All writers spend hours upon hours researching for their novels; we’re good at it, and we love it. I’ve written three high fantasy novels, and I thought researching, plotting, and writing those was a lot of work! But recently, I’ve been writing a historical fiction novel, and it’s a whole different animal.
Writing historical fiction requires a passion for history, so I picked a subject that I already knew quite a bit about. I’ve been obsessed with pirates for the vast majority of my life. Yet somehow, this novel has thrown me some huge curveballs. I’ve made some big mistakes that have slowed down the writing process and left me feeling overwhelmed.
Learn from my blunders! Here are some ways to avoid making common writing mistakes when writing your historical fiction story.
- 1. Have a Clear Idea of How Much Fact You Want in Your Historical Fiction
- 2. Balance the Big Picture with Details
- 3. Find the Right Mix of Historical and Modern Language
- 4. Don’t Rely Entirely on Google
- 5. Have Separate Research Time and Writing Time
- 6. Cite Your Historical Sources
- 7. Avoid Harmful Tropes from Historical Fiction
1. Have a Clear Idea of How Much Fact You Want in Your Historical Fiction
Think of historical fiction as a spectrum. There are some books, like Wolf Hall, that are heavily factual. In these types of stories, the author fills in only the details they cannot know like specific conversations, internal monologues, or physical reactions.
Then there are other books that are only vaguely historical. Many historical romances, like Harlequin or Regency, fall in this category. You get a sense that it happened in a specific time or place, but the history is mostly limited to the fashion and the setting.
Most historical fiction falls somewhere in between. And let’s be honest, most of us aren’t history scholars. Some information you might get wrong because it’s so obscure (and some reader somewhere will be grumpy about it!) Other things you might want to change to fit your story.
Decide early on how factual (or not) you want your story to be. Let me give you two personal examples. My current work-in-progress takes place in the Golden Age of Piracy, when most ships didn't use wooden wheels for the helm: they had tillers. But that’s not the image most people have of pirate ships, so my ships have wooden wheels.
Another decision I made was what to call my characters’ corsets. Corset wasn’t a word used until later; generally, these were referred to as stays or bodices. But corset is the common term now, and I don’t want to confuse readers who aren’t obsessed with historical fashion like I am.
You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you know where you can play with the facts early on. And you can always add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book or an appendix with all the facts you changed at the end.
2. Balance the Big Picture with Details
Tiny historical details can really bring your story to life. They are important for world building and authenticity. However, if the only history you have are obscure facts, you will sacrifice much of that authenticity.
It’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of the state of the world during the time you are writing about. You should understand your characters’ world from a global level down to a local level. Sure, maybe your main character isn’t into French politics or economics in 1565, but those details will affect aspects of your character’s life.
Who are the allies and enemies? How does the currency work? What are the social norms, and what happens to people who break them?
If your book takes place in the Middle East in the 1800s, your characters won’t visit Iran or Turkey. They’ll visit Persia and the Ottoman Empire. If you’re writing about World War II in the United States, your 20-year-old male character needs a very compelling, believable reason to not be serving in the military.
Historical context is crucial for fiction. It will help dictate character motivations and events in your story. An easy way to plan your research is the acronym PEGS. This stands for political, economic, geographic, and social. You don’t need to know every major world event, but a general overview will provide you context for your story.
3. Find the Right Mix of Historical and Modern Language
If your novel is written entirely in Shakespearean English, it’s going to be off-putting to most readers. On the other hand, historical fiction books with entirely modern speech will pull your readers out of the story.
Are you sensing a trend here? Much of historical fiction writing is about balance, and that applies to the words you use, too.
Language changes rapidly, so this can be a hard task. The most important part is not using words that wouldn’t have existed at the time. Words like “okay” or “hello” weren’t used until the twentieth century. If your character is drunk in the 1930s, they wouldn’t be “wasted,” but they might be “blotto.”
Idioms are another thing to look out for. An ancient Roman wouldn’t “let the cat out of the bag.” Characters can’t talk about “the elephant in the room” if they’ve never heard of an elephant.
In general, try to write normally while avoiding modern words. Then you can pepper in some words that fit your era. One of my favorite ways to do this is with slang words or vulgar words. You can find the entire text of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written in 1785, online! It’s a historical Urban Dictionary!
But if thou insisteth on using archaic pronouns, please do thy research! Thee, thou, thine, and thy are not interchangeable!
4. Don’t Rely Entirely on Google
I love Google. I can’t tell you how many times a day I Google something. It’s a great place to start your research.
