How to Create a Setting for Historical Fiction in 7 Steps
As writers, we’re tasked with building big, complex worlds. We design landscapes and societies, clarify cultures and customs, and populate these worlds with characters who feel as real as the living, breathing beings in our own lives.
On top of that, we have to devise engaging stories that make our fictional world matter.
When it comes to writing historical fiction, these tasks get even more complicated. You’re juggling fact and fiction, creating a setting that reflects your limited knowledge of a real past while filling in the gaps with your own imagination.
It’s not easy. Good thing you’re a resilient, driven writer bubbling with an insatiable passion for storytelling. At least, that’s the impression I’m getting from you.
Plus, you’re about to learn the seven crucial steps for writing a slam-bang historical setting. You’ll pick up tricks for:
- Choosing your setting
- Researching the era
- Nailing the location
- Populating the world
- Creating an atmosphere
- Knowing when to fudge the truth
- Revising your work
The best part is, you probably already have the first step done. Look at you! Off and running.
Step 1: Choose the Historical Time Period
As far as I’m concerned, there’s really only one factor you must consider when you decide which era you want to set your story in. That factor is your own level of interest.
Sure, it might be worth considering the trends. Bridgerton made the Regency Era cool and sexy. Downton Abbey came out and suddenly half the knitting patterns in Michaels were for “Edwardian” projects (true story).
Then there’s the matter of theme. It’s true that some time periods might give you more to work with. If you want your historical fiction novel to explore the burden of family loyalty, you might set your story in the midst of a civil war, focusing on a family divided.
But the thing about themes is that they’re inspired by universal human experiences. Whether you want to say something about love, war, purpose, family, desire, or envy, you can make it work in any historical era.
So forget the trends, forget the themes, and simply ask yourself which historical time period interests you the most. Because you’re going to be spending a lot of time there.
This is a moment in history that you’ll spend months or years researching before you even get to the writing part. Then there’ll be revisions which likely send you back into research mode. Once the book comes out, you’ll have to discuss the time period on panels and with historical fiction readers.
In fact, rather than asking yourself which period you want to write about, ask which one you want to live in. That’s a more accurate summary of what’s about to happen…
…starting with step two.
Step 2: Research the Time Period
If you want to write historical fiction, you need to know your story’s time period really well. That doesn’t mean every person, place, and object in your novel has to be 100% accurate. After all, the more ancient the era, the less information you’ll be able to find and the more you’ll have to make up.
As a historical fiction writer, you have the right to take at least a few liberties (stay tuned for further thoughts on that). But you need to be knowledgeable in your liberty-taking—to know what you’re leaving out, what you’re adding, and why.
Above all, you need to create a historical setting that feels authentic to the reader. To do that, you’ll have to do research. A lot of research.
How to Research a Historical Setting
It’s never been easier to learn anything about anything. You can find information about the world of your historical novel in places like:
- The Internet
- Photographs and artwork
- Pop culture from the era
- Historians and other experts
Try to use a wide variety of resources to research your historical fiction novel. That will give you a well-rounded understanding of the historical time period.
Reading a ton of books about the Jazz Age is great. But you know what’s better? Reading books and examining Prohibition pamphlets and checking out an Art Deco exhibit at a local museum and listening to a Jelly Roll Morton record.
In your research, try to go beyond the who-what-where of history and get to know the sounds, scents, tastes, and textures that defined the lives of your historical characters.
Along the way, be conscious of your sources. All of history is recorded with some degree of bias. To get a more accurate sense of a historical time period and its inhabitants, look for sources that bring different points of view whenever possible.
What You’re Trying to Learn From Historical Research
Before you launch into all this historical research, set some clear goals for the process. As you research, write, and revise, you’ll likely add to the list of things you need to learn about the world of your historical novel. But in the interest of staying more or less on track, go in with a list of must-knows.
Here are some questions worth asking yourself as you research your historical fiction novel.
- What would your protagonist’s neighborhood have looked like?
- How would you describe the layout of their home?
- How were the buildings in your characters’ geographical location different from those in other places?
- Is it possible to visit any structures remaining from that time period?
- What would it mean for a place to look modern and upscale?
- What would it mean for a place to look outdated?
- What technological innovations would seem absolutely bonkers to your protagonist’s parents or grandparents?
