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5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Updated on May 19, 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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!

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    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Donna Brown 19 months ago from Alton, Missouri

      I love to take little known historical events and build a story around them. I think of myself as a storyteller telling about a long ago event. I ask myself a lot of what if questions about the setting, the characters and the historical events related to the story.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 20 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I have had an historical novel idea floating through my head for sometime now. Your tips and suggestions are right on target. I especially like the one about using a real person that you know to base a character on.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 2 years ago from Georgia

      @Amelia Watson Thank you very much!

    • Amelia Watson profile image

      jessica smith 2 years ago

      Hello I have read your article. You shared the right points for historical fiction. I really love historical fiction. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 2 years ago from Georgia

      @Whitney Rose Wood Hey, talent doesn't make a good historical fiction. It's the hard work and perseverance that gets you there. So long as you make the effort, you should have no problems with writing for this genre. I hope you'll test it out and see if you get into it! Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      Whitney Rose Wood 2 years ago

      I have always loved historical fiction and and the talent it takes to make them. Maybe one day I will get into it. For now, it is good to have this article as a reminder of what it really takes. Voted up.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
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      Nicole Grizzle 2 years ago from Georgia

      @lyoness913 Any historical fiction writer worth their salt does as much research as they can! Thank you for the comment!

    • lyoness913 profile image

      Wendi Pembridge Skilling 2 years ago from Overland Park, KS

      Great hub! Your points are so true!- My favourite author, Diana Gabaldon, is an excellent writer of historical fiction because of her copious amount of research! Nice article!

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 2 years ago from Georgia

      @Homeplace Series I love writing historical fiction. I’m the type of person that explores themes in history through exploring facts. My personal favorite theme to explore is the struggle to maintain a fairness and equality. Yet, “fairness” is (and always has been) subjective and isn't immune to exploitation and corruption. Uncovering the darker parts of history and seeing how we have grown as a society is a great thing to study. It’s also an interesting challenge to write these things accurately. Thanks for the comment!

      @NellyWerff If you don't know where to start, of course writing historical fiction can be daunting! Once you understand what your story needs, the research part gets easier. I'm glad I helped you out. Thanks for the comment!

      @alancaster149 That sounds like quite the interesting read. I'll be sure to order a copy this evening. Thanks for the comment/book recommendation.

      @SusanDeppner I didn't even realize I was featured on HP Weekly today until you said so. It definitely explains the sudden influx of traffic. I'm glad you liked this hub. Thanks for the comment!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 2 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Wonderful tips! I love reading fiction that includes facts about the locale, especially if I've been there (but even if I haven't). This is great advice with lots of specific tips to consider. Pinned to my Writing board. Thanks! Oh, and congratulations for being featured in HP Weekly today!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      A useful beginner's guide, Nicole.

      My own research began with reading an interview with singer James Blunt, who raised an interesting new perspective to the 'Conquest' era. One of his ancestors was a Dane linked to the Danish royal line and to King Harold through his mother, Gytha, sister of Jarl Ulf.

      Looking through family history exposed some turbulent history on both sides, England and Denmark. Politics and warfare. All that was left was to look into Duke William's claim to the throne through his cousin Eadward... And so it went: military, communications, transport, geography, relationships... even witchcraft and shape-shifting, some sexual description.

      It's an adult world of danger, life and death... and as the book '1066 And All That' suggests, Anglo-Saxon attitudes. It's an ongoing saga that takes you from near York to the Byzantine Empire and back again in ten books. I'm over halfway through book six. Take a look, enjoy the read.

    • NellyWerff profile image

      Nelly van der Werff 2 years ago from The Netherlands

      Very helpful. I've considered writing historical fiction, but I didn't know where or how to start on the research. Your clear tips helped me to get my mind around how to start.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Nice general overview. Thanks for sharing! Have you written any historical fiction? It is really fun, but it does require careful attention to details... people do notice!! ;-)