But here’s a little secret: you can’t find everything on Google.
I take a lot of pride in my research skills. I’m a search engine queen. But here are some things that I have not been able to find for my novel on Google:
- how long it would take for a cut to turn septic and kill someone in the 1690s with no modern treatment or knowledge of germ theory
- exactly how bilge pumps on historic ships were operated
- detailed diagrams of a third-rate ship-of-the-line from the 17th century
Obscure historical facts are often in two places: out-of-print books or academic journal articles. Search Google Scholar for your question to find academic sources. Journal articles are usually about $40 to download if you don’t have a license. Your public library might have access to many of the journals for free, or you can make friends with a college student.
Out-of-print books are surprisingly easy to find. Sometimes they are very expensive, but more often than not, you can find a cheap used copy. Check sites like Amazon or eBay, or find more listings from the shopping tab on Google. You can also talk to your local librarian to see if they can find the book through Inter-Library Loan.
You can also find experts to ask. Join relevant Facebook groups or subreddits. Email museums or universities to find a resource. Reach out to historical societies or re-enactment groups. I had my sepsis question answered by a friend from high school who is now a doctor!
5. Have Separate Research Time and Writing Time
Remember how I said I couldn’t find exactly how bilge pumps were operated? I knew it was a grueling, repetitive task to pump water from the bottom of a ship out so it wouldn’t sink. But that was it. People in my critique group wanted more detail about this part of ship life. I needed a visual so I could describe it properly.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you I spent over twenty hours trying to find this information. I even downloaded an eBook all about the history of bilge pumps. I was obsessed.
There is no way to know how much research you need before you start writing. You might think you know everything about a subject before you open that blank document. But even when you’ve spent months doing nothing but research, you’re going to run into things you need to know.
This is when things can get dangerous. Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole. If you do, five hours will pass, and you’ll know the entire history of wound care but have only thirty words written.
Instead, make a note as you’re writing to look up the information later. Then designate time in your writing schedule for research.
6. Cite Your Historical Sources
No, I’m not telling you to turn in a detailed bibliography in your novel. There is another reason you want to cite your sources, and it’s only to help you.
Let’s say you’re looking up popular foods in ancient Greece. You find the information you need, write your scene, and move on. But you didn’t take any notes, and you don’t know where you got the information.
Then you need to know that information again, and you can’t remember all the details! And somehow, you can’t find that source again.
Take notes. Then bookmark your websites, or add the web address to your notes. Various novel-writing softwares have a notes section, you can build a database on something like Evernote, or you can create documents in a file. You can also use sites like Pinterest, Google Keep, or Trello to keep track of links. If your information came from a book, write down the name of the book and the page number.
7. Avoid Harmful Tropes from Historical Fiction
Too often, the history we learn in school is a very one-sided narrative. It’s usually written by the winners. The country you live in always sees itself as the “good guy.”
But history wasn’t just kings and generals: History was as diverse as it is today. The diversity is just hidden.
Queer people existed, though often in secret. Non-white, non-European people thrived all over the world. Women found ways to have power within their society and culture, even if their names aren’t the ones history remembers.
There are some tropes and trends that have persisted through historical fiction, but you can avoid them. Here are some narratives that are harmful:
- the “White Savior”: your white character single-handedly saves non-white people from some terrible event. This perpetuates the idea that people of color are weak or helpless.
- the “Savage Tribe”: it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about the Wild West, the colonization of Africa, or the settlement of Australia. Indigenous peoples are not barbarians.
- the “Damsel in Distress”: much like the White Savior trope, this fairy tale is dated. Women have always been capable of finding power and even fighting back.
- the “Dark-Skinned Villain”: for a long time, any attempt writers made to include people of color involved making them the bad guy, similar to the “Savage Tribe” trope.
- the “Tragic Queer Love Story”: this is true of all fiction. But more often than not, queer fiction involves one or both of the people in a relationship dying. It perpetuates the idea that being LGBTQ+ will end badly.
You should also avoid the “Faceless Token Character.” So, you’ve included a diverse character. Great! Do they have a name? I’ve read many books that will name the white servants, but not the black ones. Are they only portrayed as weak or subservient? Do they come across as deviant or unlikeable? Are they dynamic characters? We don’t need more characters that portray marginalized populations in an unimportant or negative light.
Final Thoughts on Historical Fiction Writing
I hope you can learn from my mistakes and save yourself some headaches! But remember, have fun with your historical fiction. There’s nothing more exciting than bringing the past to life.
What is the hardest part of writing historical fiction for you? Drop a comment below to let me know.