As someone who has spent a lot of time researching myths and ancient history for my historical fantasy novels (yes, I know they’re not the same thing), I feel I have a unique kinship to historical fiction.
But it can also be challenging. There’s a reason I write historical fantasy instead of straight-up historical fiction.
But in this article, I’ve done my best to show you some of the techniques I use, as well as a lot more I’ve researched that can definitely help you write an amazing historical novel.
- What historical fiction is
- What makes a good historical fiction novel
- Tips for plotting, world-building, etc.
- How to create authentic historical characters
Table of contents
- What is Historical Fiction?
- What Makes Good Historical Fiction?
- Types of Historical Fiction
- Does Historical Fiction Have to be Historically Accurate?
- How to Write Historical Fiction
- Other Tips
- Final Thoughts
So with that in mind, let’s dive in.
What is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction stories take place in the past, though the timeframe considered “historical” differs. Generally, historical fiction is set at least 50 years in the past, before the author's own lifetime. This transports readers to an era outside of their firsthand experience.
The story is paramount in historical fiction. While accuracy matters, the priority is on crafting an engaging plot and relatable characters. Historical fiction selects interesting snippets from the past and uses them to highlight universal human experiences.
Some common time periods for historical fiction include classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Napoleonic era, the Victorian period, the early 20th century, and World War II. But historical fiction can bring any time in history to life!
Common Tropes in Historical Fiction
Certain types of characters and plot devices frequently show up in historical fiction. Here are some of the most common historical fiction tropes:
- The feisty heroine who rebels against societal expectations
- The brooding hero scarred by war or loss
- Love triangles and forbidden romances
- Diaries, letters, and found documents framing the story
- Real historical figures making cameo appearances
- Political intrigue at royal courts or in seats of power
- Gritty descriptions of battles and warfare
- Incorporation of real historical events into the plot
- References to classic literature, philosophy, and art from the time period
These recurring tropes allow readers to be instantly transported to the mood and themes of historical fiction. They serve as shortcuts for signaling the genre and time period. But in weaker stories, they can also become predictable or overused. The best historical fiction writers breathe new life into familiar tropes.
What Makes Good Historical Fiction?
When writing historical fiction, I keep the following elements in mind to fully immerse readers in the past:
- Immersive historical setting: I carefully research the historical period I'm writing about to create a vivid and accurate setting for my story. I want readers to feel like they're right there in the middle of the action.
- Relatable characters: My characters are complex and relatable, with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. I want readers to care about them and root for them as they face the challenges of their time.
- Drama and high stakes: My stories are full of drama and high stakes. My characters are faced with difficult choices that have real consequences. I want readers to be on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next.
- Historically accurate context: I make sure my stories are historically accurate, both in terms of the setting and the events that take place. I want readers to learn about history as they enjoy my stories.
- Accessible yet elevated prose: My prose is accessible and easy to read, but it's also elevated and engaging. I want readers to be swept away by my stories, but I also want them to learn something about history along the way.
When I brainstorm and craft my own historical fiction, I keep these elements in mind at every stage of the writing and editing process. This helps me craft stories that will fully immerse readers in the past.
Types of Historical Fiction
Historical fiction is extremely diverse. For one, it varies by historical error, which in itself is a huge list of subgenres.
But most historical fiction novels fall into a few major subgenres. Here are some of the most popular types of historical fiction:
This blend of fantasy and historical fiction incorporates mythological or supernatural elements into a real historical setting. It uses imagined or magical components to explore the past in new ways. Examples include Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.
What if historical events had gone differently? Alternate history explores hypothetical timelines, changing key facts about the past and imagining the ramifications. Fatherland by Robert Harris is one of the most famous examples, as is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
Mysteries and detective stories have been set in just about every historical era imaginable. Historical details enrich the plotting and raise the stakes for sleuths trying to solve fictional cases within the confines of the past. The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a standout historical mystery.
These suspenseful tales use historical backdrops to amplify danger for the characters. The stakes are often exceedingly high, with characters caught up in major events and sweeping change. Ken Follett writes some of the best historical thrillers around.
Love stories set in the past allow readers to experience all the swoons and passion of romance while immersed in a bygone era. Settings range from Medieval Scotland to World War II England and beyond. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is perhaps the most famous example.
Sea adventures have an enduring appeal, and nautical historical fiction takes readers aboard ships of the past. Pat O'Malley's Sharpe Books series brings the 18th century Royal Navy to rip-roaring life. There is also plenty of historical fiction about pirates!
