Eight rules for writing historical short stories

What one writer learned from a decade of trying to write historical short fiction.
By Todd James Pierce | Published: August 23, 2017


Historical short stories

 

The idea, I suppose, first came to me 13 years ago, as I was driving across the country, touring for my first book – a set of linked short stories that my publisher presented as a novel.

I was moving through Texas, nearly a thousand miles of pavement churning beneath the wheels of my rental car, when I began to process the lessons of a 36-city book tour. My book, The Australia Stories, was based in part on my own life. I’d lived in Australia. While there I’d fallen in love with a girl, the Australian culture and their laidback way of viewing life. It was, more than anything else, a book about me, a taffy-pull of personal experience stretched out into fiction.

Somewhere around San Antonio, where the I-10 began to cut north, I had the notion that, for my next book – my next set of books, really – I wanted the fiction to be based in history. In short, I wanted my next efforts to have the appeal of both fiction and nonfiction.

By then I was aware of a softly growing trend in literary short fiction, authors who were taking on historical research for short stories. Research had always been a component of historical novels. In Ragtime, the author E.L. Doctorow presented so vivid a picture of pre-WWI New York that some reviewers referred to it as “documentary fiction.”

In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden presented the first-person account of a young woman living in midcentury Kyoto with such authority many reviewers wondered how a male American writer could so effectively cross gender and cultural divides.

Works such as these not only required a tremendous level of narrative skill but also significant research abilities. By 2003, a small group of literary writers were consciously trying to incorporate elements of the research-based historical novel into the short story.

At the forefront of this movement was Andrea Barrett, author of the collection Ship Fever that presented stories largely set in the 18th and 19th centuries. The title effort in this collection relates the experience of Lauchlin Grant, a Canadian doctor who ministers to Irish immigrants afflicted with typhus during the great famine of the 1840s. The New York Times praised the collection for its “considerable research” and stated that its “overall effect is quietly dazzling.” Later that year, the book won the 1996 National Book Award for Fiction, beating out such luminaries as Steven Millhauser and Ron Hansen.

From there, a small literary movement was started.

Barrett was soon joined by other writers who consciously mixed heavy long-form research with the concision and directness of a short story. Jim Shepard, a writer primarily known for his short fiction, produced a series of research-inspired stories, the best-known of which is “Love and Hydrogen.” Anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2002 and later the title story in one of Shepard’s collections, “Love and Hydrogen” presents a love story between two crewmembers of the Hindenburg on its final, tragic voyage, the narrative drama unfolding amidst a historically accurate and realistic setting. Ethan Rutherford published The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, with its title effort a fictional retelling of the Confederate soldiers who pilot the first military submarine, the H.L. Hunley, during the Civil War. Ron Rash set his lead story in the collection Something Rich and Strange during the Great Depression.

From these stories – and many others – literary fiction had taken on new depths, creating a brand-new sub-genre: the deeply researched historical short story.

 

EIGHT RULES FOR WRITING HISTORICAL SHORT STORIES

Setting out to write my own historical short fiction in the years following my rental-car revelation, I wrote a series of short stories set at Hollywood studios as the Golden Age of animation came to an end.

Along the way, I’ve discovered many things about research, about art, about the desire to employ fiction in such a way that readers have the lovely sense that they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with great screen artists of the past.

The finished stories, which are a book-length collection I’ve just turned in to my literary agent, have individually started to appear in journals. Here’s what I’ve learned from a decade of trying to write historical short stories: my eight rules of historical fiction.

 

1. Small details matter more than large ones.

The art of fiction is, in large part, the art of small-scale illusions. When I first lowered myself, by those soft ropes of early ambition, down into my project, I believed that I would largely need to know how the mechanics of animation worked in the 1940s and 1950s, the tasks of an inbetweener or an inker. Though this information was useful, it also wasn’t the dreamy material out of which compelling stories are constructed. Far more important were the small details: the weight of a pencil in an animator’s hand when held the right way, how images ghost up through a stack of drawings when pegged onto a lightboard, the sound a moviola makes when a reel of new film stutters across its screen. It was those observations – the small daily details – that I most needed to build a believable historical setting inside fiction.

 

2. Period characters require more than period clothes.

Similarly, just as the exterior world requires research to establish believable, small details, the interior world of a character requires research as well. Good historical stories promise to not only transport readers to a historical setting but to reveal the interior life (the mind, heart and aspirations) of a character. For me, some of the large questions here had to do with interior perceptions: How did men and women in the 1940s think about romance? How were their professional desires different than for artists today? What language might they use in their thought life? The answers, in large part, came from personal writing: letters and diaries.

Yes, it might be awkward to ask a living person to borrow his or her diary. But many people – particularly those who have achieved some modicum of career fame – often leave their letters and diaries to university archives and special collections; such archives are generally open to the public.

