The Devil is in the Details: How to Write Historical Fiction
Historical fiction presents its own unique set of challenges. There’s writing the story itself. Getting the plot and the characters and the setting and all those important things that create a great story right. But there’s also the added challenge of making sure you’ve got the historical details to make it all come together with accuracy.
Readers of historical fiction expect you to have your facts straight, and they’ll call you out on it if you don’t. Especially if it’s a time period, an event, or a historical figure they know a lot about. So you need to do your research carefully.
In this article, we’re going to give you some tips for writing historical fiction to ensure it's the best book it can be. That includes:
- Developing your story idea
- Doing your research
- Making it realistic
- Some final tips to keep in mind
Develop Your Story Idea
To start your historical fiction, decide on what type of historical fiction it’s going to be. You’ve got a few options here.
A fictional version of a true story: This is a book that focuses on a real-life event or person and retells the story in some way. Your account will be fictionalized, but it’s still going to be accurate and true. While you won’t make up the plot, what will make up the dialogue and the way your characters interact within the confines of the true accounts. Your goal is to liven up a real-life event or person’s life while keeping true to the source material.
A fictional version of a true story but with some creative license: If you take one step left, you’ll get a book that focuses on a real-life person or event but takes some liberties with the truth. This doesn’t mean you’re just going to make stuff up (okay, maybe a little) but more accurately, it might look like you filling in gaps where the historical record is lacking. You can add subtext, lend credence ro rumors, and have some fun with it in a way you would never have been allowed in that university history class.
A real life event or setting as a backdrop: This is where your story takes a deeper turn into the fictional. You might use a time period or an event in history—say, ancient Egypt or World War I—as the background for your novel, but the characters and their stories are created by you. There will still be research to do here as you want the details in their lives to be accurate, but you aren’t basing this on anyone’s lived past.
A real-life event or setting as inspiration: And finally, we get to the least rigid type of historical fiction, and that’s the “inspired by true events” type. Here, you can have more free reign on what you write, taking you a little further from the truth and mixing it with plenty of fiction. This might look like you loosely replicating a past event or basing your story on a real person with a lot of embellishments.
No matter what you choose, remember that you’re a fiction author. Not a historian, professor, or textbook writer. While education might be one of the goals of your book, your primary objective is typically to entertain or share a message. So, no matter what style of historic fiction you decide to write, it needs to engage your reader.
Otherwise they might as well go and pick up a biography or history book on the topic. And that’s not what you want.
Do your research
Start by writing down whatever you know about the time period, people, and customs that you’ve chosen to include in your story. What are the things you know a lot about and where are your gaps? Is what you know accurate, or are they just perceptions?
When researching, you can look through either primary or secondary sources:
Primary sources: Firsthand accounts from people who lived through the event or time period in question or firsthand accounts from the historic figure whose story you’re writing.
Secondary sources: Sources that were written later by other people who attempt to describe, analyze, and interpret the available facts.
For some ideas on how to actually research a book, check out this post.
Places to go for historical research:
- Online archives
- Online library catalogs
- Books (fiction and nonfiction)
- Text books
- Academic journals and papers
- Genealogy websites
- Dictionary and translations websites
- Court record documents
- YouTube channels
- Image sites and archives
- Maps and map websites
Make it Realistic
The more accurate and fulsome your details, the better your book is going to be.
But keep in mind that there’s a fine line between historical detail and heading into the weeds with every interesting fact and figure you discover. As captivating as it might be to learn about how the complex water irrigation systems of feudal Scotland worked*, chances are it’s not going to add much to your book. Unless you happen to be writing about a Scottish lord that invented that system, I guess.
*I have no idea if this is a real thing. Don’t come for me.
To create a believable historical setting, you need to consider all the aspects that make up a person’s daily environment and how they might interact with it. Consider things like:
Food: This is an easy one to mess up because every sort of food is so easily accessible in our modern world, regardless of where it’s grown or what season it’s meant to be harvested. But this is true only in the relatively recent past. Don’t assume that anything you eat now would have been available in your historical setting.
