Historical fiction can be a lot of fun to write. And if this is your preferred genre, then you have the benefit of being able to access a lot of history. In fact, there has never been more history than there is now! This means there's plenty of inspiration at your fingertips. But choosing a subject or time period to write about can be daunting.
This is why we're bringing you a list of historical fiction writing prompts in this article!
- Common historical fiction tropes.
- A list of prompts and how to use them.
- How to vet your historical fiction novel idea.
Table of contents
- What Makes a Historical Fiction Story?
- Historical Fiction Creative Writing Prompts
- Vetting Your Historical Fiction Novel Idea
What Makes a Historical Fiction Story?
Before we get to the prompts, let's take a minute to discuss what makes for a good historical fiction story. If you're setting out to write in this genre, then you probably already read in it. If that's the case, you may be aware of the common tropes. But no harm can come from a quick refresher.
Character is Key
You'll often see characters that hold modern values in historical fiction novels. These are often described as characters who are “ahead of their time.” While this is a good way to help the reader identify with the protagonist(s), it can also go a little too far. After all, readers of this genre want to be steeped in the time period. Additionally, a character that isn't “flawed” can be a little boring at times.
So give your readers reasons to love your historical fiction character, but make sure they're not a perfect representation of someone with today's value system. By crafting a good character arc, you can provide your readers with a character that is at once authentic and enthralling.
Research But Resist
Research is an essential part of writing good historical fiction. Even if you're planning on doing something that doesn't necessarily need to be propped up by authenticity (say your story will have a science fiction twist), you'll still want to be accurate when it counts. This is part of the attraction for readers.
This is why it's important to resist sharing things that aren't necessarily relevant to the plot. There's the risk of narrative info dumps in historical fiction, but this also pertains to dialogue. Too much authenticity in the dialogue can slow the reader down or take them out of the story. But a few well-placed authentic words in the dialogue can go a long way!
Events and Persons Are Common
Readers of this genre often expect to see the story center around a historical event or a real person—or both. Your main character doesn't have to be a historical figure, though. For example, in The Alienist by Caleb Carr, Theodore Roosevelt plays a major role in the story, but he’s a secondary character.
The same can be said for a major historical event. Your plot doesn't have to do directly with the event. It can simply provide the backdrop for the story while still hitting on those tropes that readers love so well.
Note: These are broad, overarching tropes in historical fiction. Determine your subgenre to pinpoint more specific tropes to guide your writing.
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Historical Fiction Creative Writing Prompts
Whether you're looking to get past a case of writer's block or you're simply looking for some story inspiration, the following prompts can help! Pick a prompt and use it as-is, or tweak it to make it your own. It's completely up to you!
While I’ve split these up into different historical fiction subgenres, you can easily tweak them for use in another subgenre. If you like an idea, make it your own and change it to write the story that you would want to read.
Historical Romance Prompts
As one of the most popular genres out there, romance has a strong foothold in the historical genre. Whether you’re looking to write regency romance, Viking romance, or a sprawling epic like Gone With the Wind, there’s no shortage of inspiration to be had.
1. Your main character is an advocate for Native American tribes in the 18th century. As she gathers political will among the people, she meets and falls in love with a Native American man. But their lives and worlds are just so different. Will they end up together?
2. Your protagonist is the daughter of a once-wealthy family during the Great Depression. Her father convinces her to marry a man she barely knows because his family is wealthy. At first, things seem bleak. But as she gets to know the man, she thinks it might be true love.
3. Germany in the lead-up to World War II. Your protagonist is a man who falls in love with a Jewish woman. While all those around him are trying to convince him he's crazy, he must do what's in his heart. He must risk his life to save his love and her family.
4. A brazen female thief sneaks into King George V's home in 1920 only to be caught by one of the king's guards. At first, he's ready to turn her in, but he soon discovers there's something between them.
5. A young woman meets a young man on the streets of New York City during the 1939-1940 World's Fair. But before they can exchange information, they're separated. How do they find each other again to spark up a romance for the ages?
Historical Fiction Mysteries
Where (or when) there are people, there’s bound to be crime. All one needs to do is look at some of the most intriguing crime stories throughout recorded history to find some inspiration. Or, take a look at the prompts below to get excited about your next thrilling story.
6. Someone is poisoning soldiers in George Washington's army during the American Revolution. General Washington assigns your main character to solve the mystery just in time for the battle of Yorktown.
7. Write about a fictional character who is behind the scenes during the fall of the Roman Empire. He's working to uncover the powerful cabal pulling strings to cause the empire to collapse so they can get rich in the process.
8. Write about a police officer in London in the late 19th century. While Sherlock Holmes was getting all the attention, your character was running around catching criminals that Holmes didn't have time for.
