All fiction is a contemplation of human existence. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the historical genre, which purposefully looks back in time and seeks to create context for and find meaning in the events that have already happened to the human race. Learning how to write historical fiction requires all the usual techniques of good storytelling combined with excellent research skills. Good historical writers must also prove empathetic enough to understand and dramatize characters whose lives were often very different from our own, while still evoking the humanity they share in common with us.
Historical fiction was my first love. Counting unpublished books, I’ve gleefully explored historical settings in seven out of my eleven completed novels. Although I consider myself primarily a speculative novelist at this point, the main reason I hopped from historical fiction to fantasy was, as I mentioned in the previous post How to Write Fantasy, was simply because I wanted to grant myself a little more leeway from “the facts” while keeping the historical settings. Even now, there is no fictional element that draws me in more surely than that of historical settings, people, and crises.
In response to the post on fantasy, reader Sylvia commented, “I suppose part of me thinks that any fiction is fantasy in a way because we make up the characters….” I couldn’t agree more. To me, historical fiction has always seemed fantastical—whether it’s set in medieval times or in the 1980s. Even when exploring the darkest epochs in human history, there is a certain magic to seeing a world filled with strange clothing, vocabulary, and culture—and then to see the people in this world brought to life just as vividly as if they lived right next door to you or me.
Like fantasy, historical fiction is something of a milieu genre. It is defined primarily by its setting and can provide the background for many different types stories. Historical romance (such as the Bridgerton series) and historical mystery (such as Father Brown) are two popular examples.
But what I’m going to call “true historical fiction” takes this all a bit further and focuses on faithfully recreating actual historical events. Sometimes this might focus on the lives of real people (such as in Band of Brothers, The Tudors, or Hidden Figures).
Or it might create fictional characters who are nonetheless portrayed as realistic proxies for the real-life experiences of certain groups (such as pioneers in 1883, soldiers in Vietnam in Platoon, or freed slaves in Beloved).
5 Tips for How to Write Historical Fiction
Historical fiction requires the same basic skills used to create any type of well-drawn story, but with the added responsibility of authentically evoking times gone by—some of which are now beyond the memory of any living person. Just as with any genre, historical fiction entertains, but it is also a magic window into our own pasts, offering us the opportunity to better understand ourselves and each other.
Today, in the third installment in our Genre Tips series, I am sharing five tips for how to write historical fiction, gleaned from my own long experience with and love for the genre.
Story Structure in Historical Fiction: Understand How to Line Up History With Plot Beats
Historical writers often ask me, “How can I accurately line up the events of a real-life story with the timing of story structure beats?”
Obviously, historical writers using a historical setting as the backdrop for a plot of their own making will not face the same constraints as someone attempting to faithfully recreate a real-life event. In the former instance, writers can follow the dictates of their own creativity, which often simplifies the pacing challenges of good story structure. In the latter instance, writers must understand several important points.
1. This Is Historical Fiction
As I like to remind myself in my historical research, authenticity is more important than accuracy. This means you do, in fact, have the leeway to massage story events until you find the most powerful narrative experience. What’s important is staying true to the heart of the story. It’s about valuing what previous guest poster Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., recently mentioned to me as valuing what’s “emotionally true” over what’s “factually true.”
2. Look for the Existing Story Structure
Why were you drawn to write about this particular historical event or personage? Probably, the answer is that you recognized its inherent dramatic potential. In other words, you recognized its already existing story arc. Where there’s a story arc, there’s probably a character arc of some sort (whether Positive, Flat or Negative), and where there’s a character arc, there is inherent structure.
Dig in to what’s already there and start looking for the moments in this story that naturally emerge as obvious structural waypoints:
3. It’s Okay to Massage the Timeline and/or to Occasionally Make Something Up
Timing in story structure is really about nothing more or less than pacing. For example, if you feel that the natural Midpoint in the story takes place much later in the real-life timeline than is ideal for your narrative pacing, you can either make the decision to shorten the real-life timeline for the sake of the story or simply create the illusion of snappier pacing by summarizing or skipping over segments of your protagonist’s life in which nothing of dramatic interest happened.
