Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

25 Nov

Before NaNoWriMo began, Nicole recommended this article to me, knowing that I couldn’t help but blog about it.

Author Susanna Calkins was a historian before she was an author. When she began writing, she quickly realized that 100% historical accuracy was not plausible in her novel set in 17th Century England. She shares some guidelines for other historical fiction writers. I’ll summarize and give my opinions below.

  1. Understand the period and everyday life in it.
    I think this is rule #1 and I discussed in a post about my own research process how I did this. It’s a good background and first step.
  2. Show history through character interaction.
    Calkins relates this to the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. A character marveling over the new electric streetlamps is more ‘showing’ than explaining that electric power is new in some cities and that many were still amazed by the new technology (telling).
  3. Have your characters question their place in society.
    I don’t know if I agree that this is a steadfast rule, but I definitely used this technique in WIP1, my YA Historical Fiction. It’s a good way to talk about societal change that will come and to ‘show’ why the society is the way it is during the given time period.
  4. The Internet can be good
    Agree here. Need to know what the interior of a 1927 Lincoln looks like? Need to see demographic information from the 1939 Census? The Internet is your friend. But be warned, this goes along with our next fact…
  5. The Internet can be bad.
    Want to know if Al Capone had a secret lover? Are you thinking that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a conspiracy? These are topics best discussed in books where fact checking is required and hearsay on the Internet isn’t published. Go to the library.
  6. Don’t get caught up in the details.There will be times that the details seem so important that the story gets lost. Don’t let this happen to you! When you feel overwhelmed by details, stop your researching and write! Get that first draft out and then go back and research if Cokes were served in bottles or cups at pharmacies. It’s not essential to your plot.
  7. Admit that you are going to mess up.
    There are trolls out there who like nothing better than to find an error in your well researched book. Did you mention electricity when it’s not likely it would have existed? Do the ages of your characters imply their father came home early from fighting in Europe? Your readers will catch it so don’t worry.  Just say thank you and move on.

Do any of you write Historical Fiction? What have you found are some good tips for writing in another time period? Please share in the comments section.

Until next time, write on.


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