Writing Historical Fiction: The Challenge of Vivid Details

When I decided to undertake writing historical fiction, I thought that the hardest part would be finding all the facts I needed and getting them right.  That actually turned out to be doable, though very time-consuming.  More difficult has been finding the small details that make a setting or a scene ring true.

Garden outside a house in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

In some ways writing a scene is like painting.  When you paint, you work with the subtleties of light; you see something, and you show it to the viewer.  When you write a scene, you work with the subtleties of sensory detail, inviting the reader not only to see but to hear, touch and smell.  Doing this well is challenging enough, even when you’re working with a setting as utterly familiar as dinner in your own home.  In writing historical fiction, the difficulty of this amps up like crazy.  Say you’re writing a dinner scene set in Puerto Rico a hundred years ago.  What are your characters eating?  How did they cook it?  What room are they in, and how does it look?  What are they sitting on?  Etc.  Many, many details like this will not occur to you while you are reading the history books that are a large part of your research (and even if they do, you probably won’t find them there).  The need for these details will only surface as you write.  You find out to your dismay that the research you thought was finished . . . isn’t. 

The fiction I am writing takes place in Hungary between 1944 and 1951.  So I am writing about a place I have never lived in and a time period before I was born.  I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Hungary in 2006 and 2007, and this was essential:  you just can’t get a feel for a place without going there.  But during these all-too-short visits I couldn’t see the whole country, let alone absorb it all.  I took as many notes and photos as I could, but the time came when I just had to go home and try to create scenes with what information I had.  This was not easy.  I found that the more I wrote, the more I discovered I didn’t know.  So often when I opened a new scene, I wasn’t sure what to picture.  Even if I had been living in Budapest for twenty years and the city were seeping into my pores every day, I would still have difficulty knowing what to picture on each of its corners during the time period of my novel, World War II and its aftermath. 

Village church with separate steeple in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

But when I realized that my writing was deficient in sensory details, I became determined to make up for this in whatever ways I could.  I looked at all the photographs I could find from that era, if not from Hungary then perhaps from Poland or Germany, and I scrutinized details in them:  wagon wheels, window frames, clothing, anything.  I read and reread memoirs and novels.  These helped to fill in details not mentioned in history books—things like food availability, common expressions, weather.  I took copious notes on things that would bombard my senses if I were in Hungary during and after the war.  Even if I didn’t know exactly which buildings were burning, could I still describe a smoky sky?  How did it smell?  What would I hear?  After the war, what would it be like to wait at one of the few functioning stretches of railroad track, try to squeeze onto an impossibly crowded train car, and then climb onto the only place there was room—the roof?  What would the view be like from up there?  What would I see growing (in spite of all the destruction) in the fields between towns?  

Image of King St. Stephen on the Basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest

Even aside from the changing setting created by a war, I found that by really watching for details in Hungarian novels and memoirs and (less easily available) appropriately set movies, I could create scenes of European rooms, markets, farms, shops.  It has taken an enormous amount of attention, however.  I have to remind myself constantly to create a vivid setting—because the milieu of a place I don’t live in will not arise in my work unless I intentionally call it forth. 

But that sense of exploring a different world is part of what makes historical fiction so satisfying—to readers, yes, but especially to the writer.

 P.S.—–BTW to readers:  if any of you can give me information on WWII damage to specific buildings and areas in Budapest, I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!



Research for Writing Historical Fiction: Getting Started

For the last several years my writing time has been absorbed by two novels. The one I’m currently writing, tentatively titled Voice, is about ¾ complete in its first draft.  The other, The Bomb Shelter Quintet, has been finished, but I will be revising it after I finish drafting out Voice.  So I expect to be working on these books for quite a while yet.  (You don’t know the meaning of endurance until you write a novel, then write another, then decide to revise the first one.  Aaargh.)

Both of the novels are set in Hungary, The Bomb Shelter Quintet in 1944-45 and Voice in 1951.  The setting of the books has meant a tremendous amount of research—historical, geographic, and cultural.   If I had known at the outset how large and sometimes overwhelming the task would be, I probably would have been completely scared off.  But I’m glad I didn’t know, because the project has been fascinating.  A writer friend recently asked me how I went about the research, and I think it’s a topic worth exploring here.  This post will look mainly at general book research, with upcoming posts dealing with interviews and with research focused on life details.  Incidentally, a helpful book on the topic is James Alexander Thom’s The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.

Sopron, Hungary. Photo by Marta Horvath

 My novel The Bomb Shelter Quintet takes place in Budapest during and after a WWII siege.  When I began the research for the book, I actually knew little about Hungary, not much about central European history, and little about WWII warfare.  However, I did know a fair amount about music, and music forms a major thread in the story.  (So at least not everything was a total blank as I began.)  I started my research by reading some general histories of Hungary.  I paid particular attention to the 20thcentury, but it was also important to know what had happened there before then; this helped me see what the Hungarians are “made of,” what they fear, and what they assume as true.  Subtleties like this often make the essential difference in a novel’s sense of authenticity.  I also read travel books about Hungary and looked at as many photos as I could.  And since I knew that I one of the characters in my story would be a Gypsy, I read everything I could find on the Gypsies of central Europe. 

Gypsy hut, Hungary

After a while I was able to travel to Hungary and see part of the country, but when I began writing the novel I had to guess at the setting by looking at pictures and reading descriptions.  It was not easy.  And at this point I’ll jump in and say that I began drafting out the novel early in the research process.  The research guided my writing, but the writing also guided the research.  By trying to stage the scenes I found out what I still needed to know.  (And five years later, on a second historical novel, I am still finding out what I don’t know.)

 Shortly after reading the preliminary history books, I began focusing more specifically on the WWII period.  I read some memoirs by people who had lived in Budapest during and after the war.  These helped me to picture what daily life was like and what the average citizen struggled with.  Online I ordered a book called The Siege of Budapest by Krisztián Ungváry.  The book recounted day-by-day details of the fighting, almost street by street.  These chronological details turned out to be crucial in plotting my story.   And in addition to the military details, Ungváry gave eye-witness accounts of many civilians.  Their personal stories—of rape, hunger, destruction and utter confusion, but also of hope and help from unexpected sources—became the more intimate material informing me as I wrote.

 The siege of Budapest was so chaotic and so terrible that I don’t know if I could ever say that I understand it.  But as I wrote, the task before me was to show the siege to readers through the eyes of my characters, who also didn’t understand the horror around them.  They just had to live with it.  Sometimes we as writers can feel overwhelmed by trying to make sense of the politics, economics and military strategy of what we are writing about, and certainly we need to understand it as well as we can.  But the main thing to convey is the effect of the events on our characters. 

 A few posts back I referred to the book East of the West by Miroslav Penkov.  It is an outstanding example of fiction that creates the emotional atmosphere of the setting by revealing its effects on the characters.  How about some other examples?  Favorites, anybody?

 In the next post I’ll write about interviewing as a way of collecting good material and details.