Here is a guide to writing historical fiction, that will hopefully inspire or guide you in creating a narrative about the past.
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What Is Historical Fiction?
For the sake of this article, we’ll take a loose definition to historical fiction. We understand historical fiction as narratives that are, or at least partially, set in the past. For example, a novel may start off in the contemporary world, but transport the main character to a historical period. Although that is more of a ‘time-slip’ novel than a straight forward historical fiction, it is still part of our understanding of the genre.
Note: There is plenty of debate regarding the time limits of historical fiction. Some consider anything set in the last fifty years to not be ‘historical.’ Personally, I disagree but when writing historical fiction, I understand that agents, publishers and readers have definitions of their own.
Why write historical fiction?
The Importance Of The Past & Engaging With It
The past is clearly important: it affects the present and the future! However, that’s not the only benefit of engaging with history. A significant one is to better understand human nature. Whether you study the Vietnam War or Late Antiquity, history teaches us empathy. Many readers turn to historical fiction to understand particular events. This is a strength of WWII fiction, particularly books such as Empire Of The Sun.
I’d argue that we have a duty to those who came before us to understand their lives and complexities.
Offering The Reader Something New
Although the past has already happened, there is still much we don’t know about it. People read historical fiction not just for escapism, but to understand history and culture. When you read historical fiction, you discover things that you may not have. This is a strength of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and A.S Byatt’s fiction. Later in this article, you’ll read about the various ways you can offer information whilst writing historical fiction.
Introducing Yourself To A Whole New Group Of Readers
Of course, historical fiction has an active reading base. Plenty of readers love it, and that’s because the past captivates our interest. Your short story or novel of historical fiction may help you gain readers that had previously slipped through.
Different Types Of Historical (Speculative) Fiction
There are various types of historical fiction that allows for speculation. They include:
- Time-slip: Stories That Feature Time Travel
- Historical Fantasy: History, But Fantastic (Think Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell)
- Alternative History: Where A Different Outcome In History Occurs (Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is a famous example)
Outline Your Historical Fiction Story
Do Research First, But Accept That It’s Never Over
I suggest doing some research of your time period before you outline or write. Having a solid overview of the time period will stop you from making severe structural errors. The further you get into your manuscript, the more detailed and specific your research will be. However, understand that your research process is never truly over. Don’t let research stop you from writing, but also don’t pressure yourself with it.
Ideally, you’ll do research throughout the outline, writing and rewriting process. This will give you a knack for the world building in your narrative.
Remember Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, etc
Yes, the past is fascinating. However, for your story to work, you must not forget characterisation, plot, setting and theme. In previous works of historical fiction that I wrote, it read like a historical encyclopedia. It’s also tempting to drop all the research you have done in a single paragraph. Resist that urge, because great historical fiction focuses on immersion, not telling.
Beware Of Modern Cliches
Although some readers demand all female characters to talk like empowered feminists, that is not essential. It can also be jarring and inauthentic, which will stop the reader from believing in the story, and your capabilities as a writer.
Writers who want to insert modern cliches or trends (‘strong female characters’ or ‘diverse casts’) must acknowledge that they may not be around forever. Often, modern tendencies in fiction date horrendously, and can actually alienate readers.
There’s nothing more insufferable to readers of historical fiction than an author who imposes their morality and modern standards on literature.
But Don’t Be Afraid To Have A Modern Edge
That said, a modern edge isn’t always bad. For example, in works of alternative history, it’s actually fun to compare the present with the past. My point is: be original, subtle and creative about how you apply modern ideas and concepts to the past. Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose does this very well. He combined his contemporary scholarship with a medieval setting, and wrote a fantastic novel.
Perhaps you are writing historical fiction because you see a need for greater understanding of a historical figure. That was partially the motivation behind Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
Look Beyond The Internet
The internet is a great source that you should use, but quickly, you’ll wring it dry. Read books, visit locations, go to library talks, ask witnesses, watch historical footage and analyse photographs. By mixing up your research data, you’ll gain a fleshed out image of your time period.
Use Primary & Secondary Sources
Primary sources refer to historical sources that existed during the time period, whereas secondary sources came afterwards. An example of a primary source in say, medieval Europe, would be an Insular manuscript. However, a secondary source could be an academic paper released in 2010 about Celtic manuscripts and art. It’s best to use primary and secondary sources for anything related to history.
Keep Track Of Notes
Historical research gets wild… quick. That’s why it’s best to keep track of your notes, whether handwritten or typed. You may want to create a factual encyclopedia for your novel, which contains relevant information that you plan to use.
Note: Scrivener helps you keep your notes close by.
Ask Challenging Questions
History is full of controversies. In your research, you may expose a lack of scholarship in a particular area, or a widespread perspective that shouldn’t be easily accepted. That’s part of why I love history. It’s full of rabbit holes and mysterious portals that keep you curious. Perhaps your novel could confront the presumptions somehow. When writing historical fiction, you want to make the old seem new. By having a fresh perspective, you can do that.
Read Historical Fiction & Non- Fiction
Read widely, especially if you plan to publish. You’ll notice what authors have already done, and see what potential contributions you can make to historical fiction. You don’t have to start with War and Peace, but being a consistent reader of history helps you write it.
Writing A Historical Novel
Take Care With Dialogue
Pay attention to the dialogue while writing historical fiction. Often, dialogue separates the apprentices from the masters of writing. You don’t need characters speaking exactly like their historical counterparts. But great dialogue captures the mannerisms and tendencies of the time period.
Pay Attention To The Little Details
Details are an opportunity for you as a writer to reveal information about the character or situation. But more than that, successful historical fiction has an immersion factor, that brings the contemporary reader into the past. A brilliant example is the Outlander series, where the author includes swaths of historical information. But Diana Gabaldon does more than that. She makes the information relevant to the story and interesting to the reader.
To do this effectively, it does take some practice.
Accept That Fiction Means Making Things Up
Although historical accuracy is good to aim for, you may have to make certain elements up. That could mean inserting fictional characters in a biopic, emphasising the unremarkable, etc. As a writer, you’ll need to know the perfect balance between fictional details and reality. Prepare to stand by your choices, as you can’t possibly please everyone.
Important Factors To Remember
Your audience is important
Consider who you want to read your work. What demographics do they belong in? What other works of literature do they enjoy? Such questions will help you reach your readers, and perhaps make your writing more suitable. Also consider the prior knowledge of your audience before writing. It’s easy to presume that because you are history-inclined, that the reader is, too.
Treat Your Characters Like Real People
Regardless of how flawed they are, the best historical fiction acknowledges the complexity in its characters. Whilst that doesn’t mean they will be likeable, try to make your main characters interesting. Also, resist the urge to harshly judge or condemn them, even if they eventually get their just desserts. The best historical fiction urges us that the people who lived before us were just as real and intricate as ourselves.
Offer Something New
It may be rewarding to add a unique twist to your story, or to add something unexpected. When writing historical fiction, you could focus on a less-visited time period, have an unlikely protagonist or even insert magic or fantastic elements. Your options are limitless. But give the reader an experience that they haven’t had before. They’ll cherish your book even more.
What are your tips on writing historical fiction? Comment below!