Using Artifacts as a Way to Start Writing Historical Fiction

 In Blog

I love old things — dishes, silver, furniture, jewellery, and books. I love that they represent bygone times and the lives of people who once owned and used and cherished them. I have several small collections of creamers and keys and buttons and books that I have accumulated over the years. They serve a decorative purpose to some extent and are on display around the house. But more than that, they evoke for me worlds that I have not known and people whom I have not met. Simply holding some of these objects and closing my eyes, allows me to imagine characters and character’s lives. These found artifacts allow me to develop a sense of verisimilitude when I am writing historical fiction.

Let me share with you an example. Many years ago, I purchased a medicine spoon and a nursing cup from a local antique dealer, who explained that in previous generations they were used in hospitals to feed and care for those too weak to feed themselves. I had an immediate vision of nurses administering healing broth at military hospitals during WWI. The spoon and cup are curious looking objects and I had them in my writing room for many years.

When I began writing Eleanor Courtown, I knew at once that Eleanor would become gravely ill and need to be nursed back to health. What I didn’t realize was that the medicine spoon and nursing cup would also be used by her, much later in the story, to nurse Doctor Stewart who was bedridden with measles. In his black bag, I discovered a spoon with a half cover on it and a tiny metal tube that ran out at the bottom.

Recognizing this as his medicine spoon, I took it quickly to the kitchen to pour boiling water over it as I had watched him do. The water took a few minutes to boil, and while I was waiting I found some sugar and mixed it in some hot water, along with a drop of milk. This was a mixture my Mother had prepared when we were unwell; I thought the sugar might be soothing. Then, taking the spoon and my sugar mixture upstairs, I tried again to deliver some liquid into him. The spoon worked but slowly. He swallowed the liquid carefully as though it pained him. I continued to fill the spoon and tip the tube between his lips. He took in a full glass in this way and I felt pleased with my efforts. He was tired after, this and drifted at once back to a feverish sleep.

Prior to doing research for the novel, I knew very little about the practice of medicine during the period, but what I had learned about medicine spoons and nursing cups provided me with a point of entry.

I’m sure that a scene like this one could have been written in lots of different ways utilizing many different types of objects and descriptions. The point I’m trying to make is that this scene practically wrote itself because I had become familiar with these mundane period pieces and the ways in which they were used. A well-chosen artifact from the period you are interested in, once its context and purpose are understood, can go a long way in sparking creativity for historical fiction.

For those of you who are beginning a historical fiction project and would like to use an artifact to do so, I have prepared a simple activity to help you get started:

Step #1 Select an object that resonates with you in an emotional way. Touch it, rub your hands over it, smell it, feel its heft, hold it up to the light and study every minute detail.

Step #2 Jot down everything you can find out about the object — where it was made, where it was purchased, how much it cost at the time, what it is made from, what it was used for, how old it is and who owned it.

Step #3 Now comes the fun part! Close your eyes and try to visualize the person who owned this item. Think about their sex, nationality, culture/religion, age, class, and education. Keep your eyes closed and try to visualize their appearance. What do their hands look like? Their hair? Their clothing? Do they have any distinctive speech patterns? Do they have any particular mannerisms or idiosyncrasies? Scribble these things down in point form.

Step #4 Name your character. Choose their first, middle and surname. If you need help, you can Google names by time period, country of origin and sex. I always keep a Baby Names book on hand when I’m doing this and flip through the pages for ideas.

Step #5 Write down a character description that details all of the pieces of information you have created for them. This should be a paragraph in length or about half a page.

Step #6 Write a second paragraph explaining how your character and the artifact you have chosen come together. If it’s a tool, how did they use it and/or what are they making with it? If it’s a household item, what did the house look like and how was it used there? If it’s jewellery, how was it worn, on what occasions, and what did the rest of the outfit look like?

Step #7 The story comes next! Write down: who, where, when, why, and what. The who is your character. The what has to do with your artifact – what is going on? You now have to flesh out the storyline. Where and when and why does something occur that is interesting enough for a story?

Step #8 Begin to write a rough draft of your story. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar at this point – just scribble it all down (or enter it on your keyboard). Don’t worry about plotting things out in detail; follow your character’s lead and see where the story takes you.

Step #9 Once you have finished your first draft, you can begin to correct things like your spelling, word choice and the conventions of language. As you re-read your story, ask yourself: does this have an engaging opening? Is there enough action to maintain a reader’s interest? Is there a tension or a conflict that needs to be resolved? Is there a culmination of excitement that leads to some sort of resolution? Is there a wrapping-up of things at the end of the piece that leaves the reader satisfied?

Step #10 Continue to polish your story until you feel it’s ready to share with a kind reader. Be careful who you entrust with the responsibility of giving you some honest feedback.

I hope you enjoy this exercise and find it helpful!