People pick up historical fiction because they’re fascinated by a certain time period or because they want to be totally absorbed in another world. It’s a nice alternative to fantasy for those who enjoy the world-building but have a hard time getting into a completely imaginary realm (like me!). Here’s more on world-building from a science fiction and fantasy perspective: World Building Basics. If you’re interested in writing historical fiction, but aren’t sure where to start, here are some tips on where to begin.
Decide What Kind of History You Want to Tell
Historical fiction is a broad category that ranges from extremely accurate descriptions of the past with only the unknowable dialogue made up to wild reimaginings that loosely resemble events that actually happened. As a writer of fiction, you can choose what you want to write! However, your requirements as an amateur historian will vary.
The type of fiction that will demand the most time in the library is a fictionalized true story. Here, accuracy will count. People will expect that you will chronicle the way people dressed, the foods they ate, the way they spoke, as well as a chronology of what happened and when. A good example of this type of historical fiction is Man Booker Prize award winner Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series. In this trilogy, she explores the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s advisor. I’m in the middle of her the third book, The Mirror and the Light (2020). It’s prompted me to look up the “real” history, and it’s exacting. Mantel clearly did her homework.
True, but with Creative License
All authors of historical fiction take creative license. Even those who do a deep dive into the real history cannot know what was in anyone’s head, nor can they be sure of the details of conversations. They have to make up that part. However, some writers want to push the boundaries of what is knowable by making up the unknown parts of a true story. One of my favorite examples of this is Christopher Moore’s comedic novel, Lamb, which is about Jesus’ childhood. It’s well known that the “middle years” of Jesus’ life is not detailed in the Bible, so Moore makes it up entirely.
Another option is to use history as a mere backdrop to a fictionalized account of an imaginary protagonist’s life. The penultimate example of this is the movie Forrest Gump. Forrest is a made-up character whose challenges and budding romance occur in the runup to and during/after the Vietnam War. Forrest never existed, but the audience is treated to the dress, mores, and conflict of the time. Note that if you go down this route, you’ll want to understand an era from the 10,000-foot level while also realizing you must create a narrative arc for your protagonist. Mantel follows the story of Cromwell as it happened. The writers of Forrest Gump had to make up the heart of the story.
Historical Fiction Inspired by Real Events
This is the type of historical fiction that can vary from taking only loose threads of real life to mirroring historical facts. Lots of crime stories were inspired by real events, even though they are careful to not plagiarize a living person’s real life. A great example of this type of fiction is Quentin Taratino’s 2019 movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s set against the horrific Manson-family murders, but it follows Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters, who are totally made up. And, it famously gives an alternate ending to the tragedy that unfolded back in 1969. This is an option for you too.
Rules of Fiction Still Apply
No matter how you intend to use history in your fiction, be sure to do your research. A mix of primary (like newspaper articles, diary entries, etc) and secondary sources (like history books) will add to the flavor of the era, which is what readers want. Beyond that, however, you’ll still need a story arc and plot in order to make it work as fiction. Readers will need to be gripped by an overarching question that your story seeks to answer. Will Forrest overcome his disabilities, live an independent life, and get the girl? It’s easy to get lost in the fascinating details of history, but those easy-to-understand story questions are what make for page-turners.