It’s also acceptable to combine events where necessary. If your protagonist gets married in one scene and has a falling out with her father about it many months later, you may find your story is served best by combining the two events into one scene. As long as you’re preserving the spirit of what really happened, you won’t always need to feel constrained to portray the letter of what happened.
When writing historical fiction, you will inevitably find yourself confronted with instances in which you simply don’t know what your characters thought, said, or did. You will have to dramatize. Sometimes you’ll even find you need to create a big event in order for the character’s progression through the arc to make sense. Again, as long as you’re doing your best to responsibly represent reality, this is fine.
For Example: In the Roger Maris/Mickey Mantle baseball biopic 61*, a key moment in the story happens when a fan misunderstands Maris’s joke in “autographing” a baseball with just the letter X. In real life, this didn’t happen until 1962, after the homerun race of 1961 was already over. However, because the event did happen and because it so nicely helped dramatize Maris’s estrangement from Yankee fans, it works well even out of its own timeline.
Characters in Historical Fiction: Hone Motive With Historical Mindset
Whether you’re trying to accurately portray real-life personalities on the page or simply portray a made-up person who could have realistically lived in your chosen time period, you will need to dig deep into the historical mindset of your character. The best historical authors leave their own modern mindsets and mores at the office door. Through research, imagination, and empathy, they seek not to force their own contemporary views onto historical characters, but rather to so deeply inhabit the mindsets of previous eras that they can fully represent those mindsets through their characters.
This is nowhere more important than with motive. Although primal motives remain pretty much the same throughout the ages, the perspectives and paradigms that drive us are almost shockingly different as we roam through the ages. Things that seem abhorrent to us now may have seemed holy to our ancestors, and things that would have shocked or shamed our ancestors may have now become some of our most treasured ideals. For example, how women were viewed (and viewed themselves) in society even just a hundred years past has altered radically.
Although the occasional satirical or fantastical romp designed to subvert tropes can be fun and even cathartic, most serious historical fiction will have shirked its duty if it fails to properly represent what reality used to be like, from the inside out. Rewriting history to how we wish it could have been robs our modern struggles of context and moves the genre into something more akin to fantasy than history.
The western genre is a good example of this. The westerns of mid-20th-Century film and literature take place mostly in a fantasy-scape that, however gloriously archetypal in some ways, is hardly historical and often glosses over harsh and even cruel realities. In more recent decades, this historical subgenre has often further specified some of its entries as “historical westerns”—which are less about the pop-culture tropes and more about trying to evoke the true reality of the people who lived during this time. Both subgenres—popcorn westerns and historical westerns—are great, but it’s important to recognize the differences.
For Example: The musical West Side Story, set in 1950s New York, explores uncomfortable viewpoints of its time and place—racism, gang warfare, etc.—from the inside out, fully fleshing out and inhabiting diverse characters who often believe in things and make choices that, however uncomfortable they may sometime seem to audiences, always feel authentic.
Voice in Historical Fiction: Create an Authentic Vocabulary for Your Narrative
One of the great pleasures of historical fiction is getting to experience the feel and sound of words from a bygone era. Nothing brings past years to life more vividly than highlighting the evolution (and sometimes devolution) of language. By implementing a rich historical vocabulary and an understanding of cadence and sentence structure, writers can transport readers through language alone.
This is, however, a fine line to walk. Depending on your era, your characters’ accurate speech might be unintelligible to your readers. For example, when writing Wayfarer, which is set in early Georgian England, I knew that words that meant certain things to my historical characters would, in fact, have entirely different meanings for my modern readers. (For example, back then, “blink” didn’t mean close your eyelids; it meant “twinkle.”) In these cases, the goal is, once again, to evoke authenticity even at the expense of accuracy. The author must choose how to convey the effect of a historical voice to readers without unnecessarily inhibiting the reading experience.
