Blog The Writing Process How to Write Historical Fiction (without a history degree)

How to Write Historical Fiction (without a history degree)

Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Published Feb 08, 2018

Andrew M. Greeley said, "History and historical fiction are necessarily not the same thing. The purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can. The purpose of historical fiction is to enable a reader through the perspective of characters in the story to feel that she or he is present at the events. Such a goal obviously requires some modification of the events."

The farther down the rabbit hole I went to find reputable sources on historical fiction (HF) from which to concoct an opinion, the wilder the rhapsodies of its glories. A wide range separates those who write HF: from Ph.Ds in a period of history to non-degreed buffs who read, watch films, and immerse themselves in the period their novels take place.

If you are an HF writer, hats off to you! I learned haters will find the smallest discrepancy in your writing and crow it from the rooftops. Perhaps HF writers have extra thick skin. Whatever their impetus, they don’t necessarily have a love of history per se—and certainly don’t need a degree. They find either a period, an event, or historical person thoroughly interesting and decide to dig deeper.

  1. Best bits of advice
  2. Bending history to fit fiction
  3. Final thoughts

Best bits of advice

Writer’s Digest has an excellent article, "How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity,". Those wanting to dip their toes in the water should read first. Written by Susanna Calkins, Ph.D in early modern English history, the most telling bit of advice is early in the article where she mentions before writing her first HF novel, she was dedicated to getting the history accurate. She writes, "That idea lasted about two seconds."

The key advice she offers is to have fun with the history in your novel, but do your research. You can’t bluff your way through an entire historical era.

Other sources talk about getting the minute details exact like what silverware was used during the period in question and what undergarments women wore. The devil is in the details, so the saying goes.

Another detail to get right is societal norms during the period you’re writing. For example, in the early 1800s, women didn’t regularly work outside the home and were under their husband’s rule. Thus, a woman in that era who amassed her own fortune by hard work is much more difficult to make believable.

Finally, check all your sources intimately, especially online. If a "fact" is repeated verbatim on several sites, it’s more than likely simply copied and pasted rather than confirmed for accuracy.

Bending history to fit fiction

If you’re an HF buff, you know every author has a disclaimer on errors made, because sometimes history needs to bend a little to fit into the narrative. Just as important as getting details right is using what you’ve learned to inform your character’s actions, words, and senses. Make sure your characters know how London smelled in the 1700s, if that’s your period.

Rather than dump all of your research into your manuscript, use it and bend it to fit your narrative. Let your character inform readers about the time period by what they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. While it’s fun to tell readers all the fun things you’ve learned, it needs to be important to the story to make the cut. You want to create an alluring setting and tone that helps readers step back in time and experience the past.

Use primary and secondary sources to find what you need. While you need to understand the larger events taking place in your character’s lives, country, and world, you also need a good grasp of everyday living. Journals, diaries, and first-person recollections from your time period are amazing resources.

Once your head is full of the big picture and the everyday details, have your characters interact with what you’ve learned. Your aim is to take readers back in time through the characters in your novel.

Final thoughts

Read widely. You have your choice of so many great HF novels; pick a few and get started. We have an excellent list, Essential Reading List: Historical Fiction to help you choose.

Let us know in the comments below if you’ve ever tried your hand at writing HF. And please share any bits of advice for aspiring HF writers that we missed in this post!

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Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