Case and point: I once witnessed an entire discussion about a writer who made a grievous error because they referred to those plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup you get in restaurants a full two years before they had been invented. True story.
Clothing: This can be a really fun one, and it’s easy to understand that clothing has changed drastically, even from just a hundred years ago. Even in the past century, every decade has embodied its own personal aesthetic. And clothing differed greatly depending on what class people were–whether they were wealthy or not. Consider what materials, styles, and availability there would have been. And how the clothing would be affected by the climate of your setting and social standing of your characters.
Employment and Income: Obviously, the way people worked in past centuries is very different to how our work lives look today. Same with the way we’re paid and save our money. People didn’t necessarily have jobs with regular schedules, and sitting in an office certainly wasn’t the norm. People from wealthy backgrounds would have used very different means to accumulate wealth either through their connections and investments, or by simply inheriting it. Looking at you, royal family.
Medicine: One of the greatest advancements in technology is healthcare. Consider what the characters in your story would have had access to and what kinds of injuries or illnesses might kill them.
Social norms and communication: The way people interacted in the past is very different to how people interact today. Think about how differing classes would have communicated with one another and whether a peasant would ever address a king without fear for their life. Communication channels were very different in the past, as well. Remember to study how letters would have been sent or how someone would talk to someone who lived far away.
Travel: Speaking of far away, you’ll want to consider how people got around in your setting. Did they mainly use horseback or have cars or trains been invented? And is it reasonable to assume your character would have had access to those things? Or were they stuck in their small village for their whole lives? Maybe they’ll take a boat somewhere?
Technology: This is another area where it’s easy for writers to get it wrong. When was electricity invented, and would they have access to lights or a record player in your setting? If you’re working with a pre-electric era, how did they make things run? How did they heat their homes? How did they see at night? Make sure you dig into these little details that are easy to take for granted.
Language: This is a tricky one. Because if you were to truly write the way people spoke in the past, then you’d leave your audience confused and probably bored. I mean, if you’re going to write, Hú meaht þú?, which means “how are you?” in old English, you probably aren’t going to win yourself a lot of fans. The trick here will be to use language that sounds like it’s from the past without being too literal about it. This is where you, as a fiction author, get to take a little creative license.
Politics: In a historical setting, including a political backdrop is especially important. It’s hard for a real life story to exist without it. Consider how the dynamics and beliefs of those in power would affect your characters and their lives. Even if your central story has nothing to do with politics, the political climate of the time will affect everything from food to employment to technological developments.
Writing historical fiction has a lot of intricacies you won’t find in other genres. Here are a few more things to keep in mind.
Include a historical note: Make sure you acknowledge that this is a work of fiction based on a true life event or person. Here you can explain where you might have taken some liberties or created the story through your own interpretation of historical facts. Including this can help alleviate some of the questions your readers have and hopefully save you a few headaches.
Consider how concrete your facts are: If there is a lot of documented evidence of a particular event, you’re going to have a harder time using creative license. People who know their stuff will know if you’re veering too far off course from the truth. Consider how verifiable your facts are and how much wiggle room you’ve got to play with them.
Interpretation is subjective: Earlier we talked about secondary sources and how these are written or created by those who weren’t present at the event. That means every secondary source is subjective and biased towards whoever created it. Interpretation of historical facts is therefore always changing, and you can interpret them in your own way for your story. Make use of this idea.
If you change things, you need a reason: If you want to deviate from historical fact, that’s your right, but you need to a) make it make sense and b) make it plausible. If you’ve suddenly introduced an anachronism that just has no grounding in reality, you’re going to throw off your reader.
Once you’ve compiled all that amazing research, you need a way to organize it. Thankfully, Dabble is here for you. Using the Notes feature, you can create as many files and folders as you need to make sense of all that juicy information.
Then when you’re writing, it’ll be right there in the same document so you can refer to it over and over again. What are you waiting for? Try Dabble free for 14 days right now and see how it can help you write your best book ever.
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