So, for those of you who don’t know, I’m writing a historical fiction novel which is currently in the final editing phase of production and is set for a summer release (just in time for some beach reading). I am obsessed with this genre both as a reader and as a writer. That being said, historical fiction is probably one of the most difficult genres to write and to make “work.” If you are a super fan of the historical fiction genre than this blog is for you! Want to know how to write historical fiction? Or perhaps you’re writing something based around a historical figure? If so, questions about how much or how little a writer should rely on research, and how much they should invent, come up regularly. History offers compelling and dramatic stories ready made for use in fiction, along with a cast of larger-than-life characters. But it can pose problems too.
First, let’s start by getting a clear understanding of what historical fiction is. Historical fiction is a category for novels and stories that take place in past times (usually more than fifty years before when the author wrote them).
The characters and events in these stories might be completely imaginary. But the world of these stories is based, as closely as possible, on the reality of a particular historical time and place. For example, if you write a historical novel that takes place in Paris during the 1930s, you can:
invent a story about a real historical person at that time, for example, Ernest Hemingway.
invent a story about a real historical event, for example, World War II.
create a completely imaginary character, for example, a painter named Pierre who is in love with his landlady.
But no matter which of these options you choose, Paris in the 1930's is Paris in the 1930's, and nothing in your novel can go against the known facts about it. Pierre may be imaginary, but he cannot carry a cell phone or post on Twitter. And he can't assassinate Hitler and end the war in 1940 because we know that didn't happen (when I say he "can't," I mean according to the rules of historical fiction. If you want to write a new version of history, then that's a different category of novel called speculative fiction, with its own set of rules).
It is important to note that not all fiction that takes place in the past is historical fiction. For example, Emily Brontë was not a historical novelist. Although Wuthering Heights takes place in the past, it was also written in the past, and as far as Emily Bronte was concerned, it was a contemporary novel. If Emily Brontë had instead written fiction about Ancient Egypt, then, she could be considered a historical novelist.
Let’s be clear, it takes a special person to write historical fiction.
You should consider writing historical fiction if:
You love reading novels set in past times.
You enjoy learning about and imagining life in other historical times.
You are fascinated by a particular historical event or period; for example, you're a Civil War buff, or you read everything you can get your hands on about Ancient Egypt.
You have a novel idea that would work better in a historical time period. For example, if your story is about sea explorers in search of new continents, then you will probably decide to set that in the past.
You shouldn't write historical fiction if:
You hate research.
You are in a hurry to finish.
Historical fiction is a lot of work and takes time!
With all that being said, if you are still ready to dip your toes into the history pool, let’s take a look at some tips that will help get you started and (eventually) finished.
Sweat the Small Stuff. The authenticity of historical fiction depends on your knowledge and use of historical detail. It is not enough to say a character walked down the street. The reader has to be able to see the street, see the conveyances; he has to smell the smoke from the factories or the sewage in the gutter. If there are street vendors, he has to know what they’re selling. This is a new world: the reader can’t fathom it unless you give him images. These should be accurate and not recycled from old movies.
Don’t Get Bogged Down by Back-story. It is easy to be overly dutiful and bore your readers with too much background information delivered too soon. There is no surer way to lose your reader than to answer every question before he wonders about it. Don’t explain everything up front or set things up too thoroughly. Instead, let your story unfold dramatically. Clarity will emerge eventually. The trick is to delay telling back-story for as long as possible. You will find that most of it is never needed. It percolates up through the real story when the real story gets going.
Be a History Geek.
Writing historical fiction has a lot in common with writing fantasy. In both cases, you’re using your imagination to build a world that is totally alien to the modern reader. The difference is, or at least should be, that the historical world you’re building has some basis in fact. And you’re going to have to live in that world for the entire time you’re writing the book, so you’d better love it! If you’re not a history nerd, this career isn’t for you. But if you’re the kind of person that can’t walk into the Library of Congress without getting a little weepy and blisses out when given the opportunity to paw at ancient maps, you’re probably on the right track.
Read Historical Fiction.
