Day in the Life Method of Writing Historical Novels

by Juliet Waldron

One of the things that bothers me about many historical novels I begin to read is that they aren’t.


Plain and simple, if you check a couple of histories and a costume book or two, and you have some talent in story-spinning, you can perhaps write convincingly about a love affair in fancy dress. The fact is, however, you won’t come anywhere close to writing a genuine historical novel, and you’ve probably made a hundred mistakes in detail that tick off people who picked up your book because they “love that period.”


Writing Mozart’s Wife took literally years, as I’d set out to reconstruct the life and experiences of a real person, one married to a famous man.  I’d chosen a subject about whom people already knew a great deal. There was a tremendous amount of information and cultural detail to track down in order to give the story credibility for what I expected to be (mostly) well-informed readers.    


Most writers in the historical field aren’t going to be working on a semi-biographical novel. Many are working on the ever-popular historical romance, where the relationship of the hero and heroine is the whole ball of wax. Even in romance, however, a writer ought to be able to paint broad brush strokes of period. If you learn to do that, you can give your reader the supreme thrill—a time travel experience. Note that I use this phrase. That, I think, sums up the reason people read historicals in the first place—not only for simple escape, but to summon the experience of a long lost world, to breathe another kind of air, to imagine yourself with another set of opportunities—and strictures. The ability to do this can take a reader out of the daily grind, and off to an astonishing Somewhere Else. Life in a medieval city would be as strange to us as any imagined S/F journey to another dimension. 


First, do some old fashioned research:


This includes library, Internet, and utilizing the popular Search Engines. A lot can be learned by lurking on historical specialty lists that you can find and ask to join at Yahoo.


Primary source is good to read, even if you aren’t going to reproduce the language of the times. This means letters, diaries, newspapers, novels, sales material, etc. from your chosen period. Fact is, you won’t have many readers if you do, because most people don’t have the time/patience these days to follow the elliptical writing styles of our ancestors. Still, the sound and phrasing of those long dead voices will begin to reverberate in your mind. Simply by osmosis, you’ll begin to get a feel for the sort of dialogue that is accessible to the modern reader and doesn’t sound inappropriate (or just plain silly) coming out the mouth of your historical character.


Other sources of inspiration and information for writers:


Try finding some music in your period. Find out what they danced. Read the words of songs. As we know, popular music can tell you a great deal about wishes and aspirations. If your characters are upper class Victorians, living in NYC, there would have been opera, plays, charitable organizations to fill their time. Socializing took place on a grand scale. Working on my Mozart story, I had a wonderful time immersing myself in his music. However, his operas are not only beautiful, but a treasure trove of information on manners and morals of the late 18th Century. In dramatic form, you can observe the rules governing interaction between social classes, as well as the many rules governing the relations between the sexes.  


Attention to detail is the new mantra—even in Hollywood. This can be achieved by devoting a day (and some paper) to a simple exercise. This will swiftly show you what you know, what you don’t know—and what needs to be looked up. It will also tell you something about your necessary cast of bit players. 


Get up in the morning—there you are, bed, bathroom, kitchen. Maybe you also have pets, kids, a husband. Get your imagination going. Put a helmet or a suit of mail on hubby.  It’ll help. Engage your senses. Sight, hearing, touch, and please don’t forget your sense of smell.


Take these one by one—holding in mind your chosen time period.


  1. Bed—What’s on it--and what’s in it? Getting dressed in the morning—“pants first, then shoes…” clothing, shoes.
  2. Bathroom—is there such a thing? And if so, where does the water come from? Is it hot? How is the room heated? Plumbed? Do you get a bath every day or is this simply impossible given the standard of living?
  3. Kitchen—who works there? You? Servants?
  4. Servants are a problem to imagine for most modern folks, unless they are sufficiently well off to employ some and have first-hand experience. Do these servants live in the house w/your heroine? Who are they? If they were real, you’d be rubbing up against them all the time, and so would know a lot about their personal lives and idiosyncrasies.
  5. Breakfast—this meal hasn’t always been the same. What would your characters be breakfasting upon? An Irish cottager eats quite differently from an English Regency Lord—or a Viking. Where did this food come from? Do hawkers bring it to the door? Do you buy it in a shop? Do you raise it yourself? How is it cooked—and with what fuel? Wood burning in the kitchen produces odor and soot, as well as that nice cheery flame. Have we got forks yet? China dishes or gourds or wooden trenchers?

And so on, through the day—at work, or at home.


Transportation, vehicles, draft animals, and who takes care of them? Streets—what do they look like/smell?

Work--and who goes to it. 

Occupations for men and women—manners and morals vary in various social classes—

Pastimes and pleasures

Religious practices—this took up a great deal of time in everyone’s daily life since the Christian era—







I am not saying all this is absolutely necessary in preparation, but you should hold it in mind as you write—daily life in this world you’re trying to enter by way of your imagination.



About the Author:


By the time Juliet Waldron was twenty-one, she had lived in twenty-one places, including Cornwall, England and Barbados in the W.I.  As a secretary, she's worked in many environments, from boardrooms to brokerage. After reaching the "Grandma Zone," she decided to indulge a lifelong passion for history, and start researching and writing those novels she'd always wanted to create. She has given talks on Women’s History for writer’s and library groups and will be a panelist at The Historical Novel Society's first American conference in 2005. 


Publishing history: 


Mozart’s Wife was a 2000 Frankfurt nominee. At the 2001 Virginia Festival of the Book, Mozart’s Wife won the First Independent e-Book Award for best e-published fiction. Genesee won the 2003 Epic Award for best historical, as well as succeeding as a romance, receiving five stars from Affaire de Coeur and Romantic Times.  A companion story, Independent Heart, has just been published by Hard Shell Word Factory.

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Copyright 2004, J. Waldron