Five “Rules” for Writing Historical Fiction

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I, for one, love getting immersed in historical fiction. I’m always delighted by the details of dress code or social convention (or, more so, the flouting of it). I love to picture what life was like for these characters and wonder if I could have lasted in such circumstances. This is what makes historical narrative so absorbing. However, there are a few pitfalls that can trip you up. Here are my five “rules” for writing historical fiction, with the proviso that all rules are simply guidelines!

Research, Research, Research

In order to place your story in the past, you need to know details about how people lived, what they ate, how they dressed, gender dynamics, modes of transportation, methods of communication…literally, you name it. These are the details that make another time period visceral for the reader. They also might be integral to your plot. After all, sending a message via pony express versus picking up a ubiquitous cell phone changes the urgency of a situation.

When researching, push beyond what your initial Google search turns up. Of course the Internet will be invaluable for getting started, but you might need even more information. Books written by experts can help, as can primary sources like newspapers or even catalogs. Don’t forget to look in the Classifieds, the Personals, or the Ads. Look for where people are writing casually or referencing everyday items. You’ll absorb a lot about the culture.

If your plot calls for specific, deeper knowledge, consider consulting an expert. Historians at colleges or at local museums might be thrilled to talk with you about their subject matter area. At the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference, historians brought in actual Regency-period gowns and other dress so writers could see what those bodices were like before they were ripped. In the same way, other resources might be available that will illuminate a time period for you.

Go Easy with the Fun Facts

In the course of your research, you’ll likely become enamored with your interesting tidbits, but resist the urge to throw in every spare piece of info you gathered. People read novels for the story, plot, and characters…not as fun fact books. Although the details do illustrate the time so well, go easy. Make sure it’s pertinent to the plot and just enough to paint the picture, not obscure it.

Aim for Accuracy

Whether you’re writing about real historical people or fictional people of a time, aim for accuracy. No, you’re not a historian and this won’t end up in a textbook, but you do have an obligation to do your best to nail a time, place, or person. Also, resist the urge to editorialize. People of the past had different customs, manners, and views. Some of these would be uncomfortable or just plain wrong in today’s day and age. It’s okay to show life as it was, even if it doesn’t display our current mores. Anchor it in historic fact, though.

Don’t Forget the Story

Historical fiction can get stuck in a great premise without having a solid story. Don’t forget the story. You’ll still need to create a protagonist who can carry a whole book with conflict and problems that keep the pages turning. If historical fiction delights you, go for it! There are a stable of readers waiting for you to finish.



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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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