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March 2013

Genre Help: Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can easily be one of the most difficult and time-consuming genres to write.  Unlike sci-fi or fantasy, which transport the reader to created worlds, historical fiction is set in a finite space, bound by a seemingly endless number of social and technological rules. Often, this is a space the writers have never visited themselves.  However, historical fiction done well can be one of the most enlightening and fascinating demonstrations of the human experience. Here are some tips to help you on your way.

  • Know your time period. Google. Read. Ask questions. Track down your old history teacher and see what they know. Learn all you can about the world in which you’re setting your story. 
  • Use what you need. Just remember that not all of your research belongs within the pages of your work. If you were writing a story set in 2013, you wouldn’t have to include every last detail about our clothing, vehicles, light fixtures and social politics. You would just include the parts that were relevant to your characters and plot. The same goes for a story set in 1813, or even 1413.
  • Take your time. You may learn that an important plot point is actually inaccurate to your chosen time period. You have two choices: move the date of your story, or move the plot point. Know that you may run into a few of these, but don’t allow them to derail you. Writing historical fiction is a process, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. 
  • Remember your genre. As David R. Gillham says in this article from Writer’s Digest, “Regardless of your time period, regardless of all the in-depth research you’ve done, you must remember that you’re writing fiction first, and historical fiction second. In other words, don’t forget that it’s action and conflict that moves the book forward. The historical details enrich the work, but detail for detail’s sakes will sink you.”
  • Develop your characters in their time. Be careful before condemning a character whose actions are socially backward for our time, and don’t write characters so ahead of their time that they aren’t believable. That is, don’t apologize for the misogynist, but don’t expect a conversation about “legitimate rape” in 1812 to go off without a hitch in a setting that didn’t allow votes for women.
  • Get some perspective. Consider whether your story would do better in the first- or third-person. If you are writing about an important figure in a historical event, the first-person perspective can make them seem pompous or self-absorbed, as if they felt so important that they decided to relay their story themselves. The third person allows for some distance, a wider lens, and with it comes humility. However, sometimes a story comes to life better and more emotionally in the form of a firsthand account. Weigh the pros and cons in your own story.
  • Remember that people are people. While technology, politics and social structure have changed dramatically over the years, the core of the human experience remains the same.
  • Read, and watch, historical fiction. Here are just a few examples to get you started:
  • The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Copper (2012) (BBC America)
  • Hell On Wheels (2012) (AMC)
  • Mad Men (2007-) (AMC)
  • War Horse (2011)


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