These neat little guys are door hardware on the Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Arizona. More than 300 years old, this beautiful church is one of the only examples of authentic Spanish Colonial architecture in the country. It’s loaded with history. There’s plenty to think about. Who made this unique hardware and why choose a mouse and snake?
History presents writers with a plethora of opportunities for storylines, characters and subjects. You can change the outcome of a known event or make up a new one, fitting it into real-time happenings as an interesting distraction.
Numerous authors have plumbed the mines of history for stories. The focus can be as broad as simply setting a love story in medieval France, thus using the period as backdrop, or it can narrow in on a specific event, place or person.
If the period is the star, the characters will be much more influenced by it. In Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, the life of the young Cro-Magnon girl Ayla, her childhood with a Neanderthal tribe and her relationship with a Jondalar, a man of her own kind, plays out against the Ice Age in Europe.
Ayla and Jondalar travel extensively and meet many other peoples, learning such things as fishing for giant sturgeon and hunting mammoths. Along the way, they invent the atl-atl (a spear-throwing device), the needle and other important things.
Auel does more than just set the story in pre-history. Giving significant discoveries to her characters grounds them in the period much better than simply dressing them in skins and dropping them in front of a cave lion.
The narrow focus sometimes includes actual historical figures who share interaction with the main character. Usually if famous people are in the story, they’re not protagonists. Faye Kellerman’s book The Quality of Mercy is a notable exception.
She used William Shakespeare as a protagonist and we see plenty from his vantage point. Another POV character provides us with a window into life in Elizabeth I’s court, but the royal chamber is not as important as the people.
Research is incredibly important for historical fiction. There will be readers out there who know your subject and they will point out your errors. Auel’s extensive study of her Paleolithic setting makes the books a learning experience as much as entertainment.
I’ve been examining the Victorian era, mostly for miniatures, but there are a ton of interesting developments in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that have great fictional potential. Take a look at your favorite period. What can you find there?
You can search history for little-known characters whose perspective on a world-changing event makes it fresh, or make one up. Alternatively, you can completely change the course of events and speculate what would have happened, say, if Hitler had won World War II, or if someone discovered the real identity of Jack the Ripper (already done to death, but give it a try if you dare).
Even an object or building can suggest something to you. What could I do with that mouse and snake door hardware? I have a few ideas already.
What’s your favorite historical period to read about? What makes it so appealing?