Writing Historical Fiction

If you’ve been reading my blog for quite a while, you may remember how I used to publish posts under the heading “The Writing Files”. While I did abandon these quite a while ago, I am now resuming them as I delve even deeper into the world of writing. Though I am by no means extremely experienced in the field, I will attempt to give advice or to write on the topic to the best of my ability. Just a lil’ advice. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Given the fact that Independence Day just passed, I thought I’d do a blog post on how to write excellent historical fiction. Keep in mind I’m no expert, these are just some general tips that most writers ought to keep in mind, remembering of course that rules were made to be bent if not broken.

#1. Know Your Time Period: Ok, so this one seems obvious. You may be rolling your eyes on the other side of the screen, but bear with me. You need to know this time period like the back of your hand (if not better, cause I’m always finding little papercuts on my knuckles and fingertips that I didn’t know where there so…yeah). Trust me when I say that you need to know what almost everything was like. Unlike with films where you have the luxury of things just being there, you need to be able to create the world. This means freaky little details like the fact that squids were used to create certain kinds of dye in the mid 15th century is important. By writing these details into your story, you build a much more real, interesting world different from the general, “beautiful blue sky, green forest, blah, blah.”

#2. Find the Main Conflict: Just like nowadays, people tend to focus on one world problem at a time. For example, in the latter half of 2001, the citizens of the US now had a problem in the form of terrorism. Security became tighter, panic became more widespread, and there was a spirit of fear. However if you lived in Australia in 2001, you may have been worrying about the HIH insurance disaster. Depending on where you live, there tends to be some sort of main focus, whether it has to do with the economy, an impending war, or tyrrany. Finding this main focus is important even if you don’t center your story around it. Having a bigger picture helps to create a backdrop to set your story against.

#3. Find Your Main Conflict: Now you need to find where your story fits into this bigger world. Is your story a mystery or a romance? An action/adventure? These sorts of stories have to fit within the political, geographic, and scientific knowledge of the world. So if your story is a crime story set in the 18th century, expect your characters to have very little help from physical evidence and that even the justice system will be against them. Read lots of historical fiction both good and bad to realize how to write within your world – and how not to write within your world.

#4. Don’t Try to Reconcile the Past With the Present: I know this will probably be a controversial point, but don’t try to reconcile the past with the present. Hamilton may have been popular, but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t a colorful musical that distracts you from multiple historical inaccuracies not even relating to the race of the actors. Though facts do tend to get bent a little in historical fiction, the worst crime is that of trying to reconcile the past’s mistakes to today’s views. Slavery was an evil, yes, but it should be shown. Racism, sexism, etc.; each of these evils should not be hidden or tried to be excused away. There were evils in the past just as much as there are now and books are the best medium to show the way we have overcome these.

#5. Make Your Characters Historically Stupid: This sounds weird, but don’t make your characters super wise for their time. Unless you’re writing about a significant period in history such as the American Revolution or the Renaissance where ideas of freedom and knowledge were discussed more, the characters should not be that smart. Yes, you can cheat and have a genius who discovers the secrets of time travel or space flight in the 16th century, but it breaks the illusion of the world. It is better to work with the lack of knowledge than to try and reconcile the past to the present.

#6. Avoid Preaching: There’s a lot to be learned from the past, but unless that is the purpose of the book, don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the evils of racism. Yes, it will be a part of the past, but that leads into my next piece of advice which is:

#7. Show, Don’t Tell: This is crucial when writing. Instead of telling how the British have cut off imports into the harbor and how irritating that is, show the characters having to make do with the food and goods they have and enjoying certain foods when spending time with family a colony away.

#8. Writing For the Past’s Future: One of my favorite books of all time happens to Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare and it happens to follow this rule really well. Basically it follows like this. In Witch of Blackbird Pond, many of the characters have discussions about the freedom of the American colonies and loyalty to the crown. Though the American revolution won’t happen for almost another hundred years, there is a great sense of foreshadowing that only readers can truly appreciate because we know what happens during the next century.

#9. Fact Check. A Lot: While there are some historical details that you’re sure to miss or slip up on, the one most important thing that you need to remember is to make sure that you’ve got the major ones down. Make sure you know in which order the battles of the American revolution were fought, where significant figures of the war died, and how they were done in. Facts like these may seem unimportant until your book is being reviewed by a history buff who enjoys pointing out the flaws of it.

#10. Read Historical Fiction: The best way to become a writer is to read, so it goes without saying that the best way to become a better historical fiction writer is to read historical fiction.

If you found any of my rambling helpful or just want to chat about your writing, leave a comment for me and tell me: did you find this helpful? Are there any tips you would advise for writers?

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