9. Write about a Civil Rights proponent who takes it upon herself to uncover the conspiracy of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
10. The first detective agency is said to have been formed in Paris in 1833. Write about the formation of this agency and the bumpy road they took to develop ways to catch criminals on the crowded Paris streets.
Historical fiction writers in this subgenre often use objects to link characters from multiple time periods. Sometimes, the characters are related by blood or circumstance, but this isn't always the case.
11. A woman in 1970s America receives a letter from a lawyer telling her about an inheritance from a relative she didn't know she had. As she goes through this woman's possessions, she glimpses a life during the Great Depression and is surprised to find this great-aunt faced many of the same problems she now faces.
12. A freed slave fighting in the American Civil War comes across the plantation on which he was born. His mother's diary transports him back to a time when she was a little girl—before she was ever taken prisoner and brought to America.
13. Write about an old home that is about to be demolished. Several generations of families have lived in the home. Explore these storylines as if from the house's perspective.
14. A young boy who's obsessed with exploring finds a magical spyglass. When he looks through the glass, he finds that he's descended from a long line of explorers who sailed around the world during different historical periods. Intertwine their stories with his.
15. Write about an object that has been passed down through the eras. It could be a necklace, a ring, or a statue. It passes through the hands of all different kinds of people, allowing the reader to see their similarities and differences as time goes by.
Although the western could be considered a genre of its own, it definitely deserves some story starter prompts on this list. These all take place in the American West during the early 19th to early 20th centuries.
16. Write about a Chinese family who comes to the American West to seek work. How is their experience different from the mostly white settlers? How is it similar?
17. Write about a family who heads west to build a town with their own laws. What kind of trouble do they run into while trying to build this utopia?
18. Write about a Native American tribe who witnesses the migration of settlers into the land they've been inhabiting for generations. Write about conflict, romance, and what they think about the migration.
19. Write about a young woman who heads to California during the Gold Rush. Explore the dangers presented by a woman traveling alone and the harsh realities of striking it rich during that time.
20. Your character is in charge of getting a long stretch of railroad built in the American West. But he has to navigate the politics and the people who are trying to sabotage him every step of the way—not to mention the dangers inherent in the wilderness.
Most of the subgenres above are considered realistic fiction. But with this historical fiction subgenre, you can get a little more creative with your story idea.
21. American history is full of pivotal moments that could've changed the country's direction if things had turned out differently. Choose one of these moments—the Civil War, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, Suffrage Movement, or any number of Supreme Court decisions. What would it look like if things had gone the other way?
22. Fantasy creatures came across our world through a mysterious portal in the early 19th century. Now it's 100 years later. What does the world look like?
23. Nikola Tesla succeeded in making a renewable electric energy source, transforming the world and accelerating the use of robots. Now it's the 1940s. What is the world like?
24. Your main character is a slave living in a modern world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. But there's another civil war brewing, and this one looks to be even more brutal than the first.
25. What if dinosaurs never went extinct? What would human society look like if we'd had to evolve while dinosaurs roamed the earth?
Historical Action/Adventure Prompts
From swashbuckling pirates and fighter jet pilots to adventurous explorers and brilliant inventors, there are plenty of story ideas to explore in this subgenre.
26. A restless teenage girl sneaks aboard a ship in 17th-century England. The ship is headed for the Caribbean and a lifetime's adventure for the young girl.
27. A band of misfits sets out from Alexander the Great's army, determined to find a secret stash of riches located somewhere on the coast of the Mediterranean.
28. Your character is among the Vikings who venture with Leif Erikson to North America.
29. A group of knights set out to retrieve a sacred religious totem during the Crusades. They must battle enemies and form unexpected bonds to survive and accomplish their mission.
30. Write a story detailing the daring and costly St. Nazaire Raid by British commandos on the German-occupied Normandie dry dock during WWII.
Vetting Your Historical Fiction Novel Idea
Whether you're writing a novel or a short story, crafting a historical fiction narrative can really help your research and writing skills. As a fiction writer, these skills are incredibly important. But if you're planning on writing a novel to share with the world, then it's a good idea to see if there's an audience for it (and one that you can break into). Thankfully, this is easy to do with Publisher Rocket.
With Publisher Rocket, you can get data in seconds that would otherwise take you hours if you were to comb through Amazon yourself. The main PR tools allow you to:
- Learn what keywords Amazon customers use to search for historical fiction books like yours—and how many searches a given keyword (or phrase) receives per month.
- See what's working for other authors in your historical fiction subgenre with data on book price, monthly sales, ranking, and book cover styles.
- Find niche categories with the right amount of demand and competition for your books.
- Gather keywords to use in your Amazon Ad campaigns.
Check out Publisher Rocket here to get started.