Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A historical setting is a silent character in a novel. Several important steps help novels live and breathe in history.

  1. Choose the best time period for the story. Gold Earrings is set in 1868, just after the Civil War. Many things in society have changed with the coming of Reconstruction. For Missouri, it’s a time for compromise. The politicians in Jefferson City are trying to appease the US government by appearing “reconstructed”, but their sentiments still run deeply to the lost Confederacy. In Gold Earrings, Charles Bardsley is such a character. He wants to appear in tune with the new governments around him while still maintaining power and control. He has helped select a Yankee minister for the church. He assumes he can control Rev. Jonathan Thomson with his money and intimidation. However, Reconstruction has also created the beginnings of civil rights, the middle class, and women’s rights. Like it or not, Bardsley’s society is changing.
  2. Do lots of research. I wanted Angelina to have access to a sewing machine. When were they available to private citizens? I did some research and found that mechanical sewing machines, while new, were definitely available. I wanted Jonathan to be involved in an important, life-changing battle in the Civil War. I wrote about the battle in Hampton Roads because I lived in Newport News, VA, at the time I was writing and had access to museums and information. Be careful about assuming something. If you’re wrong, it will set the reader sideways, and they may never buy back into the scenario.
  3. Research period fashion. People wear different clothing in different periods of time. Description of dress sets the scene historically. In Gold Earrings, Angelina discovers that women don’t dress ‘fashionably’ on the prairie. Due to her background and city heritage, Angelina’s clothing is more fashionable and inspires the women of St. Joe to dress more fashionably. As is true in all time periods, class, wealth, and power are also denoted by dress. 
  4. Include historical details and personalities as they fit into the story. St Joseph, MO, was the perfect place for Gold Earrings because it was an edge-of- the-West town. In western Missouri, the members of the James gang were Confederate heroes. Jesse James used an alias, Mr. Howard, when doing business in the St. Joseph area. Allowing such a historical character to come on stage in a chapter allowed me to insert a part of Missouri history. This detail lets my Missouri readers nod and say, “Oh yes, he did!” to a semi-obscure piece of history. Medical advancements come in different time periods as well. Travel options also change over time. Is it a hansom cab, a yellow cab, or a black Town Car? Are there horses on the street? Is the street dirt, cobbled, or paved?
  5. Know the geography of the place in time.  The river bluffs, the tornado, the historic buildings, and founding citizens are important details in Gold Earrings. Since I grew up in Missouri, I had studied state history and geography in elementary school. I knew things about Missouri that other writers and readers might not know when I wrote Gold Earrings. Holiday celebrations, like 4th of July fireworks, can change.
  6. Add minor details as often as possible. In Gold Earrings, Angelina’s train ride across Missouri is documented with the stops along the way to St. Joe. The Internet is an amazing fact-checker as is the local library. In the Bibliography of Gold Earrings is an obscure book about the railroad. The sequence moves Angelina and the reader from the large cities of Boston and Chicago into the small prairie towns of Missouri. 
WARNING! Research helps the writer create the world for the story. Only use the information that gives it life and sustenance. Keep track of your sources; create the bibliography to show the reader you are well informed AND to allow the reader to check out your sources for their own edification.
Many reviews of my novel Gold Earrings remark on how the reader feels a part of the story, as though they can really see what I’ve described. As a novelist of a historical novel, that means I’ve done my job with not only the description of the setting, but in the layout of the historical package.

    Diane Tatum grew up in St. Louis, MO. She started writing her own stories in elementary school. While in high school, Diane E. Tatum wrote the short story that grew into her novel, Gold Earrings. College brought a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Business Administration and later a Masters in Teaching Language Arts. Between degrees, she stayed home raising her boys and began writing again. She started freelance writing for magazines and church Sunday school curriculum for LifeWay and David C. Cook. 

After teaching middle school language arts for eleven years in Tullahoma, Tennessee, Diane “retired” in 2009 with her husband’s encouragement, to write the books that she had been starting and saving on her computer. Gold Earrings was published in 2011. She is currently completing her second novel, A Time to Choose. She also writes for Yahoo!ContributorNetwork and Suite101.com. Diane and her husband, Ken, live in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Twitter: @DianeTatum


  1. I know several authors who have talked about the reasons they don't write historicals as being their fear of freezing up over the details and accuracy. Your tip about using little things goes a long way toward adding authenticity to a story without a writer having to feel like they know every detail about the time period they have chosen.
    Thanks for joining us!

  2. This was so interesting, and so true! I've recently become a fan of the PBS series, Downton Abbey. Talk about the setting becoming a character! That huge old house is very much an integral part of the cast.

    Great article.

  3. That's a great article, Diane. Thank you for sharing it ~ I'm a little on the research-weak side, so this will help me keep my focus. :)


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