Growing up in a busy, boisterous, farming household, has certain things that were a guarantee for every family event. You could always count on varied conversation and mountains of food, no matter the size of the gathering.
My older generations remembered what it was like to go without, the lean wartime years when food was scarce. And we heard our shares of stories about going uphill to school both ways. Every family meal was a cause for celebration, every morsel to be savored.
None of us realized that this was more than a story. This was history. And it was hiding in plain sight.
It wasn’t until I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an author that I began to look closer at my formative years. As I struggled with what to write, a singular theme emerged; the tried and true to write what you know.
As I wrestled with how to approach this often-overlooked moment in history, I also found the answers in vivid memories of my community – those who lived around me. In later years my observations spread to other communities.
History is all around us. It exists in our homes, in conversations around the dinner table, and in the fading memories of our loved ones. Sometimes the only difference between our family stories and those studied in history books is that someone took the time to write them down. Finding and documenting the history in your community is easier than you think.
Below are my top five methods to mine the history in your home to inspire compelling historical fiction.
1. Start talking and recording.
It does not matter that you never paid attention before, start today. Start right now. Take out your phone and sit down with your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbours. Record your conversations. Ask them what their most significant childhood memories might be, what their fondest memories and greatest regrets are.
The thing about history is that we don’t typically think that we are living it, we are too busy trying to survive. You might not know what you are looking for, but if you engage in conversations about the past, you’ll find that history has a way of revealing itself, sometimes in the most surprising ways.
2. Use recipes to tell a story.
Beloved family recipes are a rich source of historical and cultural information. My friend’s great grandmother became famous for her potato pie recipe during the war when meat and dairy were scarce. My neighbour’s great grandmother lost her son at sea and vowed to never again eat fish because the fish ate her son.
Invite an elder family member into your kitchen to make their favorite family recipe. Ask them to share the origin of the recipe and memories of making the dish when they were a child. Fascinating glimpses into your family’s past will emerge along with the beloved dishes of your childhood.
3. Study old photo albums as if they were history books.
Compelling historical fiction introduces us to the people who lived, loved, suffered, and triumphed in challenging times. Pour over your family photos and learn the stories of family members you are not familiar with.
4. Let an object be your guide.
Is there a treasured object or heirloom that holds special significance? What made this jewelry box, locket, book, or piece of furniture so meaningful that it has survived the generations? Who were the people who took the time and care to pass this object along and why?
There is often historical and emotional depth to be mined by tracing the journey of an object through the generations, through the hands it has touched and the events it witnessed and survived.
5. Focus on a family event and use a small story to tell a larger one.
Family reunions or events are a treasure trove of stories, personalities, color, and possibly conflict. Was there an event in your family history that was especially meaningful, dramatic, or impactful? Resist the urge to make sweeping history the focus of your story.
Keep in mind that you are writing a novel, not a textbook. Focusing on an event can help set the time and place and allow the story of your characters to develop over a natural arc while allowing the details of their lives, music, food, weather, traditions, to help tell the larger story and set the historical context.
Life is filled with stranger-than-fiction moments. Mine your memories. Your job is to study the ‘true story’. Extract the best conflict, riskiest choices, most compelling goals or motivations to make it a great story.
Unleash the novel inside you
with compelling characters,
and fine-tuned prose.
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“Linda has published sixteen books. She blogs about the publishing world, posts useful tips on the challenges a writer faces, including marketing and promoting your work, how to build your online platform, how to get reviews and how to self-publish. She has mentored many authors and edited their work.”
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