Exploring Historical Fiction: marketing place
Nailing down your historical narrative was the topic of the first two columns in this series. A next step in your writing process may be establishing Place. Learn as much as you can about wherever your novel is set. That will improve your work. It will also help you market to your target audience and potential publishers.
Many resources are available. The infernal intrawebverse is one. But I myself prefer doing my background research in the real world. Focusing on the place where I currently live facilitates this. While writing Bloody Big Dry Blues, my very entertaining yet unpublished manuscript, I drew original material from the Elgin Depot Museum. At that time, I was also reporting for the local newspaper. This helped me glean anecdotes from folks who remember the 1914-1919 period. I also spend a lot of time shooting the shit with old timers at my local feed store, etc.
That’s just me, though. Whatever your research inclination? Of course the first step’s asking, where is my story going to be set and when, exactly, will events occur? Possibilities are endless. The choice is all yours. Your passions tend to dictate that decision.
Then imagine a layered biography of that place as it evolves over your chosen timeframe. When doing your research, always ask, and answer,
Approach those questions in different scenarios and from various socioeconomic perspectives. (If you’d like, leave a comment and we can chat about this there.)
Read everything you can on your topic. Then read some more. Soon you’ll understand how your place evolved over the years. Try expanding your knowledge beyond your novel’s timeframe, too. Always keep your imagination exploring. You’ll find potential plotlines popping up all over the place!
Robert Penn Warren: “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living constantly remake.”
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In other words, keep in mind you can create an alternative reality. I myself chose this route because I live in a small town. With a population that has roots extending back generations. And I don’t want anyone burning down my barn. So, despite its basis in historical fact? Bloody Big Dry Blues is a fictional construct and I’ve taken creative liberties. How? As an avid amateur historian, I’m fascinated by the Central Texas region. Thinking about its history tends to end up with me playing the “what if?” game.
What if something slightly different happened way back when? What if, for example, Deaf Smith hadn’t tricked Santa Anna into a fateful tryst at San Jacinto with the Yellow Rose of Texas? Or what if he couldn’t find any axes to chop down that strategic bridge in time? Rather than the Rio Grande, where would the present border be? The Colorado River or, heck, even the Red River?
I also applied this very fun game to the area surrounding Elgin, which was originally located where McDade now is. But there was a flood in 1869, which forced the Houston and Texas Central Railway to move its depot. Thus in 1872 Elgin was situated ten or so miles to the northwest, where it remains today.
What if this flood hadn’t occurred? Would what is now Elgin be named after the original settler of that frontier rather than some transient railroad surveyor? That’s how the fictional place where my novel is set became “Christianville” and Texas became “Texico.” This allowed me much more liberty in the creation of Bloody Big Dry Blues.
In sum? Learn as much as you can about where and when your novel is set. Establishing a strong historical sense of place will only improve your writing. It will also help you market to your target audience and potential publishers. And that’s what this column’s about.