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Basic Overview on Writing Historical Fiction

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Mon Jan 25, 2010 7:07 pm
Fishr says...

This article covers my experience writing Historic Fiction. The reasoning is I have encountered quite a few younger writers who wish to dabble in this remarkable genre, but are afraid, and rightfully so. I won’t lie. Historic Fiction can ultimately become terrifying but not in the definition you’re thinking of. Once you finish reading, you may –or may not- understand.

“But, it’s hard!”

Yes, this genre is challenging, but so is writing high fantasy.

”History is boring. Why bother?”

If that is on your mind at this very moment, leave the article immediately.
In retrospect, I’ve also encountered the typical eras in which everyone tackles. These include:

*Salem Witch Trials
*World War II, specifically the central conflict in which a soldier “went through,” both emotionally, physically, and mentally. Only one, Suzanne, dared to enter the realm of the Holocaust.
*American Civil War

These three periods are undoubtedly the most popular because records and data have survived the generations. In short, the three periods are an easy way out when first starting. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the choice, but one should eventually attempt to explore other eras. If not, and the Civil War is the period where you feel most comfortable with, than you should, as a writer of Historic Fiction, make an effort to explore.


*smirks* And now, we shall begin the article.

Dates With Crutches

I’m guilty. I admit here, and now. When I first began, I had to write at least the date of the year I had chosen, feeling that my reader wouldn’t understand what I was conveying to them.

Writing the date in italics or just in plain print is a weakness. Not necessarily one that is frowned upon by readers but eventually with yourself because you know deep down, you’re capable of more.

For a time, I always wrote the date so I knew my reader would understand the era I had
chosen. Sometimes, I even went as far as writing the setting in italics, along with the date. Yeah, pretty bad.

I learned over time with a lot of practice, that it’s the subtle details, and minor description that defines the setting and the era. However, if you need “the crutch” to feel confident, by all means, put that date up there. Just remember; never negate the world you wish to recreate. Hone in on clothing, transportation, weaponry, speech/dialect, historic structures i.e. buildings, and of course historic events. These are just some examples to show the reader your recreated world.


Hehe. For some odd reason writers assume they need to describe everything. And I mean EVERYTHING, especially in Historic Fiction. This is bad. A major no-no. You are not a history teacher, nor have a degree I would assume. You are a storyteller. Unless you’re goal is to kill your reader with a coma in terms of boredom, be my guest.

Writing Historic Fiction is a delicate balance between the correct blend of fiction and facts. A good rule of thumb is, it’s better to be subtle with the facts and focus more on the fictional aspect; hence, the characters. Never mind the plot, the characters will keep the story alive.

“No plot? You’re nuts!”

Possibly, but it’s true. The plot is secondary. Developed characters are your concentration. Plot is secondary because it’s already been written- historically. This is where I meant the correct blend of history comes into play. For instance, the Potato Famine in Ireland historically happened, and that is your plot. Now, you must build off it.


Haha. No worries. This is why the genre is so delightful. Obviously, there will be blanks, cracks in the past. With the power of the imagination, it’s up to you how you wish to employ these blanks by filling them in. Be cautious though. Do not make the mistake I’ve made so many times. Do not become outlandish or ridiculous when filling in those blanks. Most readers are generally familiar with history. Why wouldn’t they be? The genre is Historic Fiction, and your readers are interested in learning, but enjoying themselves too. In short, if you really want to sign your death certificate, keep your imagination on a leash to a certain degree.

The Emotions

Perhaps, this part of the article actually is the key. Writing Historic Fiction is indeed difficult but not impossible. It’s like this ongoing love/hate relationship with no sign of the white light at the end of the tunnel. Not especially satisfying in the work aspect but if you let yourself lose, the experience is most rewarding. In fact, it can’t be described. Every person experiences something different.

Feeling, really feeling the atmosphere, your characters, and the whole, damn, world around you, history becomes alive- if you let it in. I remember when I read, “Death Machine,” by Suzanne, I honestly could not get passed the third chapter. I doubt I could finish her book. Why? Because she literally brought a death camp alive. With her talent, I felt the unbearable agony, the cruelty, betrayal, murder one cannot comprehend… When we talked about her novel, she admitted some days she wept. The Holocaust was real, it happened, and she felt a long, lost past breathe life within her. In doing so, Suzanne sucked me into the depths.

In my experience when writing, do not attempt to distance or safeguard yourself from these emotions. Live in the moment. For if you begin to feel, it means you’re doing very well.

If you are unsure, it’s best to step back. Now, I’m not trying to discourage, but in truth, you will feel emotions, and many of them. Sometimes they flutter in unison, and attack. Don’t worry though. I find if I have a full tummy, things run smoother. :)

”It’s terrifying…”

True, as you probably already knew even before beginning to read, the genre is hard work, but the work involved is not nearly as scary as living in the moment.

Like above, as I mentioned the ordeal one will experience with mixed emotions, once you begin to comprehend where the characters are leading you, the plot may very well become complex, but through the clutter something wonderful happens. You can’t stop. Or at least, you don’t want too. Hunger or thirst is probably gnawing away, or perhaps sleep commands rest. You can’t stop.

Welcome to Historic Fiction. :) The only true terrifying element is in which that the writer is so familiar with their world, and every focal point in it, that when you do cease, the world never actually leaves. No, your chosen period lingers, waiting, much like your characters, as they relish the opportunity to finish their stories.
At that point, I say, congratulations, you are a Historical Fiction writer. The fear is not first setting foot to attempt writing the genre but the realization that you, the writer, are stuck in an era, and the many faces of the past beckon… You will begin to feel the souls of the deceased spring to life, and temporarily live inside. That is, if you resign yourself, and let them in. Emotions too.

Live in the moment.

Your most humble servant,

-Samuel Garrison
Last edited by Fishr on Thu Jan 28, 2010 9:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Thu Jan 28, 2010 8:55 pm
peanut19 says...

Thanks for the information Sam. I've been thinking about writing Historical Fiction but I didn't really know how. This really helped. Thanks!

There is a light in you, a Vision in the making with sorrow enough to extinguish the stars. I can help you.
~And The Light Fades

The people down here are our zombies, who should be dead or not exist but do.
~Away From What We Started

P.S Got YWS?

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Fri Jan 29, 2010 8:47 pm
Fishr says...

Yay! I'm so happy it was helpful to you, peanut.

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Sun Feb 28, 2010 1:26 am
StoryWeaver13 says...

Thanks, this really helps, I'll probably be looking back on this a dozen times while I try to write a historic fiction. So again, thank you thank you, thank you.
Reading is one form of escape. Running for your life is another. ~Lemony Snicket

Thou call'dst me a dog before thou hadst cause. But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.
— Shylock, The Merchant of Venice