Writing and Researching Historical Fiction
Historical books have always provided a sanctuary
for me. They allow me to escape into any piece of the
past that I desire. I am fascinated with history; from
fiction, to non-fiction, to textbooks, to mythology. The
more I learn about any bygone era, the more I want to
learn because the present is truly the residue of days
gone by. History is the world’s greatest teacher. It also
creates a perfect launch point for a writer’s imagination.
Historical fiction is my genre of choice because it
combines the majesty of an author’s imagination with
the beauty of the past. My name is Vali Benson and I am
a writer of historical fiction.
My new book, “Blood and Silver”, was inspired by
my many visits to Tombstone, AZ. I live less than an hour
away and I became increasingly curious about the tiny,
dusty tourist spot. Today it is a town of thirteen hundred
people but in 1884, Tombstone was a roaring metropolis
and was the largest city between St. Louis and San
Francisco. I’m sure it was a spectacular scene and grand
time. The activity and splendor must have been all
encompassing and I could not get it out of my head. I
knew I wanted to make this infamous place the subject
of my novel but first I had to learn my subject.
Any writer of historical fiction is obligated to do
copious amounts of research. They should feel obligated
anyway. Research will be the heart of your story; the
building blocks of your narrative. It is also essential to
any quality piece of historical fiction. If research is done
correctly, it should be a rewarding but grueling process.
One needs to scavenge unusual places, not just the
top three Google hits. Try not to settle for strictly names
and dates. If you invest in the research phase, it will pay
your final product off significantly on the back end. Dig
beyond the numbers and you just might uncover
something someone had never found before or
overlooked. I love sourcing museums, libraries,
newspaper archives, and even historical homes. Don’t
rely on your computer only. Everyone can get that
information. Not only is it not original, it is not
interesting. One tip that I would like to emphasize to a
burgeoning writer of historical fiction is to seek out the
primary sources whenever possible. If you can work from
the original source, it falls on you to interpret the story.
This allows you to not have to depend on someone else’s
version of the truth.
“Blood and Silver” tells the tale of a young girl who
finds herself in trouble and alone in 1880 in Tombstone.
My heroine uses her wits and charm to carve out a new
life for herself and her sick mother. I had a premise but
was immediately confronted with a classic problem of
the historical fiction author; my inspiration had little to
do with my subject. The little town that I was familiar
with had about 1,300 residents. The town that I was
writing about, Tombstone, AZ in 1880, had a bustling
population of 15,000 with over 100 saloons and every
sort of vice imaginable. The locations were the same but
the places were very different. In the course of my
research, my story emerged.
Putting compelling sentences together was not my
problem. The difficulty arose when I needed to create a
vibrant world for my characters that was not only
interesting but also historically accurate. As a writer of
historical fiction, historical accuracy is the most
important component of the piece to me. It is even more
pivotal than the narrative. I cannot tell you how many
times I have quit reading a book that claims to be factual
because the information and events are incorrect. It truly
annoys me! This began my on-again, off-again process to
complete my book. It would last ten years. It was here
when I made the transition from a creative person who
writes to a writer.
The actual “writing” was the easy part. Researching
my topic well enough so that I could accurately write
about it was my biggest challenge. I drowned myself in
research and when I felt I had enough of a foundation to
build my historically fictitious setting, I applied my plot
and inserted my characters.
It is also important to realize that research is never
ending because you can’t ever learn everything there is
to know. At some point, you just have to make up your
mind that you have enough to craft the story you want to
write. Then start writing! I begin writing using my
research as a reference and don’t worry if I have a fully
formed concept. I believe in the Jodi Picoult approach,
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank
Historical fiction is a beautiful genre when it is
executed properly. What I love most about it is being
able to craft a story that involves imaginary characters
set against a real time and place. This is why research is
so important, because if I can understand the times in
which my characters live, I will shape their circumstances
and attitudes into the narrative. With “Blood and Silver”,
because I had taken the time to insure that every aspect
of my world would be historically accurate, the attitudes
and tones of my characters occurred organically. I simply
placed my fictional characters into actual settings and let
them take me where they wanted to go.
Happy historical writing everybody!
Vali grew up in the Midwest. She now lives in Tucson with her husband, two sons and grandchildren. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Vali started and sold two successful businesses before she decided to pursue her real passion of writing. She published several articles in a variety of periodicals, including History Magazine before she decided to try her hand at fiction. In April of 2020, Vali published her first novel, “Blood and Silver”. That same month, she was also made a member of the Western Writers of America.