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5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

Here are a few points that writers of historical fiction might consider as they sit down to work:

1. Fiction = Friction. Regardless of your time period, regardless of all the in-depth research you’ve done, you must remember that you’re writing fiction first, and historical fiction second. In other words, don’t forget that it’s action and conflict that moves the book forward. The historical details enrich the work, but detail for detail’s sakes will sink you.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: DurnKS won.)

 

 

     

Guest column by David R. Gillham, author of CITY OF WOMEN
(Aug. 2012, Putnam), a historical novel which was named an “Amazon Best
Book of the Month” for August 2012. See his author site here.

 

 

2. Avoid history lessons. It’s hard. You know your period of history so well, but you must assume that your reader does not. So, it’s temping to fall into the habit of giving history lectures for a few paragraphs. This can sink you as well. Educating your reader may be necessary, but it works best when the history comes across as part of the action. And when some small history lessons are unavoidable, try to camouflage them.

When I was writing City of Women, I was well aware that most readers would not be scrupulously well informed about the course of the Second World War, especially from the perspective of women in Berlin. So when I did have to indulge in a few paragraphs of historical explanation, I always tried to tie it into the characters in some personal way. I made them react to the history lessons that were discreetly disguised as radio broadcasts. I inserted a line of dialogue to comment on a particular happening, and made sure that it was dialogue that also defined the character. That way readers get the information they need to understand the historical timeline, without a time-out from the action.

(How should you discuss a book’s series potential in a query letter?)

3. Using your research. You’ve done your homework, and compiled a mountain of historical detail concerning your time period; details about the fashion of the time, or the food, or social oddities. All very interesting stuff, but possibly more interesting to you than your reader. I, for instance, have an interest in uniforms, and was very meticulous in my description of the decorations worn by an officer on his uniform tunic. But if I had simply had him stand there while I described this medal and that medal, I would have lost most of my readers.

Don’t invite them to start skipping paragraphs. I incorporated the decorations into the action of the book by having some of the common soldiers respond to them. They do an inventory of the officer’s medals, which determines how they interact with the character. Don’t paint historical pictures without making them a part of the drama of your book.

4. Building a Setting. I’ve always found that an effective way to build a setting is not simply to describe the landscape, but also to make the setting part of your character’s journey. Personally, I like to start by using street names, and train lines to do this.

In writing City of Women, I employed a Baedeker’s Berlin travel guide from the 1920’s as a blueprint. I knew where my characters lived, I knew how they traveled to get to get to heir jobs, and I used that to enrich the story. When my protagonist, Sigrid, leads a Gestapo watