If you want to try your hand at historical fiction, you might wonder where to start. However, it’s not actually all that different from writing contemporary. You still need authentic characters and a great hook. Historical differs in that it requires more research to make sure you have the everyday details correct. When you start thinking about those details — everything from toothpaste to transit — historical can feel overwhelming. Here are a few tips to keep things feeling familiar as you work through your manuscript.
Lean on experts and primary sources.
I doubt a writer could last long in historical fiction if they didn’t enjoy research. You’ll spend countless hours with your nose in a book (or a Google search), trying to learn all you can about the your story’s time and place.
But sometimes it pays to track down an expert. You can glean a lot more from a real-life conversation than you can from the internet or a book. Researchers are often happy to discuss their area of expertise. They can also answer questions and give advice specific to your story.
Even if you don’t find an accredited expert, you can still benefit from a knowledgeable beta reader: someone who grew up in the area you’re writing about or has some other connection to the culture of the time. For example, my family has frequented the same beach town since my grandmother first visited as a child. I’m no historian, but I could help a writer weed out glaring errors in a historical novel set on that island.
Whatever you do, remember to stay humble. Listen more than you talk. We often don’t know what we don’t know!
For your other research, try to find as much primary source material as possible. That means catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and written correspondence from the time and place you’re writing about. These sources will give you a window into the collective consciousness of the time.
Capture the voice.
Like with any novel, voice will set your story apart. Historical fiction requires a little extra effort to differentiate your voice from the narrator’s voice.
Read articles, novels, and letters from the time period you’re writing about. Think about your main character’s social class and how that will affect their voice. What would they notice? Would they use formal speech? How would they perceive the people around them? What would they worry about?
Resist the urge to right history’s wrongs. Past generations often held very different views about a whole host of things: courtship, racial equality, homosexuality, even women wearing pants. Write your characters authentically even if you wish they would question the status quo more than they do. A situation that feels profoundly unfair by today’s standards may not have raised alarms to most people at the time.
At the same time, you’ll need to strike a fine balance between historical accuracy and modern palatability. Be especially careful with words that readers may either misunderstand or have such a strong reaction to they won’t want to keep reading. Sometimes you’ll need to bend history enough to be sensitive to modern readers and yet not so much you lose the voice.
Be careful with point of view and detail.
Similar to character backstory in any genre, you’ll end up knowing a heck of a lot more about your characters and their world than you ever put on the page. And some of that detail may feel tough to let go. You want to see those hours of research pay off and you want to share your favorite facts you’ve learned along the way.
This makes it very easy to break point of view and disrupt your story’s voice. When you call attention to or explain factual details in a way that doesn’t feel authentic to your narrator, you pull the reader out of the story and remind them they’re reading.
Just like you would in contemporary fiction, stay mindful of what your main character would actually notice and how they would think and feel about it. Reduce detail in action scenes when your characters won’t notice the model of car passing by on the street. Also, ask yourself what they would know considering their age, interests, and status.
Try not to mourn the fun stuff you end up cutting or leaving out. Far from wasted effort, this material adds richness to your final draft. Readers may not be able to see it, but we will feel it.
Remember it’s still a novel.
Once you get engrossed in research, it’s easy to start molding the story to what you feel excited to include in your story. Just because you have to learn about your setting and culture through research doesn’t mean you should let the research steer the ship. All basic novel structure rules still apply. Your research and historical details are there for your story, not the other way around. If you get bogged down, remember it’s okay to sketch out a rough draft first and fill in details later.