Guest Post: Jeanette Ingold on Writing Historical Fiction—A Roadmap to Traveling Time

By Jeanette Ingold

Not all wishes come true. I’m never going to sing on pitch or get another go at being eighteen.

However, writing historical fiction brings me pretty close to traveling across time. As impossible wishes go, one for three’s not bad.

Actually, what I really enjoy is working a story from both ends—taking a contemporary story and going backward to find its roots, while simultaneously beginning with the past and asking the What if? question on the slant. What might have happened?

Answering that is a research project. I have to know what did happen in the past and find ways to put it on paper, building it into plot, character, and setting. It’s work that’s fun, and the hardest part can be knowing when to quit.

I don’t always—-I’ve got boxes full of stuff I may never use—-but I have figured out a few approaches to efficiently get what I need for the current book and perhaps for another down the line.

Here’s what I tell myself.

1) Go after voices.

I read all the first-hand accounts I can find—journals, old letters and postcards, memoirs. I want individual stories, and I need to hear how they’re told. The sound of a particular time and the way people talked. I look for expressions and twists of syntax that can give an authentic flavor to dialog.

2) Stay open to surprises.

I was at a National Archives regional depository reading New Deal materials I needed for Hitch (Harcourt, 2005) when a wonderful archivist offered to show me around.

I saw long shelves of files from the Exclusion Era, when legal immigration of Chinese laborers was virtually shut down and an underground of assumed identities flourished. I had my next book, Paper Daughter (Harcourt, 2010).

2) Read the newspapers.

The local papers that my characters would have read provide details, attitudes, prejudices, and concerns. And they put me in the middle of things, where I can see events only as far as my characters would have seen them.

One of the first things I learned researching The Big Burn (Graphia, 2003) was that close to a hundred people died when wildfires blew up in August 1910. The edition of the Wallace, Idaho, newspaper published that week told me that for the residents there, then, the reality wasn’t a hundred dead. It was four hundred men missing.

3) Look for core truths.

Studying the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, I read many accounts of the where’s and why’s that led young guys to sign up. The details varied widely, but the truth behind many was that the $25 sent home from a $30 monthly paycheck made the difference between younger siblings going hungry and being fed.

4) Talk to those who know.

I seek out people with firsthand or family experience living the events of my characters’ lives. And I’m always grateful that once people come to trust that I’ll do my best to tell their stories honestly and with respect, most are incredibly generous in sharing what they know.

5) Close the laptop, get off the bed, grab the camera and notepad, and hit the road.

I’m not dissing the Internet or pretending I don’t like having a job that lets me stay in my PJs well into the morning. But I’ve found that a computer screen is no substitute for walking the land my characters would have walked, or for standing in the space where their real counterparts once stood.

Being there takes me beyond the visual and lets me experience the sensory details that would have been constants over the years.

And occasionally, when I’m really, really lucky, I get that writer’s bonus of feeling that I’m living for a few moments in another time, when I might actually see one of my characters come walking toward me.

Cynsational Notes

The Write Question with Jeanette Ingold: an audio interview from Montana Public Radio.

From the author bio: “Ingold was born in New York to a family of Texans and grew up knowing both Dallas and Long Island, where she was raised. She and her husband, Kurt, lived in Delaware, Kansas, Texas, and Washington State before settling in Montana to raise their two children.” Paper Daughter is her seventh novel.

In this video, Kathi Appelt interviews Jeanette:

13 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jeanette Ingold on Writing Historical Fiction—A Roadmap to Traveling Time

  1. * Thanks so much for this wonderful post and sharing your experiences. I'll keep your inspirational words in mind as I forge on with my historical work. * Best wishes…

  2. Great guest post! I am really intrigued by your new book and will have to keep it in mind when I want a new historical fiction.

    Thanks for the reminder to get out and explore!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Jeanette and Cynthia. It rang so many bells with me – especially the serendipitous moments when researching.

    I'm writing an historical mid-grade fiction about a tragic coal mine disaster in 1921 in my home state of Queensland (Australia).

    Last year, I returned to the ghost town site and by chance chatted with an old-timer who was a young child at the time. He told me about a rumoured crime in the town while the townspeople were all waiting at the coal face for the 75 miners' bodies to be brought to the surface.

    It turned out to be the missing link in my story and if he had not visited the site that day and if I had not spoken to him, I would never have known – such is the magic of chance.

  4. Great insights into the fascinating world of writing historical fiction. I share your enthusiasm for the genre and the process of exploration and research. Thank you for sharing!

  5. This is a great information. I love most the advice to stay open for surprises. You never know what treasures you might uncover. And, also, to get out there and talk to real people, walk the path that they and your characters walk. Much success to you!

  6. Sheryl, that's a wonderful story–a great example of how, once you get involved in a subject, you find the connections you need everywhere . . . and often the best are the ones you didn't know you needed.

  7. Gerri, Jeanne–thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for historical fiction. It is all about exploring worlds beyond our own, isn't it? I hope your writing is going well.

    "BookGeek"–If you do read PAPER DAUGHTER, I hope you'll let me know what you think.

  8. Mary, Katy–Your comments sum up so much of what makes writing sometimes feel like an exhilarating balancing act, with reality and hard work on one side and the freedom to fly wherever we want on the other.

  9. Kimberly–I learn from you.

    And Cynthia, I learn from you and the many writers you host. Once again, thank you for letting me be among them.

  10. Ah, the Internet. When I wrote my first MG novel, The Well of Sacrifice (a ninth-century Mayan drama), back in the mid-90s, such an option didn't exist. Fortunately, I was living in New York City so I had access to great museums and libraries. But my best research — what really put me in touch with the heart of that culture — was spending two months in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. You have to be able to interpret how things have changed, but somehow being there in person lets you hear the echoes of the past.

  11. Geri, Kimberly, good luck with your own writing!

    BookGeek, do look for Jeanette's work. She's a wonder.

    Sheryl, what a fascinating story behind the story! Kismet!

    Jeanne, Mary & Katie, I salute you as a fellow enthusiast and thank you for chiming in!

    Chris, I'm likewise a big believer of stepping into your fictional world–though access to top museums, libraries and universities is a definite plus.

    Thanks again, Jeanette, for sharing your wisdom! I remain your forever fan.

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