Writing Historical Fiction: Challenges and Surprises

Norwegian history, Oslo, Norwegian Americans, Ibsen, Dolls House

The main street Karl Johansgate, 1920s Oslo

Last Sunday I was supposed to be giving a talk at the Kensington, Maryland, Day of the Book Festival. As a featured author, I planned to talk about the challenges and surprises of writing historical fiction. Then came the coronavirus, and it was all cancelled. But if I can’t stand on a stage, I can still share my ideas about researching and crafting a story set in a different time.

For me, the greatest joy of writing historical fiction is that it lets you avoid writing, for days and weeks at a time. Any excuse to research another question – how did they feed motherless infants in the days before baby bottles, for instance – allowed me to hunker down in libraries or online archives for hours. Newspaper accounts, social histories, letters and diaries, even picture books filled with photos or drawings of times gone by, were all immersive and fascinating. My novel, Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House, is set in two time periods and two countries: the 1880s and the 1920’s, in both Norway and America. So I had plenty of researching to do. I traveled to Norway and western Minnesota, scoured archival collections, met with scholars and historians in both locations. It was heaven.

Eventually, however, I had to start stitching all that wonderful and surprising research into a story. That’s when I realized I was bumping up against the reality of the historical period I was writing about. When my character Nora Helmer crosses the Atlantic on a White Star ship out of Liverpool in May, 1881, I  discovered I could put her on an actual ship, naming the vessel and using the true dates and ports. Except that Nora wouldn’t be on the passenger manifest, which you can find online. So I backed off reality just a little, fudging the actual ship and date. I did this several times, blurring the line between history and fiction just enough so that the book didn’t read like a non-fiction account.

Another surprise, this one more sobering, was learning that “life back then” was nothing like the romanticized, nostalgic stories we pick up from family tales and children’s books. In researching 1880s prairie life in the American Midwest, I was shocked to discover how poor those farms were, and how desperate the lives of the settlers. I knew they didn’t have much, but I hadn’t understood how devastating the smallest setbacks could be. For starters, people died all the time, from childbirth to gruesome farm accidents to starvation to illnesses that swept through prairie towns. If a family couldn’t feed all their children, they often lent out the older ones (anyone older than six) to other families or relatives as labor. Calamities always seemed around the next corner: debt, tornados, drought, prairie fires, locusts and birds destroying crops, storms and bad weather ruining what was left. It’s a wonder anybody survived.

And things in 1880s Norway were no picnic, either. A man of Norwegian-American immigrant descent heard me talk recently about the difficult social conditions in Norway at that time, and commented later that it was nothing like the idealized version of the old country he had picked up from his grandparents.

What I found in history wasn’t just depressing facts, however. Each challenging circumstance for immigrants could also be seen as an interesting plot point. In truth, I rarely made up plot twists with just my imagination. Instead, I relied on the actual facts. When I had to kill off a character, I researched prairie diseases, and unearthed the interesting history of diphtheria, a scourge that killed mostly children, as adults seemed to be immune. I read hair-raising accounts of families that lost all their children in a single week, or other families that saved a few of their kids by sending them to live in the barn for a month. It was haunting, and it was true – the best kind of historical research.

Despite all my digging, however, I struggled to capture life authentically in my story until I started reading novels written in those time periods. Contemporary novels do a great job of breathing life into social interactions – how people speak to each other, what they talk about, what seems to motivate the characters. They are also filled with visual details about dress and style, furnishings and other elements that bring a scene to life. Another challenge was being careful to use only words that were common in the time I was writing about. For the storyline set in the 1880’s, that meant checking my writing for anything too modern, such as post-Freudian language. Could I say that my heroine “obsessed” about something? Would that mean the same thing that it does today or signal a more contemporary time? I went through the entire book crossing out words that didn’t work.

The hardest challenge, however, was leaving out the seaweed. The ship Nora crossed on had narrow bunks with mattresses stuffed with dried kelp and bladderwrack. I loved that seaweed, but when I tucked it into the story, it didn’t fit. Lots of my beloved facts didn’t fit, and many still float around in my head looking for an outlet. But the real trick to writing an historical novel is creating an authentic and dynamic visual world, not serving up a curio cabinet of fun details. Isabelle Allende says that, to write historical fiction, you must fill your head with stacks of research, and then push it all aside and write the story out of your heart. The heart knows what fits, even if the head still loves the seaweed.

Wendy Swallow, May 1, 2020

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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