5 Tips to Writing Historical Fiction
The writing process can become long and tedious with many bumps along the way. There is a long list a writer needs to keep in mind before beginning any novel: plot, subplots, characterization, pacing, backstory, conflict, and resolution.
However, there is one difference between writing a historical novel versus a contemporary one.
There will always be research with any genre you chose to write in. One cannot presume to know everything, but when writing historical fiction the research is abundant. If you do not like to research, then this is not the genre for you.
A historical author needs to apply certain rules to theherir writing format. I have written a list that I’ve followed for years, and I hope it helps you too.
1. Events: When writing historical fiction you need to consider the time in which the story takes place. If the story is during a monumental event, be sure to include it. For example: if you were writing a book set during 1815 in the colonies of America, you’d need to include the war of 1812 as it was still going on then and would’ve definitely affected living conditions, impacted your characters’ lives, and possibly changed the way the land itself looked. You wouldn’t be doing the story any justice if you ignored this one fact.
The same could be said of other events, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, The Alamo, the Civil War, etc. You don’t need to describe the event itself, but rather include what your character thought of it, or make mention of it in a conversation. I like to do both within my stories. Adding bits of information subtly throughout the novel will pull the reader into your story even more, as you’re bringing them back in time.
2. Clothing: Every decade has its fashion faux pas; make sure to be accurate when it comes to dress. As a writer of historical novels, you will need to research this, as fashion changed throughout the decades. Be as accurate as possible. You can pull a reader right out of your story by placing more up-to-date clothing on your character than what they actually wore. This also applies to the little details, such as shoes, hair pieces, makeup, perfume, wigs (for men and women), and gloves.
3. Language: According to my research, slang and swearwords have been around before the turn of the century, but do not include them if they don’t fit your character’s makeup. I remember watching a Western in which the main characters threw the F-bomb around like it was how-de-do. It ruined the whole movie for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe or know that the F-word has been around since the 1100s, but the characters didn’t fit the language used. It was too much and became a huge distraction.
The last thing you want to do is distract your reader with overused words that don’t bring the story along. This also goes with everyday language. If your story takes place in the early 1400s, you will need to educate yourself on the way they spoke. Chances are they used different words to describe things, especially if your novel takes place in any other country besides the United States and Canada. Much like fashion, language and the use of it changed with the times as well.
4. Setting: This is one of the most important things you’ll need to know, for if not done right, it will pull your reader from the story and you won’t have a hope in hell to bring them back. Your job as a writer is to paint a picture with words. The reader has never been to historical Ireland, so you need to take them there with your description, with little details that create a vivid setting.
I know you’ve never been to historical Ireland either, and so your job is to research the heck out of it. Learn all you can about the location, even if you only use a fraction of it. I once spent a whole day researching what trees were indigenous to the state of Colorado in the 1800s but only made mention of them once in my 79,000-word novel.
As a writer, you need to always remember the reader, and if you do not read, start. Readers will call your bluff if you’re description is not correct. Now, I’m not saying you need to go into intricate detail describing the vast lands of Wyoming in the 1800s or downtown London in the 1700s, but like a sprinkle of rain, give small droplets at a time. Satisfy your readers’ thirst for the unknown, and suck them into your story.
5. Question the period: As a historical writer, you need to remember all the little facts too. What was the form of transportation? What did they eat? What jobs were there? Who was the law? Was there vigilantism? And on and on. Always ask yourself questions throughout your writing process. These are all facts that will be in your novel. You will need to know them. Educate yourself, read, and read some more!
Be enthusiastic—be smart and it will show within your story.
The more you write, the better you will become, and writing historical fiction is no different. The first novel will be a challenge, and you will second-guess yourself along the way, but you’d do this if you were writing a contemporary novel too. Your job is to tell a story with fascinating characters, a descriptive setting, and an exciting plot.
What I love about being an author of historical fiction is I get to learn about history and the people who lived before me. The best part about my job is I get to bring my readers on that journey with me.