- How do your characters’ communicate across long distances in this historical context?
- What’s the transportation situation?
- Is there a new innovation that some folks in your historical setting think signal the downfall of humankind? (The answer is yes. Every generation has one: the car, radio, television, smartphones, you name it.)
- What does a normal day look like for your characters? Think it through. This will unearth several questions about technology that you hadn’t considered. It’s also a good exercise for getting into the heads of your historical characters, reframing the things we think of as inconveniences as normal life, NBD.
- What would be considered immoral or offensive in the world of your historical novel?
- What values are your characters expected to uphold?
- Are there any clashing subcultures within your setting?
- What does it mean for your characters to fit in here?
- If they don’t fit in, how do they know?
- What assumptions does this historical society make about each of your characters?
- What roles are your characters expected to play in their homes? In the community?
- Is there a dominant religion in this culture? (Yep.) What is it? How does it influence societal values?
- What customs, celebrations, and rituals are important in this historical context?
- What does the government look like in the world of your historical fiction novel?
- Who are the high-ranking political figures?
- What types of people are most likely to hold power in this setting?
- What groups are most likely to be oppressed?
- Do any current or proposed laws create friction between neighbors?
- How hard or easy is it for your protagonist to participate in the political system?
- What would your characters do for fun?
- Who are the big celebrities?
- How do folks in this era relate to celebrities? Do they have pictures of them? Know about them strictly through word of mouth? Read their books? Watch their movies?
- How does the art of the time reflect the attitudes and overall vibe of the historical time period?
- What slang might your characters have used?
Notable Historical Events
- What major things are going on in your characters’ town? In the country? In the world? Consider things like natural disasters, major political shifts, wars, and epidemics.
- Does the community in your historical fiction story seem united? Divided? Is it clear why?
- What has been the biggest historical event of your protagonist’s lifetime? How did it shape the world as they know it?
As you might guess, these questions only scratch the surface. There’s a lot more to consider as you fill out the historical context of your novel. For additional guidance, I suggest checking out this article on worldbuilding and this one on researching historical fiction.
Step 3: Develop the Geographical Location
In other fiction genres, writers often forget that time is a deeply significant aspect of their fictional world. The opposite problem tends to arise when it comes to writing historical fiction. The matter of historical context is everything and location becomes a bit of an afterthought.
So take some time to get to know the where of your story as well as you know the when.
What’s the landscape like? How’s the climate? Why is living here different from living anywhere else?
If you’re able to visit the location of your historical fiction novel, do it! Experience for yourself what it’s like to move through that space. If any historical landmarks from the era of your story are still standing, even better.
Of course, not everything will be exactly the same, which is why it’s also fun to compare past and present. Can you find old photos or paintings that show you what a modern space looked like during your novel’s historical time period?
Step 4: Populate the World With Believable Characters
From your protagonist to your tertiary characters, the beings who populate historical novels reveal and clarify the significance of the setting.
That is to say, your setting and characters must work together when you write historical fiction. Let your characters reflect the world in which they live—whether they embrace it or rebel against it—and let your setting evolve under the influence of your characters.
How the Setting Shapes the Characters
The most engaging historical settings are the ones that help us understand why characters are the way they are. As you craft your characters, ask yourself:
- How is this person powerful in this world?
- How are they powerless?
- In what ways have they adapted their behavior or perspective in order to belong in this society?
- Would this character be happier in the present day? Why or why not?
- What do they love about the world they live in?
- Do they have to hide anything about themselves in order to be liked, accepted, or respected?
- How does the way they talk reflect the intersection of time period, culture, and social status?
If you write any real historical characters, you might be able to turn to their letters, diaries, interviews, or other writings to get some insight into the way they relate to their world.
You can find additional tips on creating historical fiction characters in this article.
How the Setting Creates Conflict
Don’t forget that your setting can also be an antagonist in your story. In fact, it often is in historical novels.
Cultural norms hinder protagonists from fulfilling their ambitions or claiming agency. Historical events shake up their world and change their lives.
Then there are the physical roadblocks that are built into a historical fiction setting. The flash flood in the middle of a cattle drive. The jungle wildlife that freaks out the foreigner. The fact that nobody has the ability to just summon a Lyft in an emergency.
A great historical fiction setting is more than a backdrop. It’s a participant in the story.