One of the best ways to do this is simply to read widely about your chosen historical era—both journals, literature, and letters of the actual time (if available) and historical fiction about the period. Examine how other authors chose to evoke the sound of the period’s language. What particularly strikes you—and what throws you?
For Example: The novel True Grit by Charles Portis does an incredible job evoking the period and mindsets of its characters—especially its steely young protagonist Mattie Ross, who is on the hunt for her father’s killer in the wilds of Oklahoma. Mattie is a difficult character whose views are not always attractive to modern readers, but the cadence and vocabulary of her late 19th-century Arkansas voice is brought to life so vividly by Portis that the whole story sings with authenticity.
Theme in Historical Fiction: Find Your Timeline’s Organic Theme
Even apart from more specific subgenres (such as romance or mystery), historical fiction will often offer at least a hint of an integral theme. When you combine your own story’s specific plot conflict with its historical time period and setting, certain thematic premises often arise obviously.
For example, if you are writing a more general historical story about, say, Vikings at war, then this culture, its survival needs, and its moral attitudes will immediately offer ideas about how to deepen or subvert concepts that might either have been taken for granted by your historical characters or have been on the brink of social evolution.
On the other hand, if you are writing about a specific historical event or personage, then the heart of the story will be even more specific. It is impossible to write a story about, say, Abraham Lincoln without exploring certain innate themes within his life, times, and personality. Indeed, the entire point of your story might be unearthing those themes.
For Example: When Markus Zuzak set his novel The Book Thief in World War II Nazi Germany, themes of oppression and war were immediately obvious, which he masterfully underlined by deciding the entire book should be narrated by that most obvious theme of all—Death.
Research for Historical Fiction: Create a System to Organize Your Notes
Stories in any genre will almost always require a certain amount of research—but no genre requires more careful attention to research than historical fiction. The good news is that most historical writers are also keen readers of both history and historical fiction.
I have written extensively about my own research process in previous posts, but I will sum it up here:
1. Always Be Researching!
If you’re reading history and historical fiction anyway, make it a point to take notes as you go. Whenever you struck by a particular discovery—whether it is a historical event you’re just learning about or a simple but evocative detail of historical life—categorize it for later.
2. Outline First
If you’re an outliner and if you feel you already have a basic understanding of your time period, I recommend writing the outline first. This way you can get a sense of exactly what questions you will need to answer when researching. This approach is best for more general historical fiction that is able to create its own timeline and story structure. If you are trying to recreate a real-life event or timeline, you will obviously need to reference that when outlining; indeed, it will be your outline.
3. Create a Research To-Be-Read Pile Based on Your Questions
Write a list of all questions you know you need answered before you can begin writing the story. Your questions might be about little things like style of clothing, or they might be more important questions of the why and how behind certain real-life events. Use your list to guide your reading choices. Be thorough, but don’t go overboard: read until you feel you’ve answered your own questions and have enough material to draw on. More questions will inevitably come up during and after the writing, but they can be answered in the future.
4. Organize Your Notes
Type up your notes and organize them by category, so you can easily find what you need on the go. When writing a historical novel, I will take a moment before each day’s writing session to review one section of my review notes, just to keep it all fresh. If you’re writing in a word processor such as Scrivener, you can also copy/paste pertinent research notes into your chapter outline, so you can immediately see what you need to remember when you reach pertinent sections in your story.
Sooner or later, all novels become historical fiction, simply by dint of slipping far away from our ever advancing modernity. But there is a special gift in learning how to write historical fiction that thoughtfully explores the triumphs and failures of our shared pasts. It is one genre that will never go out fashion!
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Mystery!
Previous Posts in This Series:
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written historical fiction? What are your thoughts on how to write historical fiction? Tell me in the comments!
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