So you want to write historical fiction? Congratulations! Historical fiction is not only fun to read and write, it can be the best way to learn about history as well. Writing historical fiction requires a lot of patience, time, and attention to detail, but there’s nothing more satisfying than bringing the past alive in a story. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially during the research stage, but I’m going to break down writing a great historical fiction novel down into three easy steps. You need to research the period, relate to your characters, and respect the differences of the past. These three things are all you need to build a vivid historical novel your readers won’t be able to put down.
Before you write, make sure you’ve done at least a little research on the period you’ve chosen to set your novel in. You can continue to research as you write, but you’ll need to know basic details about life in the period you’re writing before you can tell the story of someone living that life. My favorite research resources are children’s nonfiction picture books and historical TV and movies. That’s not to say I won’t read adult nonfiction books on a historical period or watch a documentary, but for our purposes as writers, children’s books, television shows and movies are superior, as they will give you visual images to work with. No one wants white room syndrome in a book, and trust me, historical fiction is the one of the genres most plagued by white room syndrome. It can be hard to picture clearly the sights and sounds of a bygone age. It’s definitely a daily struggle for me. Check out your local library or bookstores for historical nonfiction picture books as well as adult books. Children’s books often focus on daily life in history, whereas adult books tend to focus on important political dates. Your novel may deal with important political dates, or it may not, but all historical novels will cover daily life, so I recommend starting there.
My second favorite historical research resource is historical TV shows and movies. Assuming the show or movie is relatively historically accurate, this is one of the best ways to get a good feel for the world your character is inhabiting. If you can visit museums and see real historical landmarks, buildings, and artifacts, do it. But if not, pull up Netflix! Netflix will probably be more useful to you anyway, because it won’t just show you old tools or clothes behind glass cases out of context...it will show you how these things were used in everyday life.
How do you know when you’ve done enough research and you’re ready to begin writing? This is the ultimate question, and one I still haven’t figured out for myself yet. It’s different for every writer, and it might even be different for each project. My rule of thumb is if I’m capable of writing a full “day in the life” of a character, then I’m ready to begin my first draft. If you get to the point that you can write a full, average day in the life of any of your characters, from their morning routine to what they eat for breakfast to how they get to work, congratulations, you’re in great shape!
When Research Fails…
Sometimes you won’t be able to find the answer to a research question. Don’t fear...this is where your skills as a WRITER, not a historian, will come in handy. As a writer, you’re probably already a really good judge of human behavior and how people operate. Humans were still humans one hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, or even longer. Human behavior doesn’t change. People back then had the same basic desires as we do now; safety, nourishment, love, fulfillment, etc. Don’t stress! Take the knowledge you already have of the period, combine it with your knowledge of human behavior, and make your best educated guess. Then get back to the STORY. That’s the most important part, after all. We’re writers, not historians.
To write gripping historical fiction, you need to be able to relate to your characters…so that your readers will be able to relate to them as well! My favorite part of historical fiction is getting into the mind of a character from long, long ago. This character’s life might be very different from mine. They might have very, very different ideas from me. But in the very best historical fiction, none of that matters. I feel everything along with the character. I almost feel like I am the character, regardless of our differences. Don’t forget to take your time developing your characters, just as you would a character from a contemporary novel. Your characters need to have dreams, memories, habits, fears…all human things that don’t change from year to year, era to era, all things that will allow your reader to relate to your characters and care about what happens to them.
Remember to be mindful of different attitudes or worldviews. I don’t believe basic human needs change from time or location, but human attitudes and worldviews can be very different depending on the environment people are brought up in. The very best historical fiction takes into account these key differences between people of the past and our own modern worldviews, while connecting us through those shared human desires. Take the differences you find in your research, combine them with the relatable human feelings you discover in your character work and bring them together to create a full, emotional, and respectful representation of people of the past. Your historical characters will have attitudes and mindsets that may not be easily understood or even liked by a modern audience. But you can still make your reader care about your character and empathize with them, despite those differences (and isn’t that what writing fiction is all about, anyway?)
For example, I’ve read countless historical novels featuring 1800s doctors who don’t bleed patients, despite all current medicinal knowledge of the time. No reason was given to how they, alone among their peers, knew that this wasn’t an effective treatment. I understand that we as authors want to love our characters, and we want our readers to love our characters, too. But will it really be hard for a reader to like a character who follows the current medical practice of his time? Not necessarily! If you’re doing your job as a writer, your doctor character will be more than just an 1800’s doctor: he’s a real, relatable person, and your reader will still care about him and won’t judge him based on knowledge that wasn’t available at the time. This is what good fiction writing is all about: understanding the view of another, no matter how far removed they are from us. Sure, we can create our characters to think exactly the way we think so that we know they’ll be likeable…but where’s the fun in that? Explore the contrasts and differences of history in your writing. The differences are what makes it so exciting. Readers don’t read to read about themselves or their own lives. They read to learn something new, to understand something in another way, and to emphasize with characters who might be very different from them. That’s the true power of reading. With your writerly superpowers, you have the power to harness the magic of historical fiction to bring long-gone people and places alive again for your readers.
Meet Jennie Fournier
Jennie Fournier is a lifelong reader and writer who began writing and illustrating books at the age of six. The daughter of an Air Force officer, she was home schooled all through elementary and high school. Her military family upbringing took her on a lot of adventures, including living overseas in Germany and England. She graduated with a B.M. in Music Performance with a concentration in voice. She’s passionate about music and working with the elderly, and when she’s not playing Sunday services or “golden oldies” for the spirited generation, you’ll find her buried deep in her first love: writing! She writes historical fiction/historical fantasy with a touch of folklore, twisting family sagas and strong female characters.