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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Key To Historical Fiction: Getting the Details Right

Do you have a love of history and a burning desire to write? Then you may be a candidate to write historical fiction.

Three of my first four contracted books involve a step back in time to the days of World War Two. I may have been born in the 70s, but I’ve always held a love for and fascination with the life and times of the 40s, particularly the war years. In many ways, it was completely natural to find my first novel set during that time. And it was a joy to uncover two additional stories from that time period.

While I’m still a new author, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1) Start with Your Passion. I love history enough that I minored in it in college. And while I love history in general, I have a particular fondness for World War Two history. I also have a passion for all things Nebraska. Marry those two passions together, and an odd mix of World War Two history in Nebraska is formed. Hmmm. World War Two. Nebraska. Those two things don’t seem to go together. At all. Yet my first three book series grew directly out of those passions.

2) Write what You Know. This is writing advice that most authors will give you. But how does it really play out? Because my family still lives in North Platte, Nebraska, it seemed natural to highlight the North Platte Canteen in Canteen Dreams. The story inspires me any time I think about it. I know the setting very well, but even with that knowledge spent a day wandering around downtown exploring the buildings and hiding in the microfiche at the library to learn more about my particular time period.

3) Yet be willing to Dive into New Areas. When I was looking for books two and three, I had to dive deep. I vaguely remembered that a Fort in Northwestern Nebraska had played an active, yet unique role in World War Two. Then my sister told me that a prisoner of war camp existed in southern Nebraska. As I started researching, I discovered perfect, unique historical settings that could form the backdrop to these next two books.

4) Talk to the Experts. To write compelling historical fiction, you have to be willing to contact the experts. I make a lot of initial contacts via email. Currently, I’m in Indiana, and my experts are in Nebraska. Then I follow up by mail or with in person research trips when possible. I have found, without exception, that people are willing to help. I just have to be willing to ask. The North Platte Historical Museum curator opened the museum in the off season for me, so that I could peruse the displays and ask questions. The museum curator at Fort Robinson literally opened his files to me and spent a day showing me around the Fort and the town. His time and expertise was pivotal in Sandhill Dreams and will add authenticity to Captive Dreams as well.

5) Go Visit the Location. Even though I lived in North Platte for four years and visit at least twice a year, there were details I had forgotten or simply didn’t know. Also, I needed to dive into what the town looked like 45 years before we moved there and 60 years before now. Actually walking the streets brought it to life each time I sat down at my keyboard.

If you are writing or hope to write a historical novel, take the time to get the details right. Your readers will thank you by telling you your book swept them away.

Available now:
Canteen Dreams,
by Cara Putman.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Audrey Stone wants to help in the war effort. But what's a young schoolteacher from Nebraska to do? When her community starts a canteen at the train station, Audrey finds place. She spends nearly every spare moment there, offering food and kindness to the soldiers who pass through. Despite her busyness, Audrey does allow some time to get to know a handsome rancher.

Willard Johnson worries about his brother who joined the navy to get off the ranch and see the world. When Willard's worst fear is confirmed, he feels he must avenge by enlisting himself. But will his budding relationship with Audrey weather the storms of war? Or will one of the many soldiers at the canteen steal her away from him?

Can two such determined people find their place in the war and with each other?

Putman's attention to historical detail breathes vitality into this story and sweeps the reader back to the days of WWII when people displayed patriotism with pride. Her vibrant characters set in a world at war will quickly find their way into your heart. -Ane Mulligan


  1. I appreciate you telling authors to "go visit the place you're writing about." I recently got a proposal for a mystery set in Portland, Oregon (my hometown). It was all wrong. The places didn't exist. We don't have an English neighborhood with thatched roofs. There's no looming cathedral. I had to write to the author and point out that this sounded like she'd never been there. Turns out she hadn't -- "I just thought it sounded like a good place for a murder." Ack! -chip

  2. Great advice, Cara. The details are so important, in every aspect of novel writing. The novelists that take their time and do it right produce novels that are remembered.

    Congrats on your many recent successes!

  3. The first point is particularly important. To write good historical fiction, you have to be passionate about your chosen period and/or country. I'm passionate about Russian history, hence everything I write can be connected to Russia in one way or another.

    I have my dream research trip to Russia all planned out. Now comes the hard part of trusting God to make it happen!

  4. I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction particularly stories set in the 40's. I agree with Cara that visiting the location you're writing about adds authenticity and a new dimension to writing. Thanks for the good advice on writing historicals and all the best with Canteen Dreams.

  5. Definitely, start with your passion is the best one. :) I ordered your book.

    I can't wait until it gets here!

  6. Reading historical fiction gave me a love for history, and that's what I minored in at college as well. :) I have a few ideas for historical fiction that I'll tackle someday, so thanks for the advice here! Really helpful.

  7. Wonderfully insightful interview, Cara!


    Cheryl Wyatt

  8. Ack! I hate that, Chip! I read a series that was set in Colorado Springs, a city I love! But all the things that make Colorado Springs so distinctive weren't included. Garden of the Gods. Not there. Pikes Peak. Rarely mentioned even though it dominates the skyline on clear days. It left me feeling like they'd randomly chosen the town, but really could have set the book anywhere. It could have been so much stronger.


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