So you have a novel set in a long-ago time and place. Long ago, of course, being relative, but in writing historical fiction, rule of thumb is at least 50 years in the past, where the author writes from research rather than personal experience.
So how do you do this successfully? You know—without getting tripped up by those pesky facts, or having your novel read like an encyclopedia?
Writers can stumble on a lot of things when dealing with history, so let’s just talk about how to avoid the big problems.
First off, I’m assuming (always an issue!) that if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s a genre you love.
Right? So let’s assume that’s the case.
Which means you read tons in the genre. It’s your go-to, when settling in on a cold winter’s day. It’s what you sneak into when you’re supposed to be doing, well, whatever it is you do.
The more you read in the genre, the better you’ll get at the nuances of writing it.
In other words, this genre is where your heart is.
Choose an exact time period (rather than early 20th century), and an exact place (London, rather than England).
As you begin to fashion your world and characters, you’ve chosen a time period that you love as well.
For example, say you’re focused on category Romance, and you see that Regency Romances are selling well, and hm, that might be a great place for you to break into publishing.
Which is all well and good—as long as you love the time period, which is quite specific. These novels are set during the period of the British Regency (1811-1820). Other specs apply as well, as with all genre fiction.
In order to write this effectively, the time needs to jazz you.
Research until you think your head might explode. Then, research some more.
You’re a history buff, right? Or you wouldn’t be spending the next two to four years of your life back in time!
The thing is, you’ll never quit researching—before, during, and after the writing of your book (because once you’re finished with the draft, then comes all the revising . . .)
Historical fiction readers are famous for catching mistakes. They love the time periods too 🙂 And even one error will come off as egregious to them, and you’ve just lost their trust. Which means you’ve just lost your readers.
The more you can bring in the nuances of the time and place, the more authentic your book will feel to your readers as well.
And then, don’t let your research show.
I know—easier said than done. I mean, you have all this super-cool information, and man, let’s just write about all of it! You’ve spent so much time gaining this vast insight, dammit, and want to show it all off!
It’s great that you’ve become a master of 17th-century Spain. And that will help you in a plethora of ways. But all of that knowledge is to help you shade the nuances, not to force your readers into a college history class.
Instead, you want your reader to feel like she’s experienced the place, visited there, felt the feelings and the whispers of the time period.
Visit where your novel is set.
Yes, it will be different now from the past, but remnants always remain. Not just sights but aromas and sounds and the feel of voices emerging from ancient stones, but you’ll be able to show and evoke, rather than tell about them.
This will lead you down the road of deeper research, as you talk to the folks living there now, as they tell you about their great grandpa, who helped build the famous bridge. And a hundred other stories.
All of which adds more nuance, more depth. Which makes for a richer experience for your reader.
Remember that your characters are products of their time.
In other words, the time and place in which they live shapes them. This isn’t about taking modern people and attitudes and dressing them in 1800’s satin and lace. It’s about who they were then.
Years ago, one of my successful authors was writing historical fiction set in the South, during the War, in a place that was occupied by the army of Northern Aggression. All historically accurate.
Except, one of his main characters, a Southern Belle, was having an affair with one of the officers. Okay, a bit of a stretch, but we can sure go with that (for a number of reasons).
But she flaunted it. The whole community knew. And no repercussions occurred.
Can you see how in the time and place this wouldn’t have flown? If you can’t, you’re not from the South 🙂
We want our characters to engage with the historical details, and yes, question and explore them. But not to fly in the face of what could have even happened.
Finally, let your story be told.
Yes, the facts will constrain you some, and you’re doing your dead-level dangedest to be accurate, but you’re also allowed some poetic license (as long as it isn’t like the above!). Some is the operative word here.
I love what Andrew M. Greeley said about this:
“History and historical fiction are necessarily not the same thing. The purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can. The purpose of historical fiction is to enable a reader through the perspective of characters in the story to feel that she or he is present at the events. Such a goal obviously requires some modification of the events.”
Now, go plunge yourself into the past and get to writing historical fiction at its finest!