Genre Help: Historical Fiction
Historical fiction can easily be one of the most difficult and time-consuming genres to write. Unlike sci-fi or fantasy, which transport the reader to created worlds, historical fiction is set in a finite space, bound by a seemingly endless number of social and technological rules. Often, this is a space the writers have never visited themselves. However, historical fiction done well can be one of the most enlightening and fascinating demonstrations of the human experience. Here are some tips to help you on your way.
- Know your time period. Google. Read. Ask questions. Track down your old history teacher and see what they know. Learn all you can about the world in which you’re setting your story.
- Use what you need. Just remember that not all of your research belongs within the pages of your work. If you were writing a story set in 2013, you wouldn’t have to include every last detail about our clothing, vehicles, light fixtures and social politics. You would just include the parts that were relevant to your characters and plot. The same goes for a story set in 1813, or even 1413.
- Take your time. You may learn that an important plot point is actually inaccurate to your chosen time period. You have two choices: move the date of your story, or move the plot point. Know that you may run into a few of these, but don’t allow them to derail you. Writing historical fiction is a process, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
- Remember your genre. As David R. Gillham says in this article from Writer’s Digest, “Regardless of your time period, regardless of all the in-depth research you’ve done, you must remember that you’re writing fiction first, and historical fiction second. In other words, don’t forget that it’s action and conflict that moves the book forward. The historical details enrich the work, but detail for detail’s sakes will sink you.”
- Develop your characters in their time. Be careful before condemning a character whose actions are socially backward for our time, and don’t write characters so ahead of their time that they aren’t believable. That is, don’t apologize for the misogynist, but don’t expect a conversation about “legitimate rape” in 1812 to go off without a hitch in a setting that didn’t allow votes for women.
- Get some perspective. Consider whether your story would do better in the first- or third-person. If you are writing about an important figure in a historical event, the first-person perspective can make them seem pompous or self-absorbed, as if they felt so important that they decided to relay their story themselves. The third person allows for some distance, a wider lens, and with it comes humility. However, sometimes a story comes to life better and more emotionally in the form of a firsthand account. Weigh the pros and cons in your own story.
- Remember that people are people. While technology, politics and social structure have changed dramatically over the years, the core of the human experience remains the same.
- Read, and watch, historical fiction. Here are just a few examples to get you started:
- The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
- Copper (2012) (BBC America)
- Hell On Wheels (2012) (AMC)
- Mad Men (2007-) (AMC)
- War Horse (2011)
where can i find this novel???
I AM FLAILING RIGHT NOW. OH MY GOD.
I have it up on Google Docs for those who want to read it. I haven’t touched it in a while, though. It seriously needs some editing.
For those who don’t know, it’s basically an alternate history for if Germany had won WWII. The story follows an international resistance group in 1989.
Trigger warning: violence, racism, warfare, drug use, prostitution. There’s also rape in the backstory somewhere, but I’m not sure if I’ve written about it explicitly yet.
And there’s the beginnings of a second book, but most of the rest of it got lost in a hard drive crash:
Hey, I'm new here and please forgive my poor english (I'm brazillian), but if I'm writing a historic book, adding for example a school that didn't exist (using as base for description another 50's school) would that make my story fictional? I'm so worried ugh I don't know if every single thing must be for real or if a few details like this could happen :( - juliaworksout
Basically, historical fiction is hard, because we’re all walking a fine line between enough accuracy to make the story believable and enough artistic license to make the story interesting, and so much accuracy it’s boring, or so much artistic license it’s just plain ridiculous.
So you are indeed a brave soul. I take my hat off to you!
Really, it depends on what you’re writing, but in general I’d say go for the details and the feel of the era rather than the exact truth of who/what was real and who/what was not. For example, having a colour TV way before it was invented would be a much bigger problem than, say, making up a school that didn’t really exist. Do you see?
I totally wouldn’t stress out over this, honestly. There aren’t many historical novels that are even 80% accurate (unless they’ve been written by Phillipa Gregory or Hilary Mantel or someone like that). Just don’t do a Dan Brown and make everything up, okay?!
Here’s some cool resources I’ve managed to find for ya:
- The Lying Art of Historical Fiction(article by the Guardian, so it’s pretty good)
- Research and Accuracy in Historical Fiction
- Writing Historical Fiction: a Beginner’s Guide
- Write Aide: Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction
- Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction (discussion thread)
- Ahistorical Historical Fiction
- What do Authors of Historical Fiction Owe to History? (this is actually a really great article, you should take a look)
- Debates about Historical Fiction
I hope this is helpful! Good luck =]
[Rebloggable by request.]
I’m still ensconced in end of semester stuff (only a digital preservation final, a historiography paper, and 40 exams to grade until freedom), but just popping in to share this really interesting/important (importinteresting?) piece from The Atlantic with you: American Girls Aren’t Radical Anymore
I grew up reading those books (to provide a point of reference, I’ll be 24 in 10 days), in fact, I think Felicity Saves the Day is the first book I ever read 100% by myself. By the time I was nine years old I had all six books for all five dolls (Jospehina et al were a bit after my time).
Though I soon graduated to Dear America and the Royal Diaries—and then to Philippa Gregory, Jean Plaidy, Alison Weir, and finally to actual history books*—I’ve always perceived the American Girl books as having played an important role in my childhood, and an important role in my love for history.
That said, I never really considered how they shaped my conception of issues such as class, race, gender, and privilege until now. It’s a damn shame that future generations of young girls won’t grow up reading about Addy’s escape from slavery and Samantha’s anti-capitalist rhetoric (I mean, they can still read them, but I can’t say how much appeal they’ll have without the doll tie-in as that’s a huge part of the marketing).
*And now theory heaven help me
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross (with ARC Giveaway)
Cross, Kady.The Girl in the Steel Corset (2011). 480 Pages.
Harlequin Teen. $10.58
Steampunk Chronicles: Book One
In 1897 England, sixteen-year-old Finley Jayne has no one…except the “thing” inside her.
When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch….
Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits: Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.
Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help—and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.
But The Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on—even if it seems no one believes her.
1920's Setting Cheatsheet
1920’s Men’s Fashion (changes in suits, dress shirts, and slight changes in formal wear)
1920’s Men’s Fashion (driving clothes with the rise of the automobile, wingtip and two-tone shoes…)
1920’s Teen Girls’ Fashion (includes “gym” and school outfits)
1920’s Teen Boys’ Fashion (basically same as men’s fashion, but with a bit more color and playfulness)
1920’s Technological/Medical Accomplishments (medical advancements such as discovery of insulin for diabetes, rise of the radio, color movies with sound, color film)
1920’s General Overview (notes that most people still did not have electricity so there weren’t a lot of appliances or anything available yet; has links to furniture, house designs; TV invented in 1924, flu pandemic 1919-1919, dawn of air travel)
Inventions of the 1920’s (wide list from jungle gyms and traffic lights to tampons)
The Dead Are Real
What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.
In this week’s issue, Larissa MacFarquhar talks with historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel, author of “Wolf Hall,” about her life and writing process: http://nyr.kr/Q1M9nA
Photograph by Sofia Sanchez & Mauro Mongiello.