How To Write Historical Fiction

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It’s not a secret that historical fiction is one of the most challenging genres to write. It demands a masterful understanding of pacing, setting, plot, and character development, while also requiring that you immerse yourself in a time period different from your own. But with a bit of hard work, and a dash of inspiration, you can write historical fiction that will keep readers turning the pages long into the night.


Research historical facts

First up is your historical research. This is a big job, as you’ll need to know the details and culture of the time period in order to make the necessary contextual and geographical decisions about your historical work. There are a variety of sources for historical research, whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, but in fiction especially, the more research you do, the more detailed and organized your story can be. For example, if your historical fiction novel takes place after the Civil War, minutes from newspapers, journals, newspaper articles, and journals will help you to understand what happened in the time period. You can also find books written from people in the past for advice on everyday situations, or information about the characters. Using different resources will make your historical fiction novel sound more authentic.

After the main research is done, you need to take a step back and look at your sources critically. A lot of people believe that historians are looking for an answer to every question, but that’s never true. Whether they are studying specific events or the entire time period, they will leave a lot of things wrong, messy and unexplained. Their main focus is on what is relevant for their subject, so when you are researching history for your novel, keep in the back of your mind the scope of your work. That way, you won’t try to include every aspect of the subject matter in your work.

Identify a personal heritage angle

You wouldn’t write science fiction unless science was your thing, and you wouldn’t write romance if you were a hopeless romantic. Similarly, unless your personal heritage is steeped in rich history, you shouldn’t be pretending to write historical fiction. Not only will it be incredibly difficult to do, but unless you’ve actually lived in a historic time period, you’re unlikely to have many good stories to tell. The history, your motivations, they have to come together to give you a solid footing. If you can do that, you’ll be prepared to tackle all of the complexities that come along with writing historical fiction. Nothing simple about it.

First, watch your content. If part of your heritage includes Celtic heritage, not Anglo-Saxon, then you don’t want to be writing about Anglo-Saxon historical fiction. Second, research your heritage and note which conflicts they were involved in. If you’re from Quebec, your identity is going to be split between French identities and the struggle between France and England. From there you can look over the existing historical fiction in your chosen time period and see if any of the subplots would be a fit for your ancestry.

Find the story in the history

If your heart isn’t in real-life figures, don’t fret. There are plenty of ways to locate exciting, compelling stories amid the historical record. When researching a novel, you may find many different things that catch your interest and serve as seeds for new ideas, but don’t get bogged down in minutiae — make sure to keep your theory of the case in mind. Read around enough to figure out the most important historical moments and people, and pick which ones would most interest you as a bystander if you weren’t writing them. Highlight the events, people, and themes the most as you’re reading, noting to which ones might connect in unexpected ways.

For example, how do the clothes somebody wears fit into the story of history? Or a famous painting? Or an architectural style? Art, technology, fashion, and aesthetics are all worthwhile subjects for talking about and thinking through with reference to a historical society, places, and events. List out all the relevant organizations, events, and concerns relative to the period in general, as well as those specific to a particular character under your consideration. What gets the most attention in interpretation? Which people get the short end of the historical stick? Which parts of the period got ignored, glorified, dismissed, glossed over, or lost to colorful interpretation over time? Consider which elements might be particularly fruitful for visualizing, embellishing, and imagining.

Take your setting seriously

Pick a period you love to learn about. Visit the historical sites in the city where your story will be set. If you are writing about an empire or other major historical event, focus more on the history and structure of the empire. If you are writing about a smaller event, focus on the location. Find historical figures who are involved with your story — if you don’t pick real life characters, you can be more liberal in historical interpretation.

Once you have a setting, you will need to think briefly about the weather patterns that will occur there. If you are choosing a city for setting, learn about its climate and when the seasons change. If you are writing about a larger area more resembling a country, you will need to know about weather at those scales. An agricultural setting, such as a farm, is a little different, in that weather patterns affect how much crops grow and the quality of them.

Pick a compelling problem

This part can seem like heresy to proper historians, but for a framework for historical fiction, make a choice. You’ll need to choose an insight, an era, or an issue from the time period you’re best suited to, and root the story around it. It’s also a good idea to write down your two or three major characters and where they’ll fit in the scheme of things. Often with fiction, it’s easiest to begin by guessing what sort of conflict you’ll have. If that’s giving you the willies, think of the characters first, and decide how they’ll bring the two numbers together.

Begin by developing your characters and the motives for their actions in the first tie-in. Then arrive at your inciting incident, or problem. Whether your readers are well-versed in history or not, it’s a good idea to make sure to give them context about where your story is set, and what your characters think is going on. Will there be a historical crisis in the government? A great famine? A succession struggle? These are all good things to start with. Go deeper into your characters, and make it clear how they’re going to deal with the problem. Pay attention to timing — if the action takes place over the course of a few months or years, you’re going to need to keep the pacing up.

