More on Writing Historical Fiction

This is Part 2 in the series on writing historical fiction. For Part 1, click here. This is just one of many pages on this website with novel writing tips and techniques. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to a a complete list of CWN pages on how to write a novel.

Writing historical fiction - where to start

There are two possible starting points for a writing a historical novel:

  • You can start with a character or story idea... then do research to find the perfect historical time period and place to fit it.

  • You can start with an interest in a particular historical time period... then imagine characters that might have been living there or a story that might have taken place.

Writing historical fiction- next steps

  1. Once you've chosen the period and location for your novel, be sure to narrow it down to an exact time and place and pinpoint the specific part of that society you'll be dealing with. Paris in 1940 was quite different from Paris in 1947! The life and customs of Paris at that time were not the same as in a small village in the French countryside. And the Paris known to a wealthy American expatriate would be different from the Paris experienced by a chambermaid.

  2. Research, research, and research some more. Start with the big picture to get the general background information you'll need, then focus in on the exact time, place, and social circles of your main characters. This is where you should do your detailed research. You will need to get to know your characters' corner of the world well enough that you can move around there in your imagination, that you can picture your character walking down a street or sitting at a table and know exactly what the character would see, hear, feel, and smell. You need to research until the historical part of your novel becomes almost second nature so that you can focus on the story.

Writing historical fiction- where to research

  • Libraries, archives, historical societies. Look for materials that were actually written during your novel's time period, such as magazines, newspapers, catalogues, diaries, and memoirs. Even novels and poetry written during that time period are an excellent way to get inside the minds of people from that time and learn about their values, attitudes, and concerns.

    And use history books to get a bigger picture. The author Shelley Thacker Meinhardt particularly recommends taking advantage of history books written for children because these tend to have many helpful illustrations.

  • Search online to find experts on the time period of your novel, and contact them to ask for help. You can contact university faculty or authors of books on the time and place you will be writing about. Or, if you are writing about recent history, maybe you can even talk to older people who have experienced it first-hand.

  • Take a trip! Travel to the place where your novel is set in order to absorb the atmosphere and also take advantage of local archives, museums, and residents who may be a gold mine of information.

Writing historical fiction - what to research

  • What were the attitudes of the time to religion, family, marriage, the role of children, gender, race, etc.?

  • What was the social structure like? Who was rich and who was poor? How did the classes interact?

  • What were the current events of the time? The latest scientific discoveries? Who were the important people? What did men talk about? Women? Upper and lower classes?

  • What was the political situation of the time? Was the map different then -- what were the boundaries of the countries?

  • How did people dress, style their hair, etc.? Did they wear hats, bonnets, makeup, jewelry, weapons? What were their habits in terms of hygiene?

  • What kind of homes did people live? How were these homes organized? What would all of the rooms have contained? Were there servants? What was the structure and rhythm of domestic life?

  • What was the physical world like outside your characters' homes? Farmland? City? Forest? What animals and plants would there have been? What kind of crime or other dangers?

  • What diseases were common at the time? What kind of medical care was available?

  • Would people in your characters' positions have worked? Where would their money have come from?

  • What kind of food did people eat? What kind of cutlery was used? What were the eating habits and attitudes toward food?

  • How did people talk? What kind of vocabulary would they have used? Warning: if you write all of your dialogue in 16th-century speech, you are likely to annoy your reader really fast. But you can give little hints of it so that your reader gets the flavor. And be sure to avoid modern slang that will startle your reader out of the novel's time period.

  • What were the modes of transportation?

  • What was education like? What types of knowledge would your characters have had? (Remember: they wouldn't know about events or discoveries that happened after their time!)

Writing historical fiction - history or story?

Once you've done all that research, it will be tempting to show off everything you know. But remember you're writing a historical novel, not a history book. Your reader is there for the story. Use only the details that belong in that story or that your reader needs to understand it. So why bother with all that research? First of all, so that you can fully imagine the world of the story and choose the right details to show the reader. And second, so that you can avoid making mistakes.

Even though what you're writing is a novel and mostly made up, a historical mistake can be disastrous. Have you ever read a book or seen a movie where you noticed a big logical or factual mistake? Once you notice a screw-up, it's often hard to pay attention to anything else. You can lose your trust in the author or the film's creator. This kind of trust is called suspension of disbelief. It means that the reader or the viewer knows that what he's reading/seeing is only imaginary, but he decides to "pretend" it's true for the moment. It's a lot more fun to read a novel if you pretend that what's happening in it is real. But any kind of mistake in the novel interrupts this make-believe. It takes the reader out of her imagination and brings out the logical part of her minds instead, which is irritated by error.

That's why it's essential to get the facts right in your novel. Then your readers can sit back and enjoy the story, an imaginary journey to another place and time.

Writing prompts for historical fiction

Here are sixteen ideas to inspire you.

1) Write a story about one of your ancestors, inspired by your family history.

2) Write a novel based on a fairy tale; e.g., "Sleeping Beauty", "Beauty and the Beast", "The Little Mermaid..."

3) Write a suspenseful story set during the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. Your character might either be someone falsely suspected of witchcraft, or an actual witch who is trying not to get caught.

4) Write a novel about a family heirloom that has been passed down through generations. Each chapter can explore the life of a different family member who owned it, set in different time periods.

5) Write a story about librarian in Nazi Germany who starts a secret book club for banned books.

6) Write a love story set in the 1960s, focusing on a young couple experiencing the cultural and social changes of the era.

7) Write a story inspired by an ancestor of yours who served in a war. Explore their experiences, the impact on their family, and how their service influenced future generations.

8) Write a story about a young woman finding her voice as a suffragette in the early 20th century or during the feminist movement of the 1960s.

9) Write a story about someone who accidentally passes through a magical portal into a past century and fall in love with someone they meet there.

10) Write a story set during a famous historical disaster, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, focusing on ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

11) Write a mystery set in Prohibition-era U.S. A dead body is discovered in a secret speakeasy hidden behind a brick wall at the back of a shop.

12) Write a novel about the Underground Railroad.

13) Write a love story about two people fleeing Europe during World War II.

14) Write a story or novel inspired by Ancient Greek mythology.

15) Write a story about a family home that has been in the family for generations. Explore its history, the people who lived there, and the memories it holds.

16) Write a children's book about a family moving west during the American frontier expansion, facing the challenges and adventures of pioneering life.

Titanic survivors, illustrating a guide to writing historical fiction
Photo credit: Library of Congress @ Unsplash

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