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Devil is in the Details. That’s why Historical Fiction is Diabolic

Devil is in the detail. You’ll have heard it said many times.
Sometimes I think nobody knows it better than a writer. And for a historical writer, this devil is particularly nasty.

We may think that history is big events, maybe because that’s what we study in school. We may consider events that changed the course of human existence or the lives of millions of people: wars, conquests, plagues, economic surges and disasters, groundbreaking scientific discoveries. We think that history is created by the extraordinary single people who caused or handled these events. We often know these people by name.

Don’t get me wrong, this is history. This is where my love of history started. Yes, on the school desk, I’ll admit it without shame.
But as I grew older and I started exploring history by myself, I realised there is a whole other world of history that I didn’t know when I was in school. The history of ordinary people and small everyday events. The history of the mind and feelings of people like me, who never changed the course of events, who never discovered anything groundbreaking. People who had a family and worked to make that family most comfortable and safe. People who worried about their jobs and their health. People who had achievable dreams that didn’t involve changing the world – though sometimes that’s exactly what they ended up doing.

Social history. That’s how historians call it.
It’s the history of society, rather than of extraordinary people. The history of everyday social movements, everyday social thinking and behaving. The history of how people moved together as a society and how they lived as individuals inside that society.

It’s the history of people like me. I supposed that’s why, at a certain point, I became fascinated with it. Sure, it’s fantastic to know the way someone extraordinary lived and thought and felt. But knowing how people like me lived and thought and felt is where history touches my life an can sometimes shed new light on it.
And for historical writers, that’s where stories are born.

Social History, the History of Small Things

I like to call this kind of history “Small History” because it’s the exact opposite of the history of the big events that changed the world. But also because it lives in the details more than in the big movements. ‘Small History’ is events, thinking and feelings that happen every day, to everyone. That don’t need an extraordinary ‘trigger’ to get off, but that occur on a daily bases.

To me, this is life as it happens to people every day and what people like me make happen every day.
What does it mean to be a maid in a big house in Germany in the 1920s? What would she do on her job? What would she think of her employers? Would she dream of a better life, and what would it look like? What would she think her life would be in ten years? What would she dare to do outside of what people expect of her?

‘Small History’ is where almost all of the people live and so it’s where characters are born.
That’s why, for me as a historical writer, ‘Small History’ is so important. Sure, big events may affect the lives of our characters, but ‘Small History’ will be our character’s life whether big events happen or not. ‘Small History’ is particularly important – and particularly powerful – when we write stories that don’t happen during big historical events.

This is the kind of history I love to write about, and also the kind of history I love to research.

But it has its challenges.

Sure, social history is becoming more popular, especially among amateur historians who, like me, are mostly readers. Resources are becoming more readily available and accessible. Still, I feel that researching ‘Small History’ as a historical writer is still a tricky, laborious path. Though one full of rewards.

Devil is in the Details. That’s why Historical Fiction is Diabolic – Devil is in the Details. That’s why Historical Fiction is Diabolic The Historical Writer and the Power of ‘Small History’ #Writingtips #historicalfiction Share on X

To Research’ Small History’ We Must First Become Aware of It

DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS. The Historical Writer and the Power of 'Small History'

Becoming aware of ‘Small History’ – therefore be able to research it – is maybe the trickiest part of it, because ‘Small History’ happens where we take things for granted.

I read once a novel set in the 1920s where a murder happened in a speakeasy at night. One of the characters saw another get into a car. The car then sped away, and the first character saw the rear red lights disappearing in the night.
I paused for a moment.
Rear red lights?
I googled it and found out that rear red lights weren’t commonly mounted on cars in the 1920s (nor were rear-view mirrors, if you want to know, though they already existed). But we are so accustomed to seeing them on cars that we might never think anything of it.

I won’t hide that it takes training to get used at spotting where ‘Small History’ may happen. But I’ll give you a hint: it usually is in the small details.

