Unlike Claire, I’m not a published historical novelist, but I do write historical short stories, some of which have been published online, and I am currently writing a novel set in a period which is just too recent to be historical. I'd hesitate to offer advice, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned about historical fiction writing as I went along.
- Write a story, not a history book. The characters should lead, as in any other fiction.
- Although you’ll carry out a lot of research into your
historical setting, resist the temptation to include it all in your text; in
fact, use very little of it. Georgette
Heyer, author supreme of Regency romances, rarely mentions any solid history
(the Battle of Waterloo, once or twice, perhaps). Your research may inform what your characters
don’t do. For instance, in my novel, at various times,
nobody could use a telephone, because the government had cut the lines.
- Every historical fact must be accurate, especially dates. Build yourself a historical timeline and
write the events of your story beside it.
is a useful source for finding out the days of the week for specific dates in
recent history. Use Wikipedia for
general schedules of world events in particular years.
- Do a site visit, remembering that cities and places change.
- As well as political history, research what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled, what they thought. If possible, read contemporary books, and look at photos. If you can find any cartoons, or any jokes, study them intensely. Listen to popular music, including folk songs, paying particular attention to the lyrics. Look up any words or phrases you don’t understand; these may lead you to the hidden soul of the people you’re writing about.
- Don’t bend
historical happenings to suit your plot.
Use real history to generate confrontation in your story.
- Consider what your characters are in a position to know, and,
more importantly, what they don’t know.
The general British public didn’t know about gas chambers in
concentration camps until some time after World War Two had ended. And how they learned it; the characters in my
WIP learned all that was important, listening to Radio Free Europe whilst leaning against a toilet seat.
- In stories set in recent history (after about 1900), real
historical persons should feature hardly at all. Before 1900, use them if you wish, accurately,
and without lapsing into biography.
- Editors of historical fiction ezines and mags tell me that
stories set in The Second World War and the Victorian era are in glut – avoid these
settings. Regency period, also, but
certain markets can’t get enough of them.
- Whereas people of every age have the same personalities, those living in byegone eras have their own worldviews and ways of treating servants, other races, animals, women, children. They were definitely not politically correct. No girl knights, please, or Roman families without slaves. However, European and North American characters living in previous centuries are more likely to be committed Christians – a bonus.
Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction. In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat. Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.