I could froth at the mouth like a pitchfork wielding French peasant at the number of aspiring authors who don’t actually read anything. Instead, I’ll temper my remarks here to point out that you can’t understand the market you’re writing for unless you actually read books that are being sold in that market. It would be like opening a Chinese restaurant without finding out if there are any other Chinese restaurants on the same street, and whether or not they cook in the same style as you do, or if there’s something special in terms of price or menu that you can offer consumers.
You’re Not a Historian.
Historians go to school, get to write fancy letters after their names, and are relied upon to tell the world what actually happened or could have happened, usually (but not always!) in the driest and least interesting way. They don’t–or shouldn’t–pick sides. That’s awesome. But that’s not your <bleeping> job as a novelist. You need to get into some historical person’s head. In short, you’re going to pick a side, my friend. You’re going to get all kinds of biased. You’re going to dream about them. You’re going to annoy all your friends with obsessive anecdotes. In fact, you’re likely going to become an insufferable partisan. In short, you’re going to cherry pick the facts–just like real people do when justifying their actions–to form a coherent narrative that entertains the reader and tells a story. Which is why even if you are an actual historian, when you’re writing a historical novel, pretend you’re not. Are there historical fiction authors who masquerade as historians? You betcha. And these posers should the object of our scorn and ridicule. Don’t be that guy. Or gal. That’s all I’m saying.
Know How Many Books You’ve Got in You.
A lot of aspiring historical fiction authors come to the genre because they’ve discovered some neat story buried in their own genealogy. Or maybe they’ve come across a neat untold story of their town. This is valuable stuff, and I always get caught up in these tales myself. But if you’ve only got one historical novel rattling around in your brain, you might not want to pursue a career in this. You see, in the book industry, backlist is king. Are there authors who make a fortune off one book and never write another one? Sure. Harper Lee comes to mind. But if you’re Harper Lee, again, you don’t need tips from me. The truth is, a writing career these days is built on book after book, strung like beads on a string. And building an audience means that you can’t easily switch around genres too much because readers are looking for a consistent experience from you. So, if you don’t have a bunch of ideas for stories already, you might reconsider.
Allow Your Characters to Question and Explore Their Place in Society.
This will help reveal the larger political, social, cultural context of the time. What were the expectations for women? For sailors? For criminals? How did people from different parts of society interact with one another?
Love The Process, Because Readers Will Still Find Errors.
And they’ll let you know about them. It doesn’t matter if those errors happened in editing process (as several of mine did. I collapsed some scenes together, and voila! A perfect recipe for timeline and geography mistakes). You can triple-check facts, hire copy editors and proofreaders, scrutinize every word for inconsistencies and mistakes, and I guarantee something will still slip by. At that point, you just have to laugh, thank your reader and move on.
Keep Your Conscience Clean. If your characters are based on real people and you are using the names, be reasonably responsible to the originals. You are probably going to have to fill in a lot of gaps in the historical record: you may know from the record what a person did and when he did it, but not why. It’s the “why” that defines his character. Ask yourself: Am I getting this right? Am I getting it close to right? Am I doing this person a disservice?
Anticipate a Long Process. Historical novels usually take several years to write, as they require research at every turn. You won’t always be able to anticipate what you’ll need to know for a scene and will constantly have to be returning to your references. This is entirely different from writing contemporary fiction. Ultimately, historical fiction never comes quickly. Often, it’s a labor of love.
So, what I’m basically saying is that you need to do a lot of research to create historical detail and authenticity and then add a healthy dose of imagination to make your work sing. Just remember, you’re not writing a factual book. As the American Quaker novelist, Jessamyn West, said, ‘Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death …Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free. I want to point out that none of these rules, obviously, is iron-clad. I’m sure there is a brilliant counter-example somewhere for each and every one of them. I hope you find them useful. Good luck and happy travels through time! If you enjoyed my post, be sure to subscribe to my blog. I post new articles weekly and will be adding some cool new features in the coming weeks so, stay tuned! While you’re at it, check out my book titles available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most major online retailers…you’ll be glad you did! Until next time, happy writing everyone!