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Historical Fiction: How to Get it Right

Historical fiction is a broad genre that can be defined as “a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience,” according to Sarah Johnson, book review editor for the magazine, Historical Novels Review

But that’s not all there is to historical fiction. While fact does play an essential role, it is also important to know just how much fact is necessary in order to make it interesting—otherwise you risk your story appearing as a boring historical text, rather than a work of fiction.

“Stephen King tells us that the source of most bad writing is fear, and he’s right. Historical fiction writers who research and write from a fear of getting something wrong often drowns the story with facts and details.”

—Writing With Wonder: Weaving Time and Place With Story in Historical Fiction (by Dana Chamblee Carpenter)

There are a few key things that you can follow to write a good historical novel, which are advice that I picked up from several best-selling historical novelists.

Research. Research. Research.

This is the most important thing to consider when writing any historical novel. Once you have decided on which era you’re going to set your story in, start researching every little detail about that time period. From lifestyles to clothing to cuisine, you need to have a clear idea of what life will be like for your characters.

“It’s tempting to load up your manuscript with all of the wonderful research tidbits that you’ve gathered—but less is more.”

— 6 Keys to Writing a Compelling Historical Novel (by Sofia Grant)

But also make sure you don’t bombard your readers with loads of unnecessary information. While it will be fascinating to know how the sewage system of Ancient Rome worked, keep that bit of information to yourself if it won’t make any difference to your story.

The internet is the easiest place to get your research done, but it is also full of inaccurate information. Always check and recheck your facts from several sources before you write.

Read books from that era

If reading pages upon pages of history tires you out, try reading novels published during that era. For instance, if your story is supposed to be set in Victorian London, the novels of Charles Dickens will bring this era to life. While it gets harder and harder to find novels the further in history you go, it still remains one of the most enjoyable ways of doing research.

Check a good slang dictionary to find out the slang used in the era you’re writing about. Slang will make your story more realistic, and your characters more believable. But also don’t use too many obscure slangs, words or phrases that the novel becomes difficult for modern readers to read.

Travel

What better way to imagine your fictional world than when you stand gazing upon the architecture of that era? Traveling to the places your novel focuses on will boost your imagination. You can even talk to the locals and learn about their folklore!

“While a luxury and certainly not always possible, I cannot overstate the value of traveling to the place you are writing about.”

—6 Tips for Confidently Writing Historical Fiction (by Jaclyn Goldis)

But, since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, traveling may not be the wisest thing to do right now. You can always use Google Maps, though!

Blend fact with fiction

You’ve done your research. Now what? According to Susanna Calkins, author of Murder Knocks Twice, you need to blend fact with fiction. Instead of info-dumping on your readers, twist your historical facts around your plot. Let your characters describe the world from their perspective, instead of writing pages of pages explaining how society was like back then.

“Rather than just dumping a bunch of facts on the poor reader, let your characters interact with these details with all these senses. Let them smell the offal dumped onto the cobblestone streets. Let them squint in the fading light of the tallow candles. Let them feel the tingling sensation as the physician places a leech on their bare skin.”

—How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity (by Susanna Calkins)

You can even introduce fictional characters who were not there in the actual historical event you’re writing about. Change a little bit of historical details, too (but make sure your editor knows it was intentional!). You don’t need to be hundred percent accurate in your history. After all, it’s your story.

Sharika Hafeez

Sharika Hafeez is a nerd, and she’s proud of it. Growing up, she fell in love with books and writing, and is currently following her undergraduate degree (for some mysterious reasons) in Physics. She likes procrastinating by watching the stars with a steaming cup of tea, composing poetry in her head.

September 9, 2021

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