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5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction
Writing historical fiction is a delicate balance between historical accuracy and a well-crafted narrative. Each detail you come across could change the way you write your novel. This presents a unique challenge for historical fiction writers: what types of things should you be looking for? How much information do you need?
Not having a clear answer can make the research process exhausting.
This is why historical fiction writers need to research smartly. Before beginning to research, you have a basic idea of what you want to find. Having this idea will let you spend less time researching and more time writing.
All you need are a few questions to guide your search.
1. Research Carefully
How you research is just as important as what you are researching. While it is easier to find information now more than ever, there is also a lot of misinformation out there. To make sure everything you write about is correct, you must research properly.
1. Use the right websites for your search.
- Government and educational websites have the most accurate information. They guarantee the quality of the information before it gets to you. Try to use these types of websites as often as you can.
- If you are researching on other websites, check your sources early and often. Luckily, checking the credibility of a website isn't difficult.
- Double-check the information you want to use with another website. This is a simple way to verify your information. If the information is only available on one source, it may not be accurate.
2. Try reading books about your topic.
- Most nonfiction books check their facts prior to publication, so it removes the need to double-check your information.
- Some nonfiction books focus on specific subjects and ideas. Looking through these types of books can give you information you wouldn't have found otherwise.
When conducting research, take your time and don't rush. The research stage is where your various ideas begin to grow. Rushing this stage can make your story feel underdeveloped and weakens its impact.
2. Know the Time and Place
Knowing the time and place of your narrative is essential to your historical fiction. Without it, there's no reason to call your story a historical fiction. So, you must know your time and place well.
1. Understand why you chose the time and place you chose.
- Is there a particular area of history you want to bring awareness to? Do you want to explore a particular theme during a particular point of time? Did you just think it sounded cool?
- Answering this question narrows down which pieces of information you should focus on. For example, let's say two people are writing a novel about medieval Japan. The person who likes Japanese culture may emphasize specific customs. The other person, who likes medieval Japan's military, may emphasize the weaponry and fighting tactics.
2. Your setting, more than any other area of your novel, needs accuracy.
- If writer said New York City was a small, suburban town, you would instantly know that the writer didn't do their research.
- This applies to lesser known time and places as well. Depicting the setting with accuracy is a must for historical fiction writers. Messing up such basic details makes you seem careless.
3. Understand how geography will influence culture.
- What people do and where people live are related. For example, what we eat is somewhat related to where we live. As an American, I don't have fresh coconuts or lychee berries at my local grocery store. These foods aren't grown locally. While I can order them, it can get expensive, so I don't eat them.
- This applies to other aspects of our society as well. As a historical fiction writer, you need to be able to make these connections. This will allow you to use your research to its fullest potential.
Once you understand the place you chose, you can explore other aspects of your novel.
3. Understand the Culture
Understanding the culture of the people in your setting is just as important as the setting itself. Culture will affect how you write about the people in your setting. Just mentioning activities outside of your storyline makes the world that much more believable.
When discovering more about a historical period's culture, consider these questions:
- What are the common professions where your setting takes place? Are there any new professions emerging due to new technology?
- Do the people interact with others from different villages, towns, countries or continents? Are these types of people welcome to live in or marry into their society? Why or why not?
- What is the predominant religion in your place? Does it have a big influence on the town? Are they tolerant of other religions?
- How do people talk in this society? Do they use a lot of gestures and body language? Do they have accents? What types of words and phrases do they use in conversation?
- What do people in this society look down upon? Is it a specific profession, a past time, or a group of people? Is there a reason for such hatred?
While making your story more believable, these questions can also create conflict.
Whether you like it or not, society plays a big role in what we do in our everyday lives. We often act because of, despite of, or without regard to our society thinks. Your characters are are the same way. If your character defies societal expectations, they will create conflict. This conflict creates tension, which creates a much more engaging tale.
4. Use Your Characters Effectively
Without interesting main characters, you will have a lifeless story. Your readers will be spending most, if not the entirety of the novel with these characters. So, you must pay attention to the characters you choose the focus on in your narrative.
1. Are you creating your characters from scratch, or are you using real people?
- It is easier to use a real person, rather than draft a whole new character. People, especially well-known figures, have biographies that outline their personality and accomplishments. Yet, you can easily alienate your reader by using a real person's name.
- An extreme examples of this is Seth Grahame-Smith's book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While the book was well-researched, the writing was impeccable, and the characters were genuine and believable, many people had problems with the "re-imagined" view of the president. Having Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter violated people's concepts of the president. Creating a character from scratch has no such problems.
2. What makes your characters unique?
- Your characters need to be different from the "standard" inhabitants of your society. There wouldn't be any reason to focus on them, otherwise. When drafting characters, consider what makes them unique. Is it their motivation? Is it their past experiences? Is it something about their personality?
- If nothing stands out about your characters, your characters seem dull. Boring characters make a boring novel.
After answering these questions, then you can look at other aspects of the character. These two questions are here to establish the purpose of creating your characters.
5. Use Details to Your Advantage
While you are researching your setting, you will come across some compelling information. These little-known facts will flesh out your narrative, adding realism with no extra research. The small details are what bring your story to life.
1. It can contribute to your story.
- You can use these details in your plot. They can be major plot points, or you can use them to foreshadow major plot points. If you often struggle to find new ideas, this can be a great source of inspiration.
- It can either contribute to the novel through symbolism. Having an artifact or idea reoccur in your story will make your story's theme stick.
2. It immerses your reader.
- Adding extra details is like adding the finishing touches onto a cake. It makes your story seem more genuine, which enhances the experience that you give your reader.
There is one caveat to this: don't use too many details. Using every single piece of information you find will bog down your narrative. Knowing which details to use and which details to leave out is personal preference.
Historical fiction is a mixture of historical accuracy and imaginative narration. By being accurate and unique, you can give your readers an experience to remember.
Sometimes, you can't always be accurate.
And, if all else fails, the genre is called historical fiction for a reason. Though it may be looked down upon, you can fake some of your information. Some things are impossible to know unless you were there. So if your research falls flat, feel free to make your best educated guess.
Do you have any more tips, tricks, or general advice for writing historical fiction? Write a comment below!