Mike Witham, Soulf of the South, novel, historical fiction, American Civil War
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Researching Historical Fiction

By Mike Witham

The goal of writing historical fiction is to bring forth the soul of the past. In order to achieve this, one must have one’s facts correct as well as provide a human dimension to each and every character – thus creating characters the readers are able to identify with. So in writing my first book set during the Civil War, it was necessary to conduct research to achieve factual accuracy. And to create convincing characters, I set out to incorporate the various human emotions, including my own life experiences, into that time period.

When writing Soul of the South, I wasn’t sure about many details of the Civil War. The diet, clothes, espionage, diplomacy, and even the locations of various battles were unfamiliar to me. Researching via history books on the Civil War helped a great deal in comprehending the war’s espionage, diplomacy, and battles. And the Internet provided me with valuable information regarding the food, clothes, and proper place names of the time.

Little did I realize when I started how in-depth this task would be. Yet, I persevered. And of course the fact that I love learning about history didn’t hurt either. I depended upon several history books as resources. My editor advised me that such things as proper food, clothing, and place names were important to further enhance the authenticity of the book. I took advantage of the wealth of information on the Internet, using various search engines and typing in a particular word or subject. After I researched various foods, clothing, and places, I then had to decide which ones were the most pertinent to my novel. Regarding diet, I thought I couldn’t go wrong with popular Southern dishes of the time. In searching for clothing, in particular my main character’s attire for a New Year’s Eve dance and the wedding attire for the main couple, I thought the most formal and elegant apparel of the period would be best. Finally, to identify place names, such as hotels in America and overseas, I obviously had to find which ones were in existence at the time.

A key for me was to just let the book unfold. I didn’t know how the plot would develop when I started it. I just thought that staying with it, writing consistently until its completion, was the best course of action. I wanted to get it done, and, once completed, I could then check to make sure all of the “T’s” were crossed and the “I’s” were dotted. It was a passion for me to write Soul of the South. True, I may be considered the last person to have written a book like this, as I am not American nor did I have any particular passion for the Civil War; and any feelings I did have about the conflict were pro-Union. In fact, my original plan was to make William an unsympathetic character. Yet as the book unfolded, the novel took on a life of its own. I must admit, there were times when I thought: “What am I doing? Why am I writing such a book? I am Canadian. Why then am I writing a novel about America, and one that may even generate sympathy for the South?” These questions continually dogged me, and they still do to some degree. Yet, at the end of the day, I was moved to see it through. Perhaps it was because such a book needed to be written, and I felt that I was the one called to write it. In the process, I began to appreciate the Southern side in addition to the Northern one, as I realized there were many noble individuals on each side of the conflict. In fact, although each soldier’s reason for fighting may have been different than the reasons I gave, I am certain that the majority who fought on both sides truly believed in their hearts that they were doing the proper thing. No doubt this was why the war was so devastating, bloody, and tragic.

In writing Soul of the South, I wanted to incorporate as much of the Civil War as possible - to give the reader a fuller picture of the conflict than just its battles. Thus, in terms of the conflict, espionage and diplomacy were as important as military battles as major parts of my work. With respect to all three, I wanted them to be as authentic as possible. Thus, I strove for the greatest degree of historical accuracy, with the protagonist William Lytham inserted in its midst. Hopefully I accomplished this, as well as provided another perspective on the Civil War.

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Copyright © 2004 Mike Witham
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