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Proper research for the historical fiction book I wrote took me almost two decades, along with a job and motherhood. But what I found most useful was not the textbooks, but secondary sources and what is now termed oral histories, recollections from different people, especially descendants of all key characters. Empathy with the character and ability to sit down and mule over written histories' whys and wherefores', followed by practical research to match all the different angles with 'what could have actually happened', allowed me to blow up some popular myths about my protagonist. the book: "MASTANI", Rupa Publications, Delhi, India. author: Kusum Choppra
Oh Thank you! Very inspiring! Both Kathy and Kusum's comment. I'm not a writer, probably won't ever write another book, but I have been inspired to write about my 5th great grandfather and his life. SOO much history in his life! Turns out I have been doing a lot of what has been suggested, so cool, I'm on the right track! Doing the research has been both a blessing and a curse - distracting to the point I hope I'm not spending too much time reading all this wonderful history (because that's what I really love doing most), and blessing because it's so much fun! And every time I sit down to write a scene, I get distracted about some of those "oh, wait. what DID common house ware look like for that place and time?" I'm real anxious to get it done, but it may take another year or two. (been working on it for 3 years now). Thanks again for the words of encouragement!
What helps me to write HF set during the Second World War is to read and compare sources in different languages, to read or watch witness reports, to look at photographs, and to check ideas against reality. For instance, I have an ethnic German character who has a Russian surname. Possible? Yes, because etc. The more you engage with historical books and all the better your intuition gets and the less research you need to confirm what you're doing is accurate because you'll intuitively write in the right direction, so to speak. It's a lot of research. So safe your sources, for the love of God, safe your sources. Make notes on every tiny little detail which you think you will remember because chances are you won't.
I was issued a challenge during a conversation that relates to historical fiction. This person said I should write a novel based on what the world would be like if the various European countries hadn't sailed and conqured the lands they have. In general terms I can tell what might have happened but I need sources to help me get specific in the effects of no Portugese, Spanish or British empires. .
Beyond exhaustive research is a willingness to "live" in that era for MONTHS BEFORE you begin slapping words on the page. Let your mind think, act, react as your characters would in that era. It takes time to properly digest the nuances so patience becomes another tool in the HF writer's tool box. If you do this - digest, research, digest - you will uncover many erroneous cultural assumptions before they're ever put to print.
It took me over two years of research before I began writing The Mistress of Mogador, and more research throughout the writing. I thought I was writing a novel about a young woman, in 1890 Liverpool, who has a small cargo shipping company by virtue of trading her inheritance, the manor house, with her brother’s inheritance, the shipping company. She loathes being mistress of the house and he hated the shipping business. Alas, when I began, I didn’t realize I was going to have to learn a great deal about Morocco, the Imazighen, Arabic and Islamic culture, languages, food, geography, even camels, and the list goes on! Ships on water and ships of the desert (camels) have to go somewhere! Then I put that 430-page novel through every report ProWritingAid offers! I spent hours each day for several weeks running the various types of reports and fixing the things it showed me. The book benefited greatly from those rewrites, and I am grateful for the program. I would not trade the learning experience for anything, but it was total submersion, including stumbling through letters and documents written in French (with the long-forgotten remnants of my four years of studying French, the help of a friend and Google translate)! Abundant curiosity is something you must have, and love is something you feel for the process of writing as well as the end result. I tend to write in the late Victorian era up through WWI. My Work-In-Progress, House of Bliss, begins in 1904 London. It is an historical romance and murder mystery, but the first areas of study turned out to be about opium, sewing, ladies undergarments and prostitution! I now know more than I thought I’d ever need to know about all four! Onward to the murder weapon…
I write fiction about the Ancient Roman invasion of northern Britannia. (from Yorkshire northwards to the Moray Coast of Scotland) Sources for the era are almost non-existent (it's essentially pre-history) so I have to turn to archaeology and other scientific disciplines that can give me a 'picture' of what the landscape and people were like almost 2000 years ago. I aim to add authenticity to my settings and characters but when writing about General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, the almost conqueror of 'ancient Scotland', campaigning near the Moray Firth it sometimes feels like I'm writing fantasy! My next era will be the Victorian where I'll be awash with primary sources!
It took me almost five years to write my last novel (my fourth) which was set on the Hebridean Isle of Mull in the 1920's ("The Ghost of Erraid). I spent about two and half years researching, reading everything I could find about: life as a lighthouse family (a vanished way of life) Robert Louis Stevenson (because he was relevant to the tiny causeway island off Mull where my protagonist and her family are living - he uses it himself in his novel, 'Kidnapped'), Jacobite history and legend (because a legend will be behind the entire plot) and Druidic myth (crops up because of the location). I read lots but I also went to visit, explore and talk to people in Heritage Centres, Museums and historic buildings and castles. It was the most enormous fun! I met some brilliant, enthusiastic people, and I could have gone on forever, following one lead after another. It was an effort to stop and turn to the creative bit. Once I did, I found all the research I had done powered the plot without having to 'show' too much. I just felt confident in the era and it came naturally. I've just started my fifth novel which will be set in Edinburgh in two time periods, a hundred years apart: early 1900s and early 2000s. So back to more research ... suffragettes, WW1, etc

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