Writing historical fiction isn’t easy. You don’t just have to have a brilliant storyline and interesting characters, you also have to be as historically accurate as possible. This is one genre where there are readers who will gleefully tell you you’re wrong and pick up on the minutest of details. It really isn’t the easy option.
But when historical fiction is written well, I think it can be one of the most satisfying areas of fiction. You are allowed a glimpse into the past. You can walk through a world with your character that hasn’t been seen for years – hell, even the 1980s can be seen as historical fiction to millenials. For twenty somethings a world without the internet or mobile phones must seem just as antiquated as a Victorian timeset.
The knack to writing this type of prose is to be prepared. Research your chosen time, get a feel for the era and write with conviction. You’ll either love it or hate it, but it will never be boring.
Here are 12 tips to make your historical fiction believable:
- Be as authentic as possible. When you write well your reader will become immersed in a world that may be unfamiliar to them. They should be able to see, hear, smell and feel that world. You walk along with the characters and see what they see. Authenticity is the number one aim for a historical writer.
- For the reader to believe your world you should know it inside and out. As writers we find ourselves going deeper into time and place. We all write differently – some authors research as much as they can before setting pen to paper, while some research as they go along. But at the heart of the story is the setting, the small details can come later. If your world is half-formed it will stay that way for your reader and satisfaction levels will bottom out, even if the premise of the story is a good one.
- If you’re going to use real characters from history stay true to them. Would they really have said or done what you made them say or do? Learn about that historical figure, their background, family, hopes, dreams, moral and religious standing. Learn everything you can about them, become their friend (I know, it sounds stupid). A teetotaller wouldn’t have taken that wine to toast a friend’s good health, and someone with very high moral standards would have to be persuaded very, very strongly to loosen them. Like any character you have to see the world through their eyes, but you don’t have the ability to play with their character or destiny unless you have a very good reason for doing it. If you’re going to change a historical figure give them cause and effect for the change. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a great example of how you can work with history, tweak it and give a historical figure a new direction.
- If you are going to use real incidents, stay true to them. Of course you can, and probably will, use historical happenings as a backdrop to your story, but make sure dates and the main focus are correct. Unless you have a very good reason, research your timeline and find out when things happened. If you deviate, someone will come back at you with the ‘correct’ information. If you are taking literary liberties, make sure the reader knows this and knows not to expect historical accuracy.
- Don’t be overly detailed when you don’t have to be. Allow the reader to find out the back story organically; no one likes an information dump (they usually make the reader step out of the narrative flow as you educate them). In the same way don’t over describe to show just how much you know about the period. If you know your stuff that will come through in your writing, you don’t have to show how clever you are by naming the brand and colour desi gnation of the lipstick your flapper applied in front of the named mirror type in the bathroom graced by a certain brand of soap and toilet paper.
- Don’t worry too much if you can’t find all the details. There are some areas of history that are much more difficult than others to research. Through newspapers in the C19th (and if you are lucky the C18th) we’re given an insight into the everyday lives of the population. Even if you do fall down the rabbit hole of research and lose a whole day (or week) trawling through copies of the local paper, you will pick up snippets of the real lives of characters – what they ate, wore and used are thrown up magnificently in adverts and random articles. But if you are writing about the early Hanoverians, the Elizabethans or a foreign country it will be more difficult. If you can’t find that little detail you were looking for make a note and move on. You may never find it and may have to take an educated guess. Unless it’s a major plot device, or very important to the story, readers will usually forgive if you really can’t find the information.
- Get the research right. If you are writing a historical novel you will have to research to remain authentic. Try to use primary sources as much as you can (those written, or originated, by people of the time you are writing about). Get yourself down to the library and look through newspapers of the time. Go to your county archives to look at the documents lovingly cared for there. Go to the national archives if you have to. Do not be afraid of archives! They are your friend. Archives are generally open to anyone, but if they aren’t, and you are researching for a specific purpose, contact the archivist and ask for a pass. If you don’t ask, you don’t get and even the most closed off institutions are often open to allowing researchers into their collections.
- Beware of internet research. If you can’t get to, or have exhausted, all the primary sources, you may have to use secondary sources – those not written or recorded at the time by people directly associated with the events. Generally this type of source is a book or article written by someone later. If you are going to use secondary resources check their credibility first. We were taught at library school back in the early days of the internet that anyone could write anything and pass it off as fact. This is still the case. Wikipedia is perhaps more recognised now, and more factually correct, but it really should only be a jumping off point if you are going to use it. Check the references and go there instead. Choose scholarly articles and monographs if you can, or websites by recognised authorities. Always try to confirm what you have read via more than one source.
- Get the geography right. There will be someone who knows the area you are writing about. Remember boundaries and names changed throughout history. A journey that can take you an hour today could have taken days in the past. There were toll roads, mud roads, drove roads, no roads. Geographical features can change over time. Buildings are raised, demolished and built over. Building materials change with new innovations. Bridges are built, rivers are forged and impassable gorges made passable. Always check what the landscape was like in your story’s timeline. Someone, somewhere will want to prove you wrong.
- Make sure everything is time appropriate. Research your costumes, names and dialogue. If your character is using a zipper he probably wouldn’t be using one much before the mid 1910s, and certainly not before 1893 when they were invented. Someone could have stapled their bills together from around 1869, but staplers as we know them weren’t really common until 1937. And someone could actually use the term OK from the mid 1800s. Names have phases of popularity, so if you’re going to use an unusual name you might want to research it first.
- Don’t be afraid to see the world though your characters’ eyes. We live in a lovely diverse worldwide community now, but even 50 years ago the world was a much smaller place. Try to see what your characters see, and feel what they feel. And don’t be afraid to show your characters’ prejudices. Political correctness is really only about 25 years old; as long as your characters are true to themselves don’t worry overly much. Your characters should stay true to character, place and time. Just don’t be offensive for the sake of it, and try not to let your own prejudices come through – a reader can spot that a mile off.
- Accept that you will get some things wrong, and there will be people out there who will delight at telling you. Accept their comments with good grace. Don’t get into arguments over who is right or take their information as an attack. Be polite, say thank you and move on.
Finally remember to use beta readers, friends, family and other writers to go over your work. Listen to what they say, take action if it’s needed and research more if that’s what’s required. Don’t neglect the spelling, grammar and formatting, and use professionals to help you. Editors and proofreaders are trained to spot the errors you may miss, and will give you a professional opinion on your work.
If you need a copy-editor who specialises in historical fiction you’ve landed on the right page. Let me help you with your writing, contact me to talk through your project needs.