Monday, April 12, 2021

Words for Writers - So, You Want to Write Historical Fiction

If one of your dreams is to write historical fiction, read on. If it isn’t … well, you’re welcome to continue reading. 

I don’t claim to have all the answers – far from it – but I do know that if you want to write historical fiction, there are three basic questions you need to answer. 

1. What kind of historical fiction do I want to write?

Brilliant, bestselling, award-winning are not the answers I’m looking for, although there’s no doubt that’s what we all hope we’re writing. Instead, I challenge you to identify the category of historical fiction that most appeals to you. There are undoubtedly other ways to divide historical fiction, but I’ve split them into two groups: fictionalized history and period fiction.

Fictionalized History

In fictionalized history, the events of the period play a critical role in the story. Just to further complicate things, I’ve divided fictionalized history into two sub-categories. 

* In the first, the main characters are well-known historical figures. Jill Eileen Smith’s Wives of King David series is a good example of this. 

* You’ve probably guessed that the other sub-category features protagonists who are fictional or less-known figures. Consider Diana Wallis Taylor’s Journey to the Well. Though the heroine is a Biblical character, without Diana’s book we wouldn’t even know her name. I’d call her a less-known figure. 

Regardless of the sub-category, real historical events form the framework of the plot in fictionalized history. 

So, you might ask, what differentiates this from non-fiction? The emotions. Are you familiar with the journalistic Five Ws? Using those terms, readers of fictionalized history know what happened, where and when. The book provides the answer to why and makes the who come to life.

Period Fiction

In contrast to fictionalized history with its focus on real people, the main characters of what I call period fiction are fictional. Historical personages, if any, play minor roles in the story. Similarly, historical events form the backdrop, not the framework, for the story. Most of the historical fiction books currently published by either the CBA or the secular market fall into this category.

The difference between fictionalized history and period fiction is critical, particularly where reader expectations are concerned. While readers of fictionalized history want to delve more deeply into the story of real people, readers of period fiction want to be transported to a different time. They want to learn about that time but from the view of ordinary people rather than historical personages whose biographies they might be able to find in the library or on Wikipedia.

Which category is the right one for you? 

Only you can answer that question. The key is to write the kind of book you love to read. While it’s true that the market for period fiction is larger than for fictionalized history, if the story that’s burning in your heart is fictionalized history, write it!

That leads us to the second question.

2. How much history should I include?

I wish it were otherwise, but the answer is that oh, so frustrating “it depends.”  Readers of fictionalized history expect more references to actual events than do readers of period fiction. In either case, it’s important to remember that you are writing fiction and that the primary focus of fiction is entertainment, not information. If all a reader wants are the simple facts about a particular event, she can find them in the non-fiction section of the library or bookstore. If on the other hand, she wants to live those events through a character’s eyes, she’ll choose fiction.

When deciding which historical facts to include, my theory is that less is more. Include the events that shape your protagonists’ lives and omit the others – no matter how fascinating they might be – unless they have a direct impact on your characters.

3. How do I make my book feel historical?

Although there are numerous techniques, I’d like to suggest three.

* Judicious use of historical-sounding dialogue. Notice the word “judicious.”  Depending on the period you’ve chosen, authentic dialogue might overwhelm the reader or – even worse – slow the book as the reader tries to translate it into modern English. Overuse of “thee,” “thou” and “ye” can become tedious. On the other hand, the occasional “whilst” instead of “while” and “four-and-twenty” rather than “twenty-four” gives the dialogue an historical feel without becoming burdensome to the reader.

* Era-appropriate analogies. If you’re writing a story set in the nineteenth century, you’d hardly describe something as being at “warp speed.”  However, consider the following selection from Vickie McDonough’s The Anonymous Bride.

“They crossed the street, shoulder to shoulder, like a trio of gunslingers looking for trouble.”

With the reference to gunslingers, is there any question that we’re in the nineteenth century?

* Telling Details. Sometimes it’s the smallest of details that adds historical authenticity to a story. I like the way Stephanie Grace Whitson needs only one sentence in Sixteen Brides to bring the nineteenth century to life.

“Button hook in hand, she sat down and lifted Caroline’s foot into her lap, quickly unhooking each of the ten buttons running up the side of the stylish black leather boot.”

Another author might simply have mentioned the button hook, but the inclusion of “ten buttons” and the notation that they’re “running up the side” gives the passage a feeling of authenticity that can’t help but intrigue readers.

Have I confused you or – even worse – discouraged you? I hope not. The bottom line is that while writing historical fiction is not easy, it can be very rewarding. Not only does it give you a chance to bring earlier times to life for your readers, but it’s also a chance for you to learn new things as you do your research. If you’re at all interested in writing historical fiction, I urge you to do so. After all, who can resist the lure of “once upon a time”?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent article and encouraging words. Your suggestion to be "judicious" with historical dialog rings true and will help me.
    Another simple tool to help maintain historical accuracy is Google image search (see old photos and drawings of outhouses 1875, grave headstones 1890, etc. Thanks again, Amanda.