History Writers

Five Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

With the second season of the Outlander series now gripping the world, and with the re-release of not one but two of Peter Yeldham historical fiction novels only days away, it seems fair to say that historical fiction is now very much in vogue. It seems we’ve monkey-swung from sparkly vampires (Twilight) to titillating BDSM (Fifty Shades of Grey) to re-examining our collective past. In truth, historical fiction never really went out of vogue. Technically speaking, the vast majority of Shakespeare’s works were historical fiction. It could be said even our most basic folk lore (Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, etc.) are a kind of proto-historical fiction that harkens back to a generic fairytale time tinged with nostalgia.

Still, there’s never been a better time to be a historical fiction author, and we’re thrilled to publish quite a few. But before you put pen to paper, you might want to consider a few critical tips that we’ve learned from reading our award-winning authors.

Researching and Reading Research is obviously incredibly important when writing historical fiction. There’s no quicker way to alienate a reader than to make them stop believing in the authenticity of the world you’re trying to create. So research and read. A lot. Read historical accounts of the time, and even dig into other historical fiction that’s focussed on similar eras of history.

Researching and Talking If you’re able to actually talk to living survivors of your chosen historical era, don’t be shy in asking to sit down and have a chat. A minute in conversation can illuminate areas that history books simply can’t tell you. The colour of the wallpaper, or the smell of a place, or the daily, mundane routines that shaped their (and your characters) lives.

Researching and other reading An extremely helpful tip comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, award-winning author of Eat, Pray, Love, as well as critically acclaimed historical fiction The Signature of All Things. While it’s valuable to read history books, it can be even more helpful to read documents, novels or journals that were written in the specific time period that you’re setting your work in. This will tell you so much about the lexicon of the age, along with the concerns, dialogue and details of your characters.

Know when to stop researching This is the trickiest bit. Some historical novels feel more historic than novel, and can be too dense a read to be truly pleasurable. Always remember that your novel still has to operate under the same laws as any genre, and needs to create a compelling story with intriguing characters. The research will only take you so far. If you’re on the right track, you’ll usually feel a mounting sense of excitement as you’re researching, and there will simply come a point where you’re desperate to write. So write! The research will be there when you need it, and you can always return to hunt for extra details.

Be Authentic to the Politics of the Time …while not being too offensive to modern sensibilities. This is tricky, and most complicated around gender politics. Times past are often incredibly violent places to write about, and women are often treated abhorrently. It’s important to be authentic to this, and not create a rose-tinted version of the past that readers will find too sickly sweet. On the other hand, every reader has a line, and so much of narrative is frequently about the under-dog becoming a hero. Claire in Outlander is a classic example, who is subject to the subjugation of her time, but constantly subverts the gender norms for wonderfully entertaining results. Peter Yeldham often places an under-dog at the centre of the story, who is able to see with greater moral clarity than most of his peers.

Don’t know where to start reading? Why not try Peter Yeldham’s fantastic historical fiction around World War 2 in Above the Fold . Or if you’re in the mood for more sparkly vampires, you might be interested in Jennifer McDonald’s take on how Edward Cullen brought about a spiritual awakening in her memoir Vegetarian Vampires. Then again, you may be more into the Fifty Shades of Grey trend and want some page-turning romance. In that case, try Winterflood’s Passion by Diana Thompson.