How to Write Historical Fiction: It Will Take More Time than You Ever Dreamed Possible

I hated history class in high school. All of those boring dates and dead people, blah blah blah. I memorized what I needed to, then took the tests and promptly forgot everything. Who cared? I was alive in the vivid present!

I never took another history class. Not in college, because I didn't need history to get a biology degree and become a doctor. And not in grad school, because by then I'd switched gears, earning an MFA in creative writing and trying to write a novel.

Fast forward thirty years. I am among the lucky few living the dream of so many aspiring writers: I have published six novels, all contemporary fiction, five of them with Penguin Random House. I have also ghosted many books for celebrities. The writing always came, if not easily, then steadily.

And then, somehow, I met the poet who wouldn't leave, and discovered I knew nothing at all about writing historical fiction. This poet, Celia Thaxter, was one of the best known female poets of the late 19th century, and I met her in a painting first. Well, in a print of a painting by American Impressionist Childe Hassam. He had painted Celia standing in her garden, surrounded by tall flowers, the sea behind her. I asked the docent who she was, and discovered that Celia had grown up on the Isles of Shoals—a collection of small islands off the New England coast—where her family built the first grand resort hotel, Appledore House.

On the day I saw that picture, Celia climbed right out of it and came home with me, begging me to tell her story. Her story was intriguing, I had to admit, if only because she kept a salon that drew popular writers, musicians, and painters of the day. She knew Hawthorne and Emerson, Charles Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

But that wasn't what drew me to her. No, the thing that got me was this: Celia, like me, had a posse of women writer friends who traded manuscripts and wrote each other letters about their lives. I went to the Boston Public Library and began reading through one collection of letters—over 250 of them to her best friend, Annie Fields—and realized that Celia had her own doubts about the value of her work, the health of her marriage, and parenting her children, one of whom had serious disabilities.

She was, in a word, human. I suddenly wanted to tell her story. Because I'm a novelist, that meant putting Celia in a novel. But how do you write historical fiction? I had no idea.

And so I began searching out her letters in other libraries. I also read botany and gardening books, because Celia was a famous gardener, and biographies about other writers in Celia's life, like Lucy Larom and Harriet Beecher Stowe, plus Emerson's works and Thoreau's, too, just because.

In addition, I began visiting all of the places Celia had ever been or lived, including the house in Newtonville where she was so unhappy, struggling to raise three small boys with no money and a husband who was allergic to work. That's the house where Celia wrote her first published poem, and I managed to talk my way into it when the owner caught me loitering in her driveway.

All of this research took over a year. Finally I drafted a hundred pages of a novel and fired it off to my agent, who said, in a word, “No.”

But I couldn't let Celia go. So I read some more, spent some nights out on the Isles of Shoals, and started gardening, trying to see why gardening was so damn important to this woman. I grew hollyhocks because she did, and showboat Dahlias the size of dinner plates. Digging in the dirt, it seemed, was something that freed Celia's mind, and it began to free mine, too.

I decided the book should have dual plot lines, one with Celia in the 1800's, at her grand resort hotel on the Isles of Shoals, and the other set now, with a woman struggling with similar issues: a troubled marriage, a problem child, the hard work of balancing a career with motherhood. Now all I needed was a way to connect my two characters. Yeah, a plot would be nice.

And so I was off. Five hundred, six hundred, a thousand pages came and went in my various drafts, until finally I sent the finished book to my agent a month ago. Last week, she emailed to say that the book still needs work. She is making notes on the manuscript to help me, and I am grateful.

At the same time, I can't help wondering why I decided to hit my head on this particular brick wall. Why didn't I just write another contemporary novel? What if I spend two, three, four years on this book, but it ends up in a drawer? What will I do then?

The answers to these questions are the same ones I've given to aspiring writers in my university classes and author signings in the past: We write fiction because there is nothing else we love to do more. We write a particular book because it haunts us and won't let go.

I also remind myself--as I hope I'm reminding you—that writing any fiction is a lot harder than it seems, when you're holding a neatly bound book in your hands that you've just picked up in a bookstore. And writing historical fiction (as I should have guessed) takes months, or even years, of research, if you're going to breathe life into a time and place around a character. You'd better love the research itself. (I do, it turns out.)

The payoff? I don't know. I wish I could tell you that this is all worth it, that of course you (and I) will publish our novels and see the books we've slaved over for so long on the shelves of our local bookstores. But I can't promise that.

Instead, the payoff for me has been much bigger than just a publishing deal. Writing historical fiction has led me down all sorts of fascinating rabbit holes, and now I see connections everywhere: in the Gilded Age exhibit I recently saw at the Met, in the new Henry James exhibit at the Gardner Museum, in the 19th century houses in my own neighborhood.

This is something I should have learned in high school, but didn't: those people we read about in history class lived, loved, fought, cried, and laughed together, just as we do. We are all connected. And isn't that the most important lesson a human can learn?

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