Writing historical novels is, for me, something like that linsey-woolsey weaving. Story is the warp. History is the weft. I do my best to weave the two together, leaving as few unsightly gaps as possible.
It can be tedious. It takes months of preparation and planning. But the end result is always worth it to me personally.
How I Do It, in 6 Easy (!) Steps
1. Create a document and call it something like Historical Time Line for (title of story).
2. Read everything I can on the historical event/s that will form the spine (or background) of my story. If it's the spine of the story and not just a historical backdrop, this process takes much longer. "Everything" includes books, websites, historical treaties, correspondence, newspapers, etc.
3. (concurrent with #2) Fill the Time Line document with everything that strikes me as important or interesting as I glean from all those research sources, combining it all in chronological order by month, day, hour of the day, whatever is needed for this particular historical event/period. Note: the Time Line document for the sequel to The Wood's Edge (my next release) is 30 pages single-spaced.
4. Plot my story, at least the broad strokes, using all that research and the handy Time Line I spent weeks or months creating. This step will inevitably begin somewhere in the midst of #3.
5. (often concurrent with #4) Open that Time Line document and see where my fictional story can intersect, what events or situations my characters can take part in, or be influenced by, along the way. Slot notes to myself about these possibilities into the relevant spots in the Time Line, or just integrate notes about that bit of history into the plot that I'm still fleshing out.
6. Write the book, referring back to that Time Line however often is needed (depending on the book, this can be daily). This process will take anywhere from 8 months to a year.
And that's how I do it.
I've written this post less for instruction than for entertainment--in case you ever wondered how a historical fiction writer might go about the process of weaving a story through the historical record. Other writers may have vastly different methods that work for them. I hope they do. Mine, as I said, is tedious. But it works for me because my memory for historical detail is not to be relied upon months after I've done the research. My Time Lines serve as my brain's back up.
Q 4 Readers: anything you'd like to know about this process that I didn't cover in that sketchy overview? Ask away!
Loom photo by David Amsler Flickr Creative Commons