How to Write Historical Fiction

For those who don’t know, I am currently writing – and reading – historical fiction. To be specific, I’m currently writing in the historical fiction sub-genre of historical fantasy, retro-futuristic science fiction, or dieselpunk.

One of the key elements of writing historical fiction and its various relatives is, of course, research. And as any writer knows, the very act of doing research can often inspire other ideas – which can be great if you’re just at the start of putting together a book, but can also derail you from a good work in progress.

But anyway, let’s say that you’re wanting to try out the historical fiction genre. Where do you begin? As with most any writing, I believe good historical fiction writing comes from reading books in that genre. Also, most historical fiction writers have a love of history – whether it be a love of a certain place or time in history, or a broader love of anything that is old. So if you love history, how do you start writing a fictional story?

Event

Setting a story around a real historical event is a great way to launch yourself into the historical fiction genre. A broad-ranging event can offer a lot of fodder for stories. For example, the “event” of World War I can give you a story about a French pilot, an American spy, or a German nurse – or any number of other fictional lives that could have been lived during that real historical event.

Person

A lot of historical fiction focuses on a real person. If you have a favorite famous – or even not-so famous – historical figure, that can make for a great jumping-off point to start a story. Keep in mind, though, that the more well-known your main character is, the more carefully you’ll need to do your research. You don’t want to misrepresent a real person with inaccurate facts, or have them behave in a way that is drastically contrary to the sort of person that they were. Research and accurate representation is especially important with historical figures who lived within the past 100 years or so – there may be people still alive today who actually knew that person.

This is not to discourage you from writing historical fiction with a real person as the main character. People read historical fiction because they enjoy history.

Time Period

A historical time period is broader than just an event. The time period could be “pre-Civil War New York,” or “Elizabethan England” or “the height of the Roman Empire.” For example, the story I’m writing is set in 1920s Los Angeles. Thus far, at least, no real people have had a role in the story; nor am I focusing on a particular event that occurred. The setting is merely “the Roaring 20s,” and I’m working to make sure that my historical details don’t include anything that happened after the stock market crash of 1929.

Research

Of course with any historical fiction, research is absolutely necessary. The depth of your research, though, depends on how much you want to emphasize the “historical” versus the “fiction.” As I mentioned about my book, it’s set in the 1920s, but does not feature any particular real person or event. I want to the get the look and feel of the Roaring 20s, and avoid any glaring mistakes, but otherwise, I’m letting the “fictional” element be the most important. (Also, I’m writing dieselpunk, so there’s the fully fictional, fantastical element).

Research and accuracy is important, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in so much research and accuracy that you never actually write the book. If you love history, or historical fiction, or you’re fascinated by a particular historical figure or event – then go ahead and write that book!

Are you reading or writing historical fiction right now? Please share!

11 thoughts on “How to Write Historical Fiction

  1. Some great thoughts. I love reading historical fiction so much I now write it. I’ve written and published two historical fiction novels both of which coincidentally were set in 1948 – one on a Central Pacific Island and the other during the Greek Civil War. I’m working on my third and have come unstuck a number times with the research so I find it better to write the story and follow up with research.

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  2. Hi Ms. Grace, First-thank you for your great perspectives on the art and work of this genre. You tell it well. I’m fifty pages into a new historical romance set in the American west during the 1870’s. While researching some elements of this post-civil war era and it’s Texas locale I came across two well documented events that caught my attention. They provided a nucleus for the story’s main conflict and a great turning point for the protagonist’s ‘return with the magic elixir’. Also (hopefully), a heart lifting denouement. Who would have ever thought a couple of bank failures and a few rainy months could provide such fertile ground for cattle adventures and romance.
    Blessings on your work. Jay in Richmond VA

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  3. Hello Ms. Grace. I’m in the final drafting stages of a novel that is definitely fictional but hits on some unique historical events reaching as far back as the 1890s. I agree with your statements regarding research and how it is needed but can easily derail writing efforts. I have spent countless hours reviewing old roadmaps and photographs of various locations across California and Nevada. I could probably just give general descriptions of the places in my book. But I want accuracy.

    When I read a novel and come across a segment set in a place that I have seen in person, it gives me a special warmth. I want to share that feeling with others. If a visitor of Monterrey or Las Vegas from the 1960s were to read my book, I’d want them to “know” exactly where my characters were busily getting themselves into trouble.

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    • Sometimes general descriptions are fine, just to give the reader a “feel” for something while you move on with plot and character development. But you’re right – there’s something wonderful about reading about a place that you’ve actually been to. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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  4. Pingback: The Right Way to Write | StorytellerGirl

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