Westerns conjure up images of cowboys, gun slingers, pioneers, and life on the 19th century American frontier. Classics like Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry transport readers to the Wild West.
Historical Fiction Biographies
Biographical historical fiction portrays the lives of actual historical figures, staying as accurate as possible while inventing conversations and imagining private moments. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar does this beautifully for the Roman emperor.
As you can see, historical fiction provides unlimited possibilities for exploring the past through story. Keep these subgenres in mind as you conceptualize your own historical fiction ideas!
Does Historical Fiction Have to be Historically Accurate?
When writing historical fiction, how closely do you need to stick to the facts? Can you take creative license and deviate from what really happened?
This is a question that historical fiction writers grapple with all the time. The truth is, there are no hard and fast rules. Some authors aim to be as accurate as possible, while others are happy inventing freely in service of the story.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you balance historical accuracy with creative license:
Know Your Subgenre's Expectations
If you're writing biographical fiction about Abraham Lincoln, readers will likely expect a high degree of accuracy. But if you're writing a historical fantasy or time travel romance, you'll have more leeway to explore hypothetical scenarios.
Get the Broad Strokes Right
While you don't need your fiction to read like a textbook, it should align with the overall historical consensus. The major events, timelines, and historical figures should match up with the facts. Don't contradict well-established history without good reason.
Obscure Details Aren't As Important
Many readers won't know or care if you're a little anachronistic with small details like clothing styles or dinner menus. But get too many obvious things wrong, and it will undermine the historical immersion.
However, on the flip side, getting a few smaller details right can actually set the mood, and allow readers to suspend their disbelief even more when you DO deviate.
Explain Your Choices in an Author's Note
Let readers know upfront when and where your story deviates from the facts. Explain why you made the choices you did to serve the narrative.
Most readers will appreciate your transparency. Plus, it’s a good way to let the critics know that you didn’t miss those important details, you just deliberately decided against using them.
Take More Liberties With Unknown Eras
Fiction set in times we know less about, like ancient Celtic history or the stone age, has more room for creative speculation since the historical record is patchier.
At the end of the day, historical authenticity comes down to plausibility. Your fiction should feel true to the spirit and general atmosphere of the time period you're writing about. Most of your readers will happily suspend disbelief if your historical world feels immersive.
How to Write Historical Fiction
Now that we've covered the basics of the genre, let's dig into the process of actually writing historical fiction. Here's my 7-step guide:
Step 1: Start With the Setting and the Era
The setting and time period of your book is the most important part of historical fiction. So it’s best to start there.
The setting will shape the rest of the book more than any other element. For example, a woman in WWII-era France will act and behave differently than a woman in 14th-century France.
So start by figuring out where and when you want to set your novel. Then, before the research phase even begins, start to consume a bunch of media surrounding that era, both fiction and nonfiction.
I like to start by watching a lot of fictional movies and TV shows set in that era, along with a few documentaries. It’s a good way to get primed for the next step…
Step 2: Do Lots and Lots of Research
Once you've chosen a general era, the real research begins. Start wide by reading general history books about the time and place. Get a list of the major events, figures, cultural trends, and technological innovations you'll want to reference.
Then get more specific. Look for resources related to your characters' genders, classes, occupations, religions, ethnicities, and any other identities that will shape their perspectives. Seek out first-person sources like journals, letters, and artifacts that reveal what life was like back then.
Immerse yourself in the language of the time by reading literature, plays, newspapers, and speeches written during the period. Note unfamiliar words and style conventions you might mimic in your own prose and dialogue.
If possible, visit museums and historical sites to experience artifacts and places connected to your story. Handling objects from the past and walking in your characters' footsteps brings priceless insight.
You likely won't use more than 10% of your research in the actual writing. But letting your imagination soak in the sights, sounds, and details of the era will infuse your fiction with authentic spirit that readers will feel.
Step 3: Mark Down Key Details
As you explore both primary and secondary sources, note down the specific details that grab you:
- Fascinating traditions, social conventions, or fashion trends
- Innovations and technologies specific to the era
- Notable events, battles, or political movements
- Interesting figures who make cameo appearances
- Delicious descriptions of meals or architecture
These vivid details will spice up your writing. Sprinkle them in strategically to delight readers with the essence of the era. Just don't info dump or force them in clumsily.
