Monday, June 15, 2009

Guest Blogger Darlene Franklin on Historical Detail

Please welcome Darlene Franklin as our guest blogger today. Her latest book is Beacon of Love which releases to the Heartsong Presents club this month.

I’m a native New Englander, so I loved the idea of writing about my beloved homeland. The excitement lasted about five minutes and then reality hit. What do I know about Rhode Island, except for the fact it's part of New England? I ticked off the facts on the fingers of one hand: Roger Williams and religious freedom. One of the original 13 colonies. The America’s cup. Smallest state in the union.

None of those facts sparked a story idea, so I explored a resource that has become a staple in generating ideas for historical fiction. Read the time line. I typed "Rhode Island timeline" into my computer's search engine. Bingo! Dozens of fascinating facts and events appeared. I decided to set my book during the 1810s, since I was already working on another story in that era.

The Great Gale of 1815 ravished Rhode Island, destroying the Point Judith Lighthouse along with flooding Providence. A hurricane promised innumerable opportunities for tension and obstacles to overcome. What setting could be more romantic than a lighthouse? My parents lived on the seacoast of Maine and I loved the ocean. I had the starting point.

Ideas started flying. The heroine, Judith (from Point Judith, of course) Morrison, would be the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, determined to keep the light burning when her father was injured during the storm. The hero—that took a little more thought. Sam Hathaway would be a veteran of the War of 1812, I decided. A doctor could help when the heroine’s father was injured. And ... oh yes ... he would be afraid of the ocean. So going for help, or doing anything, during a hurricane, would require all the courage and faith he possessed.

I had the outline to create my story. Now came those pesky historical details ... the whole research business that scared me away from writing historical fiction for too long. I discovered it wasn’t so hard.

I picked up a number of wonderful books—illustrated children’s guides to clothing and customs from the period (what are signs that a storm is coming?) as well as cookbooks from the 1800s. When a friend questioned Judith spending half an hour to knead bread, I pointed to a recipe from the time period for my instructions.

Some things were easy to research via the internet: officer uniforms during the War of 1812, for instance. I even found an article about lighthouses and their lanterns for that time period. Other details I almost overlooked; a critique partner pointed out today’s ovens were barely invented by that time, and certainly weren’t available on a remote island. Occasionally I ran into brick walls: what fish live in the ocean surrounding Rhode Island?

For the feelings and experiences of those who have lived through hurricanes, I contacted the ACFW web. Thanks to those brave souls from Louisiana and Florida who opened their hearts to me.

I kept a document containing websites, photographs, articles and definitions in case I needed to find them again. How do you shuck an oyster? What dance was popular at the time, and what were the steps? What items would be included in a doctor’s bag? What accidents are prevalent among fishermen? How do you keep a fire burning during a storm? All of those questions, and more, filled the folder and added depth to the story.

Research produces some serendipitous results. When I wrote Dressed in Scarlet (an historical novella published in Snowbound Colorado Christmas, Barbour, 2008), I learned that circus elephants were used to deliver coal to an orphanage during the blizzard of 1913. Though not quite so dramatic, in the midst of my research for Beacon of Love, I learned that Rhode Island had not participated in the War of 1812. Great! One more bone of contention between the two men competing for my heroine’s affections.

When I work up a historical proposal, I only do enough research to say “Yes, this story could happen in this place at this time. It is historically plausible.” The details that bring the story to life ... those come through research during the writing of the manuscript. By the time I finish, my story is (I hope) not only plausible but also could only have happened at that place and time. History is full of fascinating tidbits, ready to be brought to life.

14 comments:

Erica Vetsch said...

Thank you, Darlene, for this fun blog post. I love your approach to writing historicals.

Darlene Franklin said...

Hi Erica, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Historicals can be a lot of fun and not nearly as frightening as I first thought.

Edna said...

I love to read the historicals but so far have not read any of yours. Are you by any chance having a give-a-way if so please enter me

mamat2730(at)charter(dot)net

Carla Gade said...

Very interesting post on your historical research. I'm also a New Englander, and a writer, and found this fascinating!

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Hi, Darlene. I enjoyed reading your post about historical research. I LOVE reading historicals, but, I just can't see myself writing one! I'm certainly not a history buff, but I think it would take me a long time to research everything my characters did daily!

Darlene Franklin said...

Edna, if you're a member of the Heartsong Presents bookclub, you'll be receiving Beacon of Love. Let me know at belovedfranklin (at) msn (dot) com.

Darlene Franklin said...

Carla, Where in New England do you live? Glad you enjoyed the article.

Darlene Franklin said...

Cecilia, I learned a lot about daily life from reading historicals. I didn't think I could write historicals or mysteries, but I love to read both. And now I've written both. Yes, it involves research, but not as much as you'd think.

Rhonda said...

Hi Darlene! glad to see you featured here. Love the blog post, researching historicals is so fun.

Darlene Franklin said...

Hi Rhonda, and congrats on your IRCC nomination!

Susan Page Davis said...

Good post. Thanks for sharing your secrets. I get stuck sometimes, too. It's those little authentic details that make the extra time worthwhile, though.

Darlene Franklin said...

Thanks, Susan. To a historical writer who makes me feel like I'm there.

Elaine said...

This was a most enlightening piece. I would never think of doing some of the things you did in order to gain insight into period events. Thanks!

Darlene Franklin said...

Elaine, Glad it helped!