Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Jr.

The Past in the Present

I’m an author of fiction. Political thrillers. Historical fiction. It sometimes strikes me as odd to write a scene set in the 1960s in which one of my characters opens a metal can of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding or spoons Sanka Coffee into a percolator coffee pot, only to finish writing my scene and then pop a K-Cup into my Keurig, or warm a pastry in my microwave. This odd juxtaposition of the past and the present may fill my days, but it cannot fill—or even momentarily appear in—my stories.

It’s crucial for a writer of historical fiction to perform due diligence in research. Given that the World Wide Web is a click away, and Internet search engines put facts at our fingertips, there really is no excuse for sloppy errors of misinformation in our work. (Always verify information found on the internet with at least two sources, as inaccuracies abound on the Web). Your local library is a fantastic source for reference books, and most librarians make wonderful research liaisons.

Accurate portrayal of pop culture icons can anchor a scene in a specific year or era, as can the popular slang and the music of a particular decade. You may also want to include references to the social climate of the year in which your story is set. For example, the novel I’m currently writing is set in early 1960s America, and racism was a hot-button issue of the day. I may include in my story references to Martin Luther King, Jr’s powerful speech, or to the racially motivated murder of Medgar Evers. These events are vivid memories in the minds of many readers who lived through them, and it’s crucial that I depict and refer to them accurately.

Take care when adding historical facts to your story that you do not slip into a history lesson. If a reader wants that, she’ll pick up a textbook, not a novel. Allow your characters to make a brief, natural comment in dialogue about a current event during their time, but don’t force it. Reference the history, but don’t slip into it, because doing that removes the reader from the action at hand.

Your story must move forward. Action is crucial. Active voice is critical. However, with attention to detail, accurate portrayal of historical facts, and authentic references to social, economic and cultural happenings, your readers can move forward while traveling through the past.

Do you have any tips on researching historical details for your fiction? Share with us here, and let’s compare notes.