16th and others the 32nd and on one side of 135th Street and then on the other, within the same year! It’s a minor point and I could have written around it but I’ve got a bug in my brain that once I start looking for something it’s nearly impossible for me to stop.
So I read and I asked and I read some more until finally, someone mentioned the library at the New York Historical Society and the “Green” books. The librarian brought me a battered, four-by-four-inch book with a green cover and the name, location, phone number, name of the commanding officer, etc, of all the police precincts in New York in 1926. My nerdy heart swooned! And yes, this information made it into the book but most of the other information I found on the NYPD itself did not, although I hope the overarching sensation of what it was like to be a cop then and to be policed by them, does.
Writing historical fiction is hard and I have sworn it off many times only to return. I really should have just been a history professor and called it a day—if only I could keep dates in my head! It’s hard, but something about it fascinates me. Maybe it’s the delicate dance of weaving real life into my character’s story. Maybe it’s learning about all of these amazing people I had no idea came before and giving them a second chance in the pages of my books or maybe I just like losing hours and hours digging up minutia. It might even be the ego stroke I get when someone says they learned something about a time or place that they didn’t know until they read my book or the compliments I get from other history buffs I contact who say they are impressed with my commitment to authenticity. Whatever the reason, I have decided to stake my writing career on the painstaking world of historical fiction. And that’s a fact.
By the way, although books and archival newspapers did most of the heavy lifting, I can’t forget to give a shout out to the flesh and blood heroes like Pat of nypdhistory.com who answered all of my emails with great information, patience, and generosity. This site is wonderful and deserves support!