Walk the Field; Make the Dress

Guest Post by Sally Bays –

Last year, I decided to make a replica historical suit of clothing, using only the tools and materials my most recent protagonist would have had available. Mind you, I am a fairly experienced seamstress. I teach sewing in 4H and have even made historical costumes before. But not by hand.

The shift in my perspective was immediate. My character started behaving differently—as one would if they had to weave their own fabric to replace a ruined dress. As I completed pieces and tried them on, my characters began to move differently. As I invested the hours, so too did the women in my book, piecing the fabric, handling the needles, sipping at their tea between stitches and conversation.  

Historical fiction is more than just modern stories with costumes and less technology. Distance matters when a character is moving on foot or horseback. Weather creates tension when food and shelter are self-contained. A broken cup has far more weight when there is no substitute to replace it. While not all readers are going to be fact checking the building details of English vs. Dutch barns, the atmosphere of familiarity with the historical setting and content frames every aspect of the narrative itself.

Fortunately, one does not have to hand sew period costumes, live off the grid for a month, or take extensive research trips to every place of which they write (although I would never dissuade someone from doing so!)

Experiencing history can take many forms. Attending living history events, taking research trips, even walking through museums to gauge the size and shape of everyday items can shape our historical worlds on the page.

In my little corner of the Northwest, we have an annual George Washington heritage festival. For three days, living historians and reenactors converge on a local B&B in Sequim, WA, and offer classes, events, and activities for all ages around Revolutionary Era history. Two towns over there is a similar event on pirates. Across the US, there are living history events happening nearly every weekend. Similarly, there are plenty of historians out there who are happy to share their knowledge and collections even when they aren’t attending an event.

While I am a huge fan of living history, I also recognize the value of archives and museums. Thanks to the internet, many archives have digital catalogues and a variety of online resources available to even amateur researchers. Even smaller historical societies, or niche operators will often have links to regional libraries and archives important to the location. Equally important are the cavalcade of employees and volunteers who are happy to share their passion with an interested party.

 I once had a student set a story in “Colonial Northern California” where everyone took their personal stagecoaches between train stations. Concerned by the arid desert she had placed in the middle of the Sierra Mountains, I suggested she spend an hour or so on YouTube and come back with another draft. While I would argue that there is no full substitute for walking the hills and cobblestones of a historical setting, if only for the perspective not found on a paper map, a good travel documentary can go a long way toward helping an author accurately shape the world on the page.

Recently, an author friend of mine said “I could never write historical fiction; you have to research everything!” He isn’t wrong. But isn’t that why we write historical fiction? To have an excuse to buy the books, and take the trips, and visit the museums, and spend two hours discussing how one turns flax into cloth with a former trucker turned sheep farmer named Carla, who wouldn’t spend her weekends doing anything else? And then taking those experiences and placing them back into context on the page, enriching our plots and setting, creating tension or simply placing a needle and cloth into a protagonist’s hands and letting her talk with her friends.

Sally Bays is a speculative historical fiction writer who lives in the Northwest with her family. When not researching English Barn building techniques or Colonial fornication laws, she leads the Sequim Space Agency 4H club: rocketry, sewing, and cats.  

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