Saturday, December 29, 2012

Writing Historical Fiction

I began writing historical fiction at age 7. My first novel, scrawled out in a small pink notebook {yes, the one pictures} and titled, The Princess Travels, was set in the 1800’s {don’t ask me how I got a princess in the Midwest; I managed very well, thank you}. My favorite books from the time I could first read {at age 3} until I was 18 years old were all historical fiction. In fact, I read history books just for fun.

I was {I guess I must admit still am}, what you call, a history nerd. Or geek, depending on whether you are my sister Brisa or my sister Abrienne.

And I love it.

So, writing historical fiction. . . Me? 

Historical fiction {HF} is not easy. You cannot just sit down and pound away at your keys and expect a historical fiction to come to life beneath your fingers. HF takes work. Lots of it.

From accurate settings, to correct mindsets, to what analogies you can use, historical fiction is like no other genre, just as they are not like historical fiction. And what makes it unique is what makes it awesome.

History itself is incredible. To flip through the pages of cultures, lives, and empires who once dominated this world of ours is as enchanting as it is almost scary. There are so many people, so many cultures, so many indescribable things from those other times, other places, and it is incredible thinking about them, knowing they were once real, life to someone, just the way things were, and now . . . now it is gone.
The world in which your character moves is as important as the character himself. You can paint the most believable, realistic, heartrending protagonist imaginable. But if his world does not fit around him, he is detached and we lose contact with him. Your setting will be whatever culture you decide to write about, and it means more than just the kind of clothes and rooms and wars that encircle your character. It is everything. From the stream trickling through a dark Sherwood Forest to a sparkling goblet in Queen Hatshepsut’s throne room to the dull, lifeless cap flopped on William Bradford’s head. It is the kind of dialogue and ways of expression between your cast. Can you see the picture, see the room, see the world where your character lives? That is his setting and his life. And it has to be real. It has to be his setting. Throwing a great, big medieval sword into your Egyptian pyramid is not going to create a very easy or authentic picture for your reader to imagine. It just won’t feel right.

Analogies are so important in writing. They describe, evoke, imagine, so much of your character and their feelings and the understandings of the world around them. And it is important to get them right. If you are writing a story set in medieval times, it would not work for you to use this analogy:
Rosamund felt as though everything around her was spinning like tires on black ice.

As you and I know, there was no such thing as tires OR black ice during the Medieval Ages. And our poor Rosamund would have no idea what it felt like to be spin like that.

Aah, and then you have correct mindsets. I must admit, this is one thing I find the most misused by HF writers. We tend to like and want to write in the mentality of our own culture. And that is a big mistake.

First of all, I think a part of the charm of an ancient culture is the ways the people thought, the things they did, and why. To destroy that by bringing very Western ideas into a HF novel is as good as burning your book before you start. It devastates it authenticity.

I know it is almost heresy for me to say this, but I must, because it is true. In most of the ancient world, education was not looked upon as important to anyone but the upper class. In fact, most of the time, the people believed they were incapable of learning. So it would be inconsistent to create your main character a peasant boy and give him great learning {no matter what scheme you come up with to give it to him}. Your story had better be good if you want to tempt to mount that social barrier. And it is better not done. I rather enjoy the thought of getting to know a fellow who is just as smart in common sense as you or I without an education ~ and who doesn’t even care to have one.


See, the charm of historical fiction is not in how many rules you can twist to get away from the real ethnics of that time and make it desirable to this culture, but how many rules you can fit in and still capture your reader. For therein lies the desire of every HF writer. We want our readers to fall in love with the richness of the history of our story as much as the people of our story. And if they don’t, we have not succeeded. If they don’t want to run away to ancient Incan ruins or towering Italian cathedrals, we have failed.

Historical fiction will always be my favorite genre to both read and write. It is just one of those things, something that touches a trigger inside me and boils a passion and a desire for it. I will always find myself buried deep within those cultures, wondering just what it was like, just who would have lived, and what sort of things they might have done. And you will always find me curled up with a blanket and a good HF for company.



  1. Fab post, and very well said! Admittedly I never write straight HF, but I think what you've said here can be applicable to any book, especially ones dealing with "historic" themes, like High Fantasy or some Science Fiction novels. Establishing the mindset of your characters really helps to bring the world alive.

    I think some people stumble with it, though, because some historical views - such as those about women - often really get the author's goat, and they worry that the reader will struggle to like the book with characters expressing such ideals.

    That said, though, it's not as hard as it might be - human beings are still just that, whatever age they live in! And we'll continue to be such wondrous disasters until there are no more humans left, no doubt.

  2. Mm. I agree. (Clear way of putting it all too.) But I must say, the "voice and mentality" is one thing that usually drowns me when I'm reading HF. I like it to be historically accurate, of course (that's how I learn my history!), but if the voice is too old-fashioned I get confused.

    I don't think I could ever write HF. But I like how YOU do it! :D