6 Principles for Writing Historical Fiction

Image: historic windmill

Today’s post is by Andrew Noakes (@andrew_noakes), executive editor of The History Quill.

Let’s face it: historical fiction can be a daunting genre to write in. Endlessly fascinating and rewarding, yes. But still daunting.

If you’re diving into this genre for the first time and feeling a little overwhelmed, or if you’re already a historical fiction writer and looking for some guidance to help restore your sanity, then help is on the way. I’ve put together six concrete tips for historical fiction writers—the dos and don’ts of writing historical fiction.

1. Establish your own set of rules for when to bend history for the sake of the story—and stick to them.

There are as many opinions on how accurate historical fiction should be as there are historical fiction authors, and they vary widely between those who consider accuracy an optional bonus and those who can be, well, a little bit pedantic. Historical fiction writers tend to get anxious about the possibility of censure if they bend the historical record a little, which is both understandable and healthy, but ultimately you have to tell a good story, and you can’t please everyone.

Rather than worrying about never, ever deviating from history, I advise establishing your own set of rules for when to bend history or not. That way, you’ll be able to make fair and consistent decisions and achieve the kind of balance most readers are looking for. Here are some tips that might help:

  • There is a difference between altering verifiable facts and filling in the gaps. History is full of mysteries, unanswered questions, and gaps in the record. If what really happened can’t be verified, you have much more freedom to play around with history.
  • History is open to interpretation. As long as you can back up your interpretation through your research, it’s fine to contradict conventional wisdom.
  • Plausibility matters. If you want to bend the historical record, your changes should be plausible. For example, if you want a historical figure to arrive somewhere a few days earlier than they really did, they shouldn’t have been, say, imprisoned or incapacitated at the time.
  • If a historical figure isn’t well known and not a lot has been written about them, you have more room for maneuver than you do if their life has been exhaustively documented. But, if you’re going to make something up, make sure it’s consistent with what you otherwise know about the character, including how they behaved, their interests, and what their values were.

If you’re looking for more tips on historical accuracy, do check out The History Quill’s free, official guide to accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction.

2. Do plenty of research—but know what to include and what not to include in your novel.

Research is one of the very first steps on your journey to becoming a historical fiction author. Here’s a safety warning: you’re about to dive down a whole load of research rabbit holes. From ancient cutlery to medieval agricultural techniques, there is a lot of stuff historical fiction writers need to know about. Secondary sources are your starting point, but primary sources, particularly letters, newspaper reports, and diaries are also vital.

Don’t be afraid to push the boat out and visit some archives, and, for that matter, do go and visit historical sites relevant to your story if you can. If you want to get really immersed, you can read the fiction of your period, cook the food, or even try and find authentic recreations (or possibly recordings, depending on the era) of the music.

Here’s the thing, though: you’re going to do all of this research, and then you need to discard 95 percent of it. Don’t actually delete your notes, obviously. What I mean is, only a very small fraction of your research should actually make it into your book. The sum total of your research will make the world you create feel real and authentic, and you need to deploy little details carefully and selectively to immerse the reader, but don’t be tempted to show off and dump everything you’ve learned onto the page. Otherwise you’ll end up with a dry tome of a history book, not an engaging historical novel.

3. Include characters who break the conventions and norms of their period—but don’t forget to include context.

History is replete with exceptions—people who ignored or rejected social conventions, overcame entrenched political and economic barriers, or challenged the prevailing wisdom of their time. One could argue it would be inaccurate not to include people like this in your historical novel. If every single one of your characters perfectly encapsulates the prevailing culture of their time, then you lose the change, difference, and non-conformity that have always been just as much a part of history.

Most of the trouble with depicting non-conformist characters comes when their non-conformity is represented as normal rather than exceptional. To persuade the reader that your anomalies are authentic, you must provide context. That means showing the obstacles, conflict, and ostracization your characters face. By doing this, you’re implicitly recognizing that they are unusual for their time, while persuading the reader they are nonetheless as real as any other part of the story.

4. Don’t write like you’re in the 14th century.

One of the ironies of writing historical fiction is that, in many cases, your dialogue should actually not be historically accurate. If you’re wondering why I would say such a profane thing, this is the reason:

Aleyn spak first, “Al hayl, Symond, y-fayth;
How fares thy faire doghter and thy wyf?”
“Aleyn! welcome,” quod Symond, “by my lyf,
And John also, how now, what do ye heer?”

These lines are from The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, written in the late 14th century, and I often use them to remind people just how different the language was back then. If you have your characters speaking to each other like this, most readers will put your book down in five seconds flat.

At the same time, historical fiction readers often really hate it when modern-day language creeps into historical fiction, which leaves us caught between a rock and a hard place.

The answer to this conundrum lies in a literary sleight of hand. We must create the impression of accuracy while ensuring the language remains readable and enjoyable. To do this, writers have to avoid modern colloquialisms and keep most of the language neutral, using words that, in some form or another, feel equally at home in history as they do in the modern day. Then you must add some more archaic words and constructions into the mix—not so much as to overwhelm the reader, but just enough that the story feels of a different time. The type of archaic language you select is important here—they have to be words and phrases that are still recognizable, even if they are no longer commonly used. This is an intricate task, but it can also be a fun and rewarding one once you get into the rhythm.

Historical language obviously becomes less alien the closer you get to the modern day, but even 19th century language was sufficiently different that it must be tempered for a modern reader to some degree.

5. Integrate the history seamlessly into the story.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens portrays a French aristocrat in his carriage running over a child on the street, before tossing a coin to the devastated father and driving off. The scene perfectly encapsulates the sentiments and forces that generated the French Revolution.

When it comes to striking a balance between history and story, this scene shows us the way. The cold indifference of the aristocratic class, the inequality not only in wealth but in the application of justice, and the debasement of the common person’s humanity all live and breathe in these lines. And yet the scene does not impassively summarise the causes of the French Revolution. Instead, the history is integrated into the story, and Dickens dishes out a history lesson without us even realizing it.

Dedicating large chunks of your story to outlining historical context through exposition or focusing on historical details purely for their own sake will quickly test your reader’s patience. Instead, follow Dickens’ lead and think about how you can illustrate history rather than exhaustively describing it, and try and integrate the smaller details organically. That means not sending your character off to a banquet purely so you can show off all the historical cuisine you researched or into an armory just so you can list all the weapons. Details like this have to fit naturally around the plot, not the other way around.

6. Don’t insist on accuracy if it will cause disbelief (but here’s a workaround if you really must).

A paradox of writing historical fiction is that sometimes accuracy must be sacrificed for the sake of authenticity. When you come across something that really happened in history but is just too ludicrous for the modern day reader to believe, often it’s better to leave it out. Like it or not, the impression of accuracy matters more than actual accuracy if you want to tell a story that will be well received.

If there’s some facet of history that you simply must include in your story but you’re concerned the reader won’t believe you, there is one way to gently disarm them: introduce their scepticism into the story. Depict at least one character finding it just as unbelievable as you think the reader might, and then depict another character putting them right. This is a subliminal nudge to the reader acknowledging their scepticism and reassuring them that, yes, this really was a thing. In a pinch, this can work.

So, those are my dos and don’ts of writing historical fiction. If you’re thinking about giving the genre a try or you’ve already started and feel like you’re out of your depth, I hope this guidance will help you move forward with confidence. No one with any sense ever said writing is easy, and historical fiction can be a trickier genre to master than some, but it’s worth every bit of perseverance.

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