Guest Post by Lori Anne Goldstein –
Every novel involves research. Whether it’s understanding what happens when someone goes into anaphylactic shock or how a bullet penetrates a car window or how in the world TikTok works, our stories take us places we haven’t been. But when it comes to historical fiction, those places are vast. We can get lost in the research, which honestly, we love, don’t we? You can’t write historical fiction without having a soft spot in your heart for research!
But there’s a line that gets crossed. Research turns into that slippery slope of a rabbit hole too easily. How do we know when “enough is enough”? It all comes back to character.
Character is the backbone of all stories in all genres, but when it comes to historical fiction, so much else is elbowing for room that it can kick our protagonist from center stage into the wings.
The spark for the novel that would become Love, Theodosia hit me full force: What would happen if a romance developed between Theodosia Burr and Phillip Hamilton—the children of sworn political enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr? I knew this novel would be unlike anything else I’d written in that it would require extensive research. And yet I also knew that, same as with everything else I’d ever written, my story would rely on one thing: my character, Theodosia Burr.
What was Theodosia’s quest? What would her tangible journey be (i.e., the plotline)? What would her emotional arc be (i.e., what lesson does she have to learn emotionally in order to become the next version of herself)? These questions are the core of how and why we develop characters, and even with a true historical figure, these questions should remain the core of how and why we develop characters.
And, fortunately, they can also guide our research. To write Theodosia’s tangible journey, I had to decide which portion of her life I was going to tell: Birth to death or a segment of it? When I settled on an important year and a half in her life, all of a sudden my research rabbit holes shrank. The time period of 1783-1813, the span of her life, narrowed to 1800-1801. This substantially narrowed the details I needed to know about clothing, hairstyles, transportation, housing, politics, courting, and more. A very good thing. If I’d jumped into the research without making this decision, I’d have spent countless hours noting time period elements that would have never made it on the page.
When I began to tackle Theodosia’s emotional journey, my areas of research began to center on her relationship with her father and women’s rights at the time. Again, a much-needed narrowing of potential rabbit holes.
Once you begin to think about your character’s tangible and emotional journey, plot begins to take shape. And, fortunately, for those prone to losing themselves in extraneous research, plot guides what you need to know. I didn’t need to know anything about weapons of the time because they didn’t impact the story. But because a Southern gentleman was courting Theodosia, who lives in New York City, I definitely needed to know how long it would take a letter to travel from South Carolina to New York City.
Perhaps it’s already obvious that I’m a writer who has always found tremendous value in plotting and outlining before writing, and with historical fiction, that’s no different. Well . . . maybe a little different. Here’s how: My process was the same. Start with character. Let character inform plot. Let plot guide research. Great!
And yet . . . the research for historical fiction has a way of helping to form that plot in a way that is less pronounced in contemporary fiction. For instance, I knew Theodosia would push for women to have a voice, yet it wasn’t until I came across an article on women’s journals in the 1800s that I realized how she’d embody that trait. After learning that in one of those real journals, women banded together to write an article about women’s suffrage, it became clear to me that this was the way in which Theodosia would advocate for those of her sex. This probably wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not done my research, and yet it forms the core of her tangible plotline in the novel.
With historical fiction, there’s great value in letting the true facts of the time period help to inform your plot. In this way, research might best be approved in two prongs: first to support your character’s journey and second to help shape the plot to come.
But it’s important to understand how and when to limit that research. Because even though this is historical fiction, research can only take you so far.
With all of the history in place, that’s when imagination comes in and fiction takes over, to explore the motivations behind the history, why the characters made the choices they did, how they felt about those choices, what they dreamed of, hoped for, and wanted in life, and what happened if they didn’t get it. That’s all character, and that’s my favorite part of writing. Let the research support character, not overwhelm it, and you’ll be on your way to writing a novel that historical fiction readers will love.
Lori Anne Goldstein is a creative writing instructor, manuscript consultant, and the author of four novels for young adults (Sources Say, Penguin Random House, 2020; Screen Queens, Penguin Random House, 2019; and the Becoming Jinn series (Macmillan, 2015, 2016). She credits her BA in journalism with giving her the skills and desire to devote herself to the extensive research that forms the core of her adult historical debut, Love, Theodosia. She lives in the Boston area and can be found online at: www.lorigoldsteinbooks.com; Instagram: @lorigoldsteinbooks; Twitter: @loriagoldstein; Facebook: LoriGoldsteinAuthor.