Everybody approaches a new novel in their own idiosyncratic way. Some people do no prep work at all, and don’t need it. With a germ of an idea they sit down and struggle through, page by page. Some take a year or more to get organized and comfortable with the material and characters.
Historical novelists can approach a new novel in a variety of ways, but in general terms you’ve got two choices: do the research up front, or leave all that detail work for later and simply put brackets in the text where research is necessary. Of course most people use a combination of these two approaches.
Historical fiction requires a lot of background work no matter how you approach it. A writer who is an avid gardener may decide to write a novel about André Le Nôtre who designed the Sun King’s gardens at Versailles. The writer’s interest in gardening will make the research more pleasant, but it won’t necessarily make it easier. Luckily various scholars have looked into the life of André Le Nôtre and his relationship to Louis XIV, so you’d have some place to start (for example, Ian Thompson’s The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles . Another thing: if you’re really serious about the time and place, you’d have an easier time if you happened to be able to read 17th century French.
Which face it, most of us are not. My advice to anybody thinking about historical fiction: don’t commit yourself to a topic unless you are really, really intrested in it. Because if you are not so keen on Egyptology, it’s going to be hard to write a novel about Cleopatra, no matter how much her character interests you. I learned my lesson about this one day when I was trying to make sense of a diagram of an East Indiaman, and I realized that I had had more than enough of ships, and really, had never much liked them to start with. At that point I had no choice but to muddle through.
So here I sit with the Wilderness world spread out around me. The first five books, the lists of characters in those books, timelines, age charts, maps, notes. The first thing I do is to construct the world in which the new book is set. That means determining year and month, and once that is done, looking at what’s going on in the world in general. From there I work my way down to the specific: where are all the characters? What are they doing? Are they settled? Any major problems or conflicts pop up while I was busy with Pajama Jones?
All this stuff gets written down in a chart where I can draw connections and write notes. I ask myself questions. Where did Anna go? What did she die of? Is her husband thinking of remarrying? Most important I look at major issues of the time and place. Is there a war brewing? How will that effect the village? Was there a drought that year? That might be the key to the whole structure of the novel.
This process takes a couple days. When I’m done I’ve got lists and pages of notes and drawings, a long series of subjects I’ll have to research, and also, if things go well, an idea of the major and minor conflicts that will drive the story.
So I’m getting my paper and colored pens and drawing pencils organized. Stay tuned, and I’ll see if I can describe the process as I go through it.