Let’s Get Historical: The Starting Point to Historical Fiction

Ah yes, historical writing; it’s one of my favorite genres, because this is where we can see our text going beyond what we have written. History is already a story our job, as the writer, is to give it that extra flare while maintaining the actuality of the events. Even in regular fiction novels we become the link to readers and real world topics, whether it be facts around a certain city or topics of discrimination. Our words hold power and knowledge.

In historical writing, it amplifies this even more. We don’t just write a story that grips its reader and takes them on a roller coaster expertly woven and balanced on that delicate line between real and fiction. We give them little tidbits of things that stick with them well after they read the last word. I can tell you I had little interest, or knowledge, of India and the religions revolving around the country, but after reading Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck I was hooked.

This may sound intimidating, but trust me when I say anyone can write historical fiction you just have to have the courage to write that first sentence and, let me give you a little advice that’ll surely help. It’s the same courage you used when you first started writing.

Once you’ve got your basics covered (check out my first post on styles) you’ll begin expanding your style to more variations. Maybe you like writing in the third person and you also like writing your chapters in diary entries. Well, that’s something that I think would incorporate really well into a historical fiction novel or even a short story. Maybe one of these, or even both, isn’t your forte or they’re something you have yet to experiment with. That’s fine. One of the primary reasons for continuing to write is so you can learn just what you like!

When writing historical fiction there are a few things to keep in mind. Several things actually, but don’t let them intimidate you. Yes, we all know writing can be a headache at times, especially when that annoyance with the last name “block” comes into play, but ignore that bugger for now. Take joy in the part of creating characters and digging into the historical background of things.

First things first, have a captivating setting that makes sense in the context and timeline you’re writing it in. If your story takes place in the old middle west, you don’t want to have people wearing Victorian Era clothing from 1888.

When considering setting there are four fundamental things to keep in mind. How people lived. How people ate. The style of homes. Artifacts. I call these the “fundamental things” because they’re what I pay attention to whenever I pick up a historical fiction novel. I don’t expect to see a long-lost Egyptian artifact in a small town in Europe where the Bubonic Plague is causing havoc. (Well, maybe there’s a story there, but not in this context).

When considering setting there are four fundamental things to keep in mind. How people lived. How people ate. The style of homes. Artifacts. I call these the “fundamental things” because they’re what I pay attention to whenever I pick up a historical fiction novel. I don’t expect to see a long-lost Egyptian artifact in a small town in Europe where the Bubonic Plague is causing havoc. (Well, maybe there’s a story there, but not in this context).

From here you have your elements to consider and focus on. This is where you really start getting your hands dirty in research and planning. It’s this part that you want to be a plotter, not a pantser. Trust me when I say you’ll drive yourself nuts and you’ll lose your reader. In any—and I mean any—historical fiction novel you need to do your research and plan, otherwise your information may not be accurate. I’d hate for you to get that reader that points out all the inaccuracies in your story. Not to mention it’s also unprofessional in the publishing world. No agent or publishing house would pick you up if you’re not going along with how things happened in history. This doesn’t even have to be Historical Fiction either, if you’re basing your book off of a state in America, and you’ve completely changed the climate (unless it’s a dystopian or apocalypse setting) it won’t go over well. Yes, I know there’s fictional/creative liberties, but they only go so far.

Here are 7 critical elements to consider while writing:

  • Character: Who are they? Male or Female. This is important to distinguish, especially when you consider the timeline when your story takes place. If the main character is a female, people will treat them differently in the middle ages then, say, the 21st century. The same goes for a male. Is he a character struggling with his sexuality where being gay was seen as blasphemous during the second world war?
  • Dialogue: * Dialogue: This is self-explanatory. If you have a character in the middle west, their accent and way of speaking will differ from that of a character in Germany. I can say the same on the way they were raised. Proper speaking etiquette will differ from a person who was raised in the slums of Whitechapel.
  • Setting: Again, self-explanatory. Your setting is the basis of your character, your dialogue, basically your everything. You really want to keep this in mind when laying out the groundwork for your story. Someone in the south of America will talk differently than someone in the northern part of the country. Likewise, someone brought up in a higher socioeconomic setting will speak differently than those not.
  • Plot: Does it make sense in the timeline you’re writing in? Does it give enough that your character can grow through the journey of it? Will your plot captivate your reader and keep them hooked from beginning to middle and, finally, to the end? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself while coming up with it because, just like your setting, it literary makes your everything from there on out.
  • Theme: What is it? What do you want your reader to interpret as they read your story? Do you have a theme of forbidden love? Maybe one following the line that if you’re a prostitute never ever go out alone at night, especially on the street of Whitechapel? Themes also go below the surface, and span entire series rather than a singular novel.  Keep this in mind while designing your plot.
  • Conflict: All excellent stories have them. They challenge your character. They make them grow. They hold your readers captive, sitting on the very edge of their seat while they continue to read, waiting for that singular word or sentence that will give them the peace of mind they so desperately want. The conflict is the part of your story that should always be relevant and easily spotted by the reader. There should also never be just one. There should be the major one that won’t get resolved until the end, and there should be the minor ones along the way. Your conflicts also come as Internal (Person vs Self) and External (Person vs nature; Person vs Society etc).
  • World Building: This one isn’t as important to us right now as it would be to a fantasy writer, because this is Historical Fiction and your world is, technically, already built for you, but it’s still up there with the rest. When building your world it’s almost the same as the setting. Don’t place things in it that shouldn’t be there. No giant, gleaming dystopian skyscrapers in the middle west. Sorry, but we’re not talking time travel here, let’s save that for the Science Fiction genre. You should complete your world building through research. Does your story take place in a concentration camp within Germany? Boom! There’s your world, now create all the other elements.

While you’re writing all these things down, after doing your research because come on, research is key in writing Historical Fiction, keep in mind how you’re writing. This is the part where style really comes into play. It’s where you weave in your storytelling skills and make the text come to life. Give your character’s breath. Let them come off the page and create a movie within your reader’s mind. This is where you show off everything you’ve researched making the characters, settings, plot events, and all the critical elements seem so authentic your reader will think they existed during that timeline.

Now then, as this article is wrapping up, there’s one thing I have left to tell you. When you’re writing your Historical Fiction story, no matter the length, you’re never wrong. People may try to argue with me on this and, to a degree, they will be right (go back to the dystopian skyscraper in the middle west), but everything outside of that is right. That’s because it’s your interpretation. That character you created with the weird stutter and enormous feet? It’s not wrong, it’s how you interpret someone from that time to have possibly been. It’s your interpretation. It’s your writing. While you’re digging up your research find that proverbial skeleton in the closet and make it your story.

This is where you become its teller.

All the best.

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