Step 5: Establish Atmosphere and Mood
Now that we’ve done all this planning, what about the business of actually writing historical fiction? How do you immerse the reader in the setting?
It’s all about creating a sense of atmosphere. The atmosphere of a place is its personality—the mood it creates. When you bring the atmosphere of your historical fiction setting to life for the reader, you help them understand what it would feel like to live in that place and time.
This is already a major feat for any writer. It’s even tougher if you write historical fiction, because what do you know about the smells of a 14th-century Japanese village?
You’ll have to fill in those knowledge gaps with research and invite your imagination to make a few educated guesses.
The trick to creating an atmosphere is concrete details. Instead of telling the reader that the farm was a lonely place, mention the vast, uninterrupted horizon and the absence of sound aside from the deep braying of cattle and wind rustling the prairie grass.
This is what we call “show, don’t tell,” and if you could use more help mastering this skill, check out this article.
Step 6: Balance Historical Accuracy and Creative Freedom
Writing historical fiction requires you to strike a tricky balance between accuracy and storytelling.
You don’t want to get so caught up in filling your novel with indisputable historical details that it begins to read like a textbook. You also want to avoid adding a bunch of facts no one cares about just because you know them now.
And get this: it’s okay to alter and/or fabricate historical details. When you write historical fiction, your greater responsibility is authenticity rather than accuracy.
That’s not to say accuracy never matters. But the bigger question is: are you representing the spirit, culture, and challenges of the historical time period as truthfully as you can? Have you captured what it would mean to live in this era?
If the answer is yes, you’re probably on the right track. But let’s examine this question more carefully, just for safety.
Which Facts Are You Allowed to Change in Historical Fiction?
Honestly, you can change a lot of things.
You can take a storefront that actually existed in 1920s Detroit and plop it down in Chicago. If you found exactly one journal entry where the real-life historical figure in your novel expresses an interest in acrobatics and you want to make that their secret hobby, have at it. You can even toy around with historical events and merge several real-life people into one. It’s fiction after all.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind as you play with the rules of reality.
Know that some readers will be irked with you for “getting the facts wrong.” If the issue is that you put a car in the story ten years prior to the existence of cars, that’s a fair beef. But if you blatantly made a creative choice to stray from the truth for the sake of the story, that’s on them for picking up a historical fiction novel when they wanted a history book.
Having said that, be a pal and make your intentions clear to readers if you plan to stray far from the actual, factual truth.
If your changes are so huge that they would have altered the course of history (like “What if Hitler had won?”), you’re in the realm of speculative fiction and you should make that clear in your query letters and marketing.
Even your tone can help readers understand what they’re getting into. The Great—which calls itself an “Occasionally True Story”—is frequently at odds with historical reality. But the dialogue is a fascinating blend of old timey speak and modern diction, so it’s clear from the beginning that this is historical fiction gone rogue.
Step 7: Edit and Refine the Setting
Finally, once you’ve completed your historical novel, get feedback. This is something you’d want to do anyway, but as a historical fiction writer, you’ll be looking for feedback on your setting as well as your overall storytelling.
If you can share a draft with someone who’s an expert on the time period or geographical location, do it. See if you can track down a fact-checker who can help you search for anachronisms or inaccurate representations of historical events.
As you review it yourself, try to notice if there’s anything you assumed but didn’t research. Would your protagonist’s dress really be made of taffeta? Would families have used tablecloths in that historical time period?
Finally, encourage your readers to tell you if they felt immersed in the setting. When you have your feedback, go back and revise.
Prepare for Time Travel
Feeling a little more confident about writing historical fiction? I hope so. But I also know the real confidence kicks in when you start doing it.
There may be a lot of work ahead of you, but nothing creates that rockstar writer feeling like digging in, pushing through, and seeing the pieces come together.
I’d like to offer one last tip to make this process easier for you: write your historical fiction novel with Dabble.
If you’re not familiar with this tool, it’s the best one out there for staying organized on huge, messy projects like this one. It’s simpler and more intuitive than a lot of other writing tools, but still has plenty of cool features to make planning, writing, and revising a breeze.
Story Notes are especially handy for historical fiction writers, as it allows you to store all your research in the same place you plot and draft your story.
Curious to give it a try? Snag a free 14-day trial at this link. You don’t even need a credit card to get started.
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