OK, that’s kind of a nerdy thing to get excited about, but my historical novelist friends probably know the feeling.
I’m digging around, reading, making a timeline, trying to connect the dots, looking for the story, and every time I stumble on another fact that gets me excited I feel as if it’s Christmas.
It’s possible that this is unique to writing historical fiction, although research is involved in writing any novel. You have to know the setting, the weather, the local quirks and curiosities of place. If you’re writing crime fiction, you have to know as much as possible about police and legal procedure, and if you’re writing a medical thriller—well, that goes without saying. Even choosing a profession for a character means an author better understand what’s involved.
Take all that and add a layer of going back in time and trying to understand who people were then, what motivated them to do what they did, and how they thought that is different from contemporary times.
Of course, the fact is that historical fiction doesn’t really uncover truths about the time it’s set in. It’s debatable whether nonfiction history actually does that. Facts are different from truths. Whatever we write now is necessarily informed by what we know now.
Ultimately, I think historical fiction at its best gets at the timeless, universal truths, and helps readers gain a different kind of understanding of both the past and the present.
It’s a tall order, but I’m up for the challenge.