Step 4: Plot the Novel
Now it's time to synthesize your research into a compelling plot. Brainstorm story ideas that allow you to showcase the fascinating slice of history you want to bring to life.
Develop a cast of fictional characters, making sure they fit plausibly within the constraints and opportunities of the historical setting you've chosen. Give them goals, conflicts, and motivations influenced by the time period they inhabit.
Map out a plot trajectory that intersects with major events of the era or uses them as turning points. Decide how closely you want to adhere to the historical timeline versus taking creative license.
I like to outline so I can visualize the cause-and-effect of events and make sure the pacing feels right. But do what works for your writing process.
Step 5: Remember to Show Both Sides of History
One pitfall of historical fiction is depicting the past through an overly romanticized lens. The presentism of modern values often makes us view previous eras as simpler or more idyllic.
Resist glamorizing the past. Show the full spectrum of experiences, including the ugly parts of history many people choose to forget.
Remember that history is written by the victors. So try to show the other side that we don’t necessarily consider these days.
Tell well-rounded stories that don't shy away from challenging themes. Seek out voices and perspectives that were marginalized or excluded from the official historical record. Find the untold stories of those who have been overlooked.
Step 6: Create Awesome Characters That Fit the Era
The key to immersive historical fiction is populating your stories with characters readers connect with. Develop nuanced players who feel like real people despite being products of another time.
Give each character a distinct voice stylized to the cadence and diction of their era. Build cultural attitudes and constraints organically into their worldviews. Ensure their choices and conflicts align with the social mores they inhabit.
Beware of projecting modern sensibilities onto characters from less progressive eras. But also don't feel boxed in by history. Look for ways to develop complex, multi-faceted characters who subvert stereotypes.
Step 7: Write and Edit Thoroughly
Just like any fiction, your historical writing needs crisp prose on the sentence level. But it also requires you to meticulously construct an authentic backdrop that feels seamlessly woven into the story.
Pull description double-duty, using setting details to establish time and place. Use era-appropriate metaphors, idioms, and slang in narration and dialogue. Root your characters in specific locations, occupations, classes, fashions, religions, politics, and technologies.
On later drafts, check for any blips of modern language or customs that break the historical spell. Keep referring back to your research materials even in the final polishing phase.
Thorough editing will catch any inaccuracies and ensure historical components are integrated smoothly rather than feeling shoehorned in.
Beyond the major steps above, here are some other tips for crafting incredible historical fiction:
Use AI for Missing Information
No matter how extensive your research, you'll likely still have questions that arise during the writing process. Little details like what the inside of a 1940s taxi looked like or how Victorian children entertained themselves on rainy days.
This is where AI comes in handy! You can ask an AI assistant to fill in missing details based on the era and location of your story. Just be sure to verify any important facts it provides, if possible.
Balance the Old and New-Sounding Language
The most transportive historical fiction incorporates vocabulary and syntax appropriate for the time period. But you need a balance that still feels readable today.
Use completely era-accurate dialogue only for very short snippets, like quotes from diaries or news headlines. In all other dialogue and narration, blend historical words and sentence structures sparingly into mostly modern language.
Aim to give readers a flavor of the speech patterns without slowing the story's pace or making it a chore to read.
It's Okay to Bend the Timeline a Bit or Make Something Up
Don't let rigid accuracy derail your storytelling. The point of historical fiction is bringing the essence of an era to life through narrative, not creating a flawless replica of events.
If fudging dates or adding imagined details makes your plot flow better, go for it. Just try to preserve the overall context and spirit of the time. Use an author's note to explain your approach if needed.
In the end, vivid characters and compelling drama should take precedence over historical precision. Find creative ways to truthfully capture the past while still surprising readers. After all, you're writing fiction!
Writing historical fiction is a delicate dance between accuracy and imagination. But the research required pays off in stories that truly transport readers to bygone eras.
By following the steps and tips in this article, you'll gain the knowledge and tools needed to start your own journey into historical fiction. Just remember to let the creative process take the lead once your research foundation is laid.
Immerse yourself in lively settings and characters. Capture the attitudes, worldviews, challenges, and triumphs of the past through the lens of engaging fiction. Historical details should complement your plot and themes, not override them.
Stay flexible, have fun wandering down research rabbit holes, and don't worry about getting every tiny detail right. If you maintain historical plausibility while crafting page-turning drama, your readers will eagerly lose themselves in the vivid historical world you create!