With the help of friends and the Internet, I was able to find letter or diary collections from about 10 artists working in animation in the 1940s and 1950s. More than any other source, these documents presented the thought language and inner aspirations of the men and women who worked for animation studios. Though none of these individuals became a character in my stories, collectively, their writing helped me understand how the inner life of an artist working in the middle of the 20th century is different than that of an artist today.

 

3. Use common names, not technical ones.

America is a cinematic culture. As a people, we are familiar with the conventions of film, perhaps more so than those of fiction. For a film, an audience is largely a collective witness to events that unfold on the screen. But in fiction, readers enter the world, almost always, through the perceptions of a central character (or perhaps a small group of characters). With this, fiction is the more intimate art, the one in which the perceptions of an individual character are the means by which readers engage the narrative world. To deepen this connection between the reader and the protagonist, it is almost always helpful for the narrative prose to present the common names – not the technical ones – for elements in the story. For example, animators in the 1940s would never call a studio screening room a screening room, they would call it a sweatbox, as that was where animators sweated as their work was reviewed on screen. Likewise, animators – at least on the Disney lot – would never call the Ink & Paint Department the Ink & Paint Department: they would call it the Nunnery, as it was primarily staffed with women. These “insider” terms not only help solidify a strong reader connection with the perspective of the protagonist, they also suggest that the fiction is offering a rare and authentic glimpse into a foreign world, one incased in the past.

 

4. Immerse yourself in the culture.

To write historical fiction of any kind – short stories or not – you need to be able to close your eyes and have the past blaze up around you.

When I first started writing in a historical mode, I didn’t understand the large investment it would take to inhabit the past. I started with Sears’ catalogs from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as a book about American culture during WWII. It soon became apparent that these resources were utterly inadequate to help me inhabit, with a storyteller’s precision, an era that ended decades ago. The basic question aspiring historical writers need to ask is this: What documents of the era exist to demonstrate daily life in a chosen time period? Note: I said of the era, meaning created during the era. In ways, I had a little bit of luck fall my way. My chosen time period was a filmic one, also one in which publishing houses produced endless books. For about two years, I restricted most of my visual media to films of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as most of my reading to books of the same period. This helped me to understand the visual and cultural nuances of the era: bicarbonate with soda, a popular cure for a hangover; red caps, train porters with crimson caps, easily spotted to help with luggage; the DuMont network, an early TV network soon put out of business by NBC and CBS. As I read, as I viewed, I made copious notes about the details of mid-century American life, with each noted detail attached to a specific year.

 

5. Find experts.

As a writer and an English professor, I am an introvert by nature. I’m most comfortable at my laptop or reclining in a club chair, book in hand, dog resting at my feet. So my first attempts to understand the techniques of animation were through books – not a bad start, but also one that didn’t yield the best results. I started with field overview texts, which were informative, but not the best place to find an intimate understanding of an animation studio. Next, I found stacks of published interviews with early feature animators. These – especially as they were cast in the voice of animators – were much more useful. If pushed, I likely could’ve crafted stories set in a production studio just based on these interviews alone. But by far the most useful resource was people – experts I could call whenever I had a question. Though I’d read a textbook on effects animation in the 1950s, I didn’t truly understand the nuances of the field until I spent a day with Dorse Lanpher, an effects animator who worked at the studios in the 1950s. Again, I was lucky, because I was able to meet men and women who lived in my chosen era. But even if I was writing about ship building in the 1850s or Colonial American life, I suspect making contact with subject experts would be the best way to quickly understand the nuances of a historic culture.

 

6. Balance details and drama.

Hemingway once compared a successful story to an iceberg: The visual peaks of an iceberg are supported by a much larger structure beneath the surface, much in the same way that the details in the text are supported by a vast amount of research and knowledge that remains, largely, invisible to the reader. This, I believe, is particularly true for the writer of historical fiction. At least 90 percent – maybe even 95 percent – of what I’ve learned about California and studio culture in the 1940s and 1950s never shows up in my fiction. But that information was essential for me to confidently create characters that occupied a time before I was born.

One skill of historical fiction, then, is knowing which details to include, observations that will evoke time and place without slowing down the reader.  A good set of details, such as “She emerged from a Fourth Avenue cab in a pillbox hat and a hemline that nearly exposed her knees,” can set a scene far better than a long list of weaker details. Likewise, a line of dialogue, like “How’s it going, pally?,” says big city America in 1945 as clearly as “What’s the rub, buddy?” says that same location 10 years later.

