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A Guide to Writing Historical Fiction

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 9 16 2019 A Guide to Writing Historical Fiction

Historical fiction isn't for the weak.

The frail, the vulnerable, and those not willing to roll up their sleeves need not apply.

But, if you're up for a literary challenge and have a love of history, this genre may be the right option for you. Set at least 50 years in the past, historical fiction requires you to transport readers to another time and place— somewhere that they may not be familiar with firsthand. If you take on this challenge, you must be willing to balance historical accuracy with entertainment. This is definitely not easy to do.

If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with an encyclopedia entry and no heart, or a cast of characters that are out of sync with their historical setting.

Here’s how to write a historical fiction story without losing your mind.

Start By Reading

Writing historical fiction

Before you start your first draft, before you outline, and before you even think too closely about the story you’re going to write— read. Read books in the historical fiction genre. These books will help you get a feel for what your readers expect when they open your book.

Sure, you’ve probably read historical fiction before. But have you read it from an author’s perspective? In other words, instead of getting immersed in the story as a reader, try to look at it from a critical eye. Question why the author chose those specific scenes, characters, and motivations. Take specific note of if, how, and when the author introduces dialogue. Also, pay attention to the descriptions of setting and how the characters interact naturally in their environment. This will help you as you start planning your own novel.

FOCUS ON THE STORY

As an author, you may be in love with a specific time and place. However, don’t let the time period overshadow the story.

While time and place can serve as your muse, don’t forget to focus on the characters who create the story. Your characters are at the heart of your story, and it’s through your characters that your readers will experience the time and place in your novel.

Also, remember that historical fiction doesn’t always involve a real person. You can create characters that are period appropriate and also fabricated from your imagination. More important than being true to a factual historical figure is being true to the time and place.

CHOOSE A SPECIFIC TIME PERIOD

When choosing a time period for your historical fiction novel, get specific. Resist the urge to set your novel in “the 20th century.” Think about it. What exactly does that mean? For example, if you contrast the 1950s to the 1990s (which is only 40 years apart and in the same century), you have two different customs and cultures. If your time period is too broad, you can muddle your story unintentionally.

Instead, choose a decade instead of a century. This allows you to focus in on a smaller section of time for the most accurate details.

CHOOSE A SPECIFIC PLACE

In addition to narrowing your time period, you need to also zoom in to a specific place.

Here’s an exercise. What do you think when you picture “America”?

Now, what do you think when you picture “Montana”?

America is culturally diverse, bringing together multiple ways of life, traditions, and social norms. You may see a quick-moving slideshow of multiple images from New York to L.A., and random places in between.

But narrowing the setting to Montana calls a very specific culture and place to mind. Perhaps, you think rugged, wild, cowboys, big country, and bears. You know, the stuff of Ford trucks and Marlboro ads. But when you think of a setting as vast as “America,” you probably don’t think of bears first.

This is exactly why it’s important for you to choose a specific place for your historical fiction novel. Otherwise, your mind will be racing with setting descriptions and ideas that may not describe what your character would realistically see out their window.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Research is important for every novel, but it’s an essential step for a historical fiction novel. You simply cannot write a historical fiction novel without researching first.

Here’s why: Historical accuracy is a big reason why readers are drawn to this genre. Your readers want to be transported into a very specific time and place. And believe you me, they’ll call you on it if you get details wrong.

Research everything from names to dress to language to socially acceptable behavior. One of my favorite tips is to read novels and other books written during the same time period that your story takes place. This will help you get a feel for the common language, thought, and social graces.

PAY ATTENTION TO THE SMALL DETAILS

The devil is in the details. As I mentioned above, your readers want to get lost in the time period. If your details are off, you’ll lose them.

You can use small details to accurately capture the mood of the time period. Something as small as the type of hat a man wears or the way they say goodnight can add authenticity and richness to your story. This is why research is so vital.

WEAVE REAL EVENTS INTO THE PLOT

Whether your story is entirely fictional or not, you need to weave real events into your plot. They anchor your story and turn it into historical fiction, and not just fantasy or literary fiction. A historical fiction story needs to take place in an accurate historical setting.

When researching for your novel, find milestone events that would naturally affect and shape the characters in your story. Even if your story takes place in 1950, your characters would still be affected by World War II which occurred five years earlier. It’s your job to acknowledge (and research) those landmark events that would be fresh in your characters’ minds.

VISIT THE LOCATION

Writing historical fiction

When researching your historical fiction novel, take a trip to the location of the events. I know this isn’t always possible, but if you can travel, do.

Visiting the setting of your novel can give you a sense of space. Even if the area is now modernized, you may still be able to see glimpses of the past, especially if your novel is set in the recent past.

However, if traveling to a distant locale isn’t in the budget, consider visiting a museum. Most museums, especially those in bigger cities, have an extensive collection of historical pieces from near and far, such as dresses, furniture, letters, and, of course, art.

And if you don’t have access to the right museum for your needs, take the hunt online.

DON'T INSERT YOUR 21ST CENTURY SENSIBILITIES

Be careful not to write contemporary characters and thoughts into a historical novel. It’s so easy to transfer your mindset and cultural attitudes to the characters in your story. But, your characters don’t know anything about the Internet or Popeye’s chicken. They may not even know what germs are. Perhaps, they’re still grappling with ideas like a woman’s right to vote.

They certainly don’t see things in the same way that you do, even the most basic of things, such as romantic love or self-identity in one’s society. Take this as an opportunity to contrast your character’s culture against our current culture. Find the universal, human truths that remain relevant across all time periods.

When writing historical fiction, find the universal, human truths that remain relevant across all time periods.

Final Thoughts

Writing a historical fiction novel will require research and a shift in thinking. You can’t simply write a contemporary character into a historical setting and call it a historical fiction novel. You need to craft characters, settings, and details that are authentic to the period.

Before you go, check out these related posts:

  • Do This Before Writing Your Next Novel
  • 100 Tips to Help You Become a Better Author
  • How to Find the Inspiration and Motivation to Write Your Next Book
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