Writing the History in Historical Fiction

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For writers of historical fiction, few things are as enthralling as the prospect of thousands of years of history to draw upon for writing inspiration. While most of us have a particular era that we enjoy the most (for me it’s the early 1900s), any era has the potential to spark an idea or a “what if” that can grow into a novel. For the purposes of clarity, it’s good to remember the golden rule of historical fiction:

The history must be as accurate as possible.

That said, there’s wiggle room for how you interpret history and choose to employ it in your novel. You could:

  • Write about historical figures in plausible situations, as long as it doesn’t contradict known historical fact (for example, a novel about General Patton and his suspicious death).
  • Or, you can set fictional characters in known historical events/settings (such as a woman training to be a Spitfire pilot in WWII).
  • Or, you could write about fictional characters in a less-specific scenario (maybe about a family trying to survive an ill-advised solo trip West during the Gold Rush).

Making up alternative history, though, isn’t a good idea. While it might be interesting to write a historically-based novel with anachronistic elements (say, steampunk) or muse on what might have happened if someone else had won a war, that ends up being more of a speculative or fantasy approach to history. That absolutely has a readership, but if you present your novel as straight-forward historical and take liberties with the facts, historical readers will notice.

So how do you create accurate historical fiction?

Namely, lots and lots of research. Historical is one of the most research-heavy genres and there are lots of unexpected things that pop up as you write. For example, things you need to get right include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Setting
  • Clothing
  • Technology
  • Culture/Social customs
  • Words and phrases (Etymology is really important! You wouldn’t want write about an event being “on someone’s radar” in the 13th century, for example.)

It’s also important to make sure everything included needs to be, even if it’s accurate. It’s a good idea to get beta readers who can offer sensitivity reads or who might be subject experts, especially with plots that might deal with more controversial historical issues.

Once you have all a handle on all that, though, the world of writing historical fiction can be absolutely fascinating. Now more than ever, there’s a demand for historical that delves into the less-explored eras and peoples in history. With a genre that has lots of sub-genres and almost an unlimited backdrop for your plots, you can make the past come alive for your readers. It’s important to be creative in how you present the history, though: readers don’t want to feel like they’re reading a history book. But how?

Strike the balance of history and fiction through your character’s experience.

Treat your readers to a world they’ve never known, exclusively from the experience of your POV characters. Let your characters feel the textures of clothing, inhale the scents of food and animals, hear the echoing silence of great cathedrals. Go deeper, though. Does the scratchy wool of their uniform remind them that wealthy officers have far better options when being outfitted for war? Maybe the scent of dried corn reminds your character that her mother raised and sold chickens to get by, something that gives her great insecurity as she’s climbed the social ladder.  

Your characters should behave as real people operating within their worlds. Just as you and I have opinions on everyday news headlines and gossip, so will your characters. They’ll be infuriated by the decisions of historical policy-makers, spurred to action by the injustice they see in their eras, moved to tears by what they confront socially. Real people have real emotions about everything they encounter throughout their days and so will the characters in your historical novels. The best part about writing the history in this way? You’ll not only entertain your readers, you’ll make the world you create something they can be passionate about, too.

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

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