One of my beta readers suggested once that I could have my 1920s flapper’s mascara melt with her tears and smudge her face. Which is a good detail. It makes for a powerful visual, and today it’s so unusual that we tend to notice when it’s mentioned. But then I thought: are we sure mascara existed and was commonly used in the 1920s?
It turned out it did exist, though how ‘common’ it was depended on the girl’s income. And anyway I discovered that mascara was very different back then from what we are accustomed to today.

It was a double discovery. Those are the best.

My advice is: when you use a detail, do some research unless you already know the answer.

Where Do We Learn ‘Small History’?

This is a second tricky matter, though researching is becoming increasingly easy with the internet and the many resources becoming available through it. Author Allie Therin will be a guest on this blog soon with a post about researching 1920s everyday life in advertisements. I can’t wait to read it!

There are books, of course. I started my research about the 1920s on books of social history. The problem with these is that they usually are quite cursory. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first two I read ( The Anxious Decades by Michael E. Parrish and Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940 by David E Kyvig) because they gave me a fantastic first introduction to the subject. We need to start somewhere, and a good outline of the matter is always the best place. But I wouldn’t be able to write about the 1920s having read only those.
These are books that don’t concern themselves with details. And often googling something doesn’t necessarily give you the best answers. Researching details and ‘Small History’ often requires some creativity.
Ads are a good choice, for example (at least for periods near us). Newspaper articles (the things I haven’t discovered reading era newspaper articles!). But also films and photos (if you’re lucky enough to research a time where these supports already existed). Silent films were a huge help in acquiring the feel of the 1920s.
Novels and stories written at the time are also very useful, and they often are a gold mine of details you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Though sometimes they are tricky because they are silent about things that people took for granted at the time.
Letters, diaries. Any personal expression. There are archives online that allow accessing this form of information.
And of course, scholarly articles and essays. The more monographic they are, the better.

Sometimes it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It took me three years to discover what was likely to be on the tabletop of a speakeasy table. It took me even longer to discover how one of my MCs would take the L in Chicago in 1926.
Keeping at it and reading as widely as possible is always the best way to go. There are details we don’t know we don’t know and the only way to learn we don’t know is by learning as much as possible in that area.
We can train ourselves to go after these details. It becomes easier with practice. And it is so rewarding.

In the end, researching history for me is a great adventure, and I never mind going down that path.

Stay toned for Allie’s post. You won’t be sorry!

DEVIL IS THE DETAILS. THAT'S WHY HISTORICAL FICTION IS DIABOLIC The Historical Writer and the Power of ‘Small History’ - I like to call it "Small History" because it's the exact opposite of the history of the big events, but also because it lives in the small details


  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted October 27, 2019 at 20:34

    You make such important points here, Sarah. It is in the lives of ordinary people, their interactions, their values, their worries, etc., that we really see the impact of the larger historical forces. And those stories make for excellent reading…

    • Post Author
      Posted October 28, 2019 at 16:23

      I totally agree.
      It was such a fantastic discovery for me when I realised that history may be also about everyday life.

  • Shari Decter Hirst
    Posted October 27, 2019 at 21:19

    As a fellow ‘needle-searcher’, I love the idea of the devil in the details. They make the stories come alive.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 28, 2019 at 16:23

      ‘Needle-sercher’! i love that! We should found a club!

  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted November 1, 2019 at 02:52

    As a writer who easily gets drawn down a rabbit hole, I find researching the fine details hard but worthwhile. Historical tales even more so. I’ve just attempted a WWII short set in Belorussia and some details came indirectly from censored or hidden Soviet records – thanks to experienced researchers. And the ‘small history’ was the more interesting – like the flowers Soviet airwomen had in their quarters.

    • Post Author
      Posted November 6, 2019 at 12:04

      I agree. Details always make the picture so much more human and relatable. That’s why they’re worth researching, even if they are nasty ;-)

  • john
    Posted November 14, 2019 at 12:23

    thank you so much share the blog And the ‘small history’ was the more interesting – like the flowers Soviet airwomen had in their quarters.

    • Post Author
      Posted November 14, 2019 at 18:10

      Thanks, John :-)
      And thatnks to Roland for adding to the subject.

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