Develop authentic characters

This is one of the most difficult parts of the historical fiction genre — being historically accurate with your characters, while also telling a great story. It’s easy to see how some authors might get through with a heavy-handed focus on only the facts, which gives an unstimulating impression of a novel that reads like a textbook. If your goal is to write an emotionally effective and entertaining story, don’t replicate the same exclusionary approach. Instead, realize that you are rewriting history. Be selective in your details, choosing them carefully to help show off the characteristics and personality of your characters, and put them in situations that reveal their inner emotions and conflicts. Remember to use the right dates, too. 

If you’re conscientious about your historical research, you should get all those dates right, but don’t make it easy on yourself. For your story to be historically accurate, you’re not just facing a different set of dates — you have to think about events in sequence. Add dimension to your characters as you place them in events outside of their control, corresponding them with other historical details. If your story is taking place in the 1920’s, for instance, you might want to include the Harlem Renaissance as a backdrop, or mention the role of Calvin Coolidge in events of the time. Don’t rely solely on the internet, either — take the time to get a library card, and head over to your local university to check out their historical collection for books and journals related to your research.

Include appropriate conflicts

The setting of your book will set the stage on which future conflicts are performed. Historical fiction is whole from conflict created —  both between the hero and opponents, and sometimes within the hero him or herself. Know that before you can construct the forward-moving conflict required by any novel, you must start with the series of choices that afflict your protagonist. Those must be raw human-level challenges and dilemmas. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky very purposefully created a character with a range of deep excellences that served to make Ricid Raskolnikov’s subsequent descent precipitous. By the middle of the book, Ricid was mad at the world, full of disgust and self-loathing. By the end of the novel, he was an isolated killer desperate for punishment.

Historical fiction has the potential to explore both universal human questions and specific cultures. United by similar feelings, all humans have the same vested interest in the motivations that precede action. Dostoevsky’s existential crime, greed, lust, resentment, pity, faith, empathy, is a common recognizable drive for mischief. On the other hand, one of the defining aspects of your book will be how the characters interact with their particular culture. Espionage in the time of Henry the Eighth, for instance, is hardly the same as those in the Soviet Union, and writing the second convincingly may be quite the challenge. Historical fiction allows a way to practice empathy and imaginative flexibility at once. Fertile sources of conflict and plot within history are drawn from oppression, conflict, empathy, loss of faith, environmental confrontation, cultural clashes, and love. Use the historical references in your research to expose your characters to an array of developments.

Be a ringmaster with political correctness

Once you have a firm grasp on the history of your story, you will need to weave your story into a historical context. Even if you write historical fiction and choose not to adhere to the historical accuracy of some of the events, you will still need to research the world around your characters. This may include costuming, architecture, custom, the social climate, values, and to a degree the language. This will ensure that your characters don’t appear out of place to the reader.

 While researching and plotting the historical context to your story, after all, you will want to do research on the language of the era. Research will dictate whether your characters’ language sounds credible. One of the best ways to ensure that your language is authentic is to use notes from primary sources to create fictional letters, documents, and even newspapers. Doing everything to ensure accuracy in language can also lend the story an air of authenticity that the many readers of historical fiction enjoy.

Create believable dialogue

The hardest part of writing historical fiction is creating dialogue for your characters. If you are writing an historical based romance, you will want your characters’ dialogue to be authentic and you will want it to flow. Make sure that you don’t use modern day slang or present day mannerisms. This will take some research on your part and will take several drafts to get it right. You will want to read and listen to people from that time period and make sure that you are using the correct vernacular.

You will be referencing all of your research constantly. You need to make sure each character, place and event is historically accurate. When writing about someone who lived during a particular period of time, you will need to make sure the events that happened in their life are as accurate as possible. You do not want to change too much about history. And you will want to have “life in the era” for your characters.

Don’t over-idealize your subjects

One of the most obvious things you need to keep in mind when writing historical fiction is that your characters should be people who can speak to contemporary concerns. You can write about historical figures if you’re intellectually honest and treat them as human — they’re not dead saints. Otherwise, whatever part they play should be one that you can draw a parallel to a story of someone living today.

The times don’t have to be relevant either to be valuable in historical fiction. You can use elements from an earlier era to illuminate contemporary society even if it doesn’t directly tie into the subject of the book. Sometimes it is even more interesting for a non-contemporary piece to be historically accurate in other ways. So don’t immediately say that a certain setting is no good for your plot just because the time period isn’t right.

Like literary fiction, historical fiction relies on tone and mood to communicate meaning. However, attention to detail is slightly less important — setting the scene to paint a vivid portrait of time and place won’t necessarily enhance the story. It’s more important for historical fiction to have a clearly-developed plot than for it to have a deeply-nuanced psychological approach to character. 

In many ways, historical fiction can be a bit more fun to research — though less so for the writing. You get to imagine the myriad details of a different time and place, invigorated by the spirit of adventure that’s a hallmark of the genre. Don’t forget, much of your research will involve reading more about the time period to get a sense of its specific ethos, as well as the immense socio-political events that befall those involved in the story.

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