by Roseanna M. White
When coming up with an idea for a historical, many of us get our first burst of inspiration from an actual historical event or setting. Something we read about or see on a documentary, something that spurs that "what if . . . ?" idea. Sometimes it's something we see at a museum or historical site, or even on a drive.
When that's how inspiration strikes, it's easy to find that perfect time frame to set a book in--it's already determined by real events and people. Oh, we still have to research--online, in books, firsthand--but the frame is already set up, and we're then just selecting the perfect scene to paint within it.
But sometimes our inspiration comes from a more nebulous idea--a character, for instance, or perhaps someone in a given profession that could have lived during a pretty vast stretch of decades. When that happens, we have to figure out where to put them--and that can be a challenge.
When I've found myself in that situation, I've tried a few different means of determining my precise time period. I've done Google searches for years and found timelines that include the most important events worldwide. I've tried looking up events I knew were somewhere in the general neighborhood and seeing if they could fit in with my idea. I've tried looking up people it would be cool for my historical characters to interact with, or when given things were invented.
But what I've found works best takes me waaaaay back to my middle school education. Remember the definition of "setting"? It's time + place. Pretty interesting that it's not one or the other, right? It's the combination, because as any astrophysicist worth his neutrons can tell you, you can't change one without altering the other.
So assuming I already know where want something to be set--which I usually do--researching that place helps me pinpoint the exact months during which I'll want to set my story. Looking up the City of New York during the Revolution, for example, told me that Ring of Secrets would have to take place between November 1779 and October 1780. Refreshing myself on the history of Annapolis right after the Revolution made it clear that Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland would have to span that time between November 1783 and March 1784.
Why? Because that's when things happen where my people are.
Simple, but effective. =) For more detailed discovery, I usually get more specific in my places-search. For instance, I recently read up on the history of the College of William & Mary, which helped me define some plot points for a sequel I'm planning. When I can find such information, I'll look up a specific house or building that plays into the story and note its historical events (fires, repointings, rebuildings, additions, etc.), who owned it when, and what people of import visited it. For instance, by looking specifically at the church my characters would have attended in Annapolis, I discovered that the building had been torn down just before the Revolution and hadn't yet been rebuilt, so the congregation met in the old theater. Something I never would have known by researching the city in general!
You just never know when one of those details will provide exactly what you need to turn a general idea into an in-depth work of fiction. But it's exactly that sort of discovery that makes the job so much fun. =)
Roseanna M. White grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, the beauty of which inspired her to begin writing as soon as she learned to pair subjects with verbs. She spent her middle and high school days penning novels in class, and her love of books took her to a school renowned for them. After graduating from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, she and her husband moved back to the Maryland side of the same mountains they equate with home.
Roseanna is the author of two biblical novels, A Stray Drop of Blood and Jewel of Persia, both from WhiteFire Publishing (www.WhiteFire-Publishing.com), Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland from Summerside Press, and the upcoming Culper Ring Series from Harvest House beginning in January 2013 with Ring of Secrets.
She is the senior reviewer at the Christian Review of Books, which she and her husband founded, the senior editor at WhiteFire Publishing, and a member of ACFW, Christian Authors Network, HisWriters, and Colonial American Christian Writers.