In addition to the usual concerns about characterization, story structure, theme, plot, setting, and dialogue, authors of historical fiction must undertake considerable research and make some additional choices in storytelling. Here are some tips and techniques to consider:
Accuracy matters. The authenticity of an historical novel depends upon the author’s knowledge of, and judicious use of accurate details. Readers must be able to hear, smell, feel, taste, and touch the world into which they’ve been invited. If your protagonist is on a train trip from Boston to Nashville, what rail lines are in use? What are the routes? What foods are available on board? Is there a sleeping car? What do the stations along the way look like? The hotels? Who are the other passengers? All of this, just to put her on the train! Don’t depend on movies or Wikipedia. Search out university web sites, or sites run by state historical societies. Read the best books you can find on the subject. Interview the authors of those books, if available. Search out copies of the magazines of the day. Some can be found online. Reading these magazines, as well as old catalogs, will give you a sense of the language and of the concerns and opinions of the people about whom you are writing.
Don’t overwrite. Knowing which details to leave out is as important as knowing which to include. . Esoteric facts, no matter how fascinating, should be left out if they don’t advance the plot or reveal something important about your characters. The art of writing historical fiction requires the wise selection of the right detail to achieve the desired effect. Historical details might entice readers into your novel, but it’s the characters that keep them there. Never substitute solid character development for more detail.
Be true to your characters and to their times. If you are writing about actual historical persons, treat them fairly. They aren’t here to defend themselves. Don’t give your fictional historical characters a 21st century sensibility. Let them be bigoted, provincial, ignorant, prejudiced if that is what your story requires.
Be judicious with backstory, especially at the beginning of your novel. Tell only as much as is necessary to set the story in motion. Let the rest of it come out gradually after your readers are invested in the story. The old advice to begin on
the day that is different, on the day when your protagonist is called to adventure, has survived since the days of oral storytelling because it works.
Expect a long process. Often, you won’t know what it is you need to know until you are into the story. Expect to stop to look up what you need to know. If your goal is to write fast, if you don’t enjoy this process of unearthing the past, chances are, you won’t enjoy writing historical fiction, for it’s a bit like setting out on a long journey with very little information about your destination and about what you’ll need to make the trip. But when you finally arrive…wow!
Read voraciously. Here are a few of my favorite writers of historical novels. Some write inspirational fiction. Others write for the general market. Read to see how these authors begin stories, how they incorporate backstory and how they weave their research into the narrative.
Lynn Austin, eight time Christy winner, author of All Things New, Wonderland Creek, and many others. I discovered her work with Though Waters Roar and became an instant fan.
Rosslyn Elliott’s Sadlers Legacy series are outstanding examples of incorporating historical figures into fiction.
Phillipa Gregory, author of the Wideacre series, plus The Other Boleyn Girl, The Red Queen and many others.
Lawrence Hill, Someone Knows My Name
Kelly O’Connor McNees. Kelly is a new author whose two books, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and In Need of a Good Wife, blew me away.
Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy. Robin Olivera, also a new author, My Name is Mary Sutter.
Catherine Richmond’s Through Rushing Water and her debut novel, Spring for Susannah are very well researched and beautifully written.
Dorothy Love is an award-winning author of seventeen novels for adults and young adults published at Random House, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson. Her work has been honored by the American Library Association, the New York Public Library, and many others. She is a past winner of the Friends of American Writers Fiction Prize and the Teddy Prize for juvenile fiction. She makes her home in the Texas hill country with her husband and two golden retrievers. Her next novel, CAROLINA GOLD will be published this fall at Thomas Nelson.
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Author website: www.DorothyLoveBooks.com