 

7. Historical facts are not the storyline.

Initially, I tried to make stories about historical narratives. This is something that, having written previous books of fiction, I should’ve known would be, at least for me, a disaster. History, I soon learned, was the backdrop for drama – or perhaps the intensifier of drama – but it is not the drama itself. For example, in one of my early stories, set during the animation strike of 1941, I initially wanted to place the historical record as the centerpiece event in the narrative – the battles between management and labor, the stump speeches for the press as picketing exploded outside studio gates. Yet that wasn’t a story that would ultimately satisfy readers, largely because it didn’t yet have a character driven by desire, held back by fear. The story that eventually emerged from this research was that of a young father, a man who once wanted to be a fine artist, who sought work in commercial animation to provide for his wife and son, a man whose troubles deepened when fellow animators bullied him into participating in a long strike.

History is the context out of which fiction grows. Fiction is the examination of the human heart as individual characters move through scenes that test – or perhaps change – their souls. History is just the backdrop.

 

8. Don’t let research overwhelm the story.

Though a 300-page novel has the luxury of easing into the drama, Steinbeck-style, with a lengthy description of place, short stories need to find ways to establish setting quickly, often on the same page that they introduce character and conflict.

Jim Shepard’s master story, “Love and Hydrogen,” for example, offers one brief paragraph to establish the historical period and the setting:

Imagine five or six city blocks could lift, with a bump, and float away. The impression of the 804-foot-long Hindenburg gives on the ground is that of an airship built by giants and excessive even to their purposes. The fabric hull and mainframe curve upward sixteen stories high.

After this, the story is on to character development, immediately introducing the two lovers:

Meinert and Gnüss are out on the gangway ladder down to the starboard #1 engine car. They’re helping out the machinists, in a pinch. Gnüss is afraid of heights, which amuses everyone. It’s an open aluminum ladder with a single handrail extending eighteen feet down into the car’s hatchway. They’re at 2,000 feet. The clouds below stand by and dissipate. It’s early in a mild May in 1937.

Like most writers, Shepard knows that a short story needs to focus in on character, plot and conflict early in its development, likely on the first page – even when a writer is also enamored by his or her research.

 

 

Historical fiction never comes quickly. Often it’s a labor of love. For me it was an opportunity to build a personal time machine, to sink myself down into a world I’d always wanted to inhabit. I first had the idea to write these stories in 2003. At that time I thought that, with work, I could finish them in a couple years, maybe three. Though I started writing in 2004, my early efforts were all junk, mostly because I hadn’t done enough research to write with confidence about my subject. In 2005, to better teach myself about this world, I decided that I would write some nonfiction articles about the history of animation, articles that eventually gave rise to one nonfiction book, with a second on the way. Five years later, I finally had enough information to write the stories I wanted to write.

During these years, I wasn’t idle as a writer: I published another book of fiction; I published three textbooks; I edited a few anthologies. I always think it’s a good idea for writers to keep busy. But I knew this: I wanted my animation stories to ring true, both in their historical and character details. Each time I browsed through our local Barnes & Noble, I was reminded of the thousands and thousands of books that existed in the world; I wanted my books, even if they took years to complete, to distinguish themselves as among the best. This seemed particularly important in less-popular and more artful genres, such as the short story.

The meticulously researched short story is a relatively new form, a growing trend. Often, authors see their efforts in this field as a large gesture toward art, one that occasionally involves spectacle – a means by which they say: I will take you, my audience, to a miraculous world, but to do this, you will need to agree to my terms, that the drama will be tied to sentences, that characters will be defined in words and the wonders will exist in the traditional way, with short stories that muscle across the page.

Todd James Pierce is the author of a half dozen books, most recently Three Years in Wonderland. His short story collection, Newsworld, won the 2006 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and he is the co-author of Behind the Short Story, a creative writing textbook. Web: toddjamespierce.com

 

Want more writing articles like this one?

Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.

 

TW Freemium CoverLooking for an agent?

Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.

 

  • Ingrid Briles

    I liked this article. I got interested in historical faction (my word for factual fiction) while working on our family genealogy. One ancestor came to America after spending nearly 10 years in a Bavarian castle prison because he refused to give up the names of his Amish congregation – knowing that all of them would be killed. His family was hidden and sent to America. They became the foundation of the Old Amish Order of Lancaster County, Pa. I found the story fascinating. By the time he came to America, his sons had married, built huge farms, and he was a grandfather several times. I felt it was important to show that he was proud of his family, but still the humble patriarch. To show the culture, I showed his pleasure in hearing his grandchildren speaking a mix of Swiss/English that is still spoken in that part of the country. Through the eyes of his wife, I was able to show her memory of the tall handsome young man, and not the ancient, bent and bruised prisoner who stood in front of her. Now, what do I do with the story? I have several based on other ancestors, and have no idea what to do next.

  • Patricia McGoldrick

    Great tips for this genre!

  • Sally M. Chetwynd

    Wow! This one’s a keeper! Thank you!