One of my life ambitions, as some of you may know (Natalie Cannon definitely knows) is to write a Victorian novel. Not a novel that takes place in the Victorian period, but an actual, this-could-be-over-a-century-old, Victorian novel that models the time in style as well as substance.
Naturally, this is a massive and scary undertaking that involves meticulous research. Thankfully, I’ve actually spent most of my life researching for it, without realizing that this is what I was doing.
I wrote a story – which I am currently editing – called “Deep Into That Darkness Peering” which is set at the death of Edgar Allen Poe. It took me a few tries to find the right voice for the story, but I eventually approached it in first person through the voice of the doctor attending him.
In this voice, I had to be very in the head of someone from Victorian America, in his speech patterns, in the flow of his words and thoughts. Of all the things the class said I did well, they all agreed that this was something I nailed. So apparently I can speak Victorian. Which is good, since I have to be able to do that.
The key, I think, to writing believable, excellent period fiction, is inhabiting the world you’re writing. I’ve been attempting to inhabit the Victorian world ever since I was eight years old. It’s a manner of thinking, speaking, interacting that I’m excessively comfortable with. I can not tell if I’m comfortable with it because I’m naturally inclined to it somehow, or if I’m comfortable with it because it captured and held my imagination so early and for so long. At this point, I doubt it matters much which.
If you want to write fiction for any period – any period where you can find a lot of their fiction – read everything you can. Find the patterns of speech you love, find the ones you don’t love, and soak it all in. Watch film adaptions with good repute to get a feel for how it looks, scour the internet for music and pictures. The more you think in another age, the better you’ll be at recreating it in your own work. Because I think the key to good period fiction isn’t drawing a picture of another era, but experiencing another era, and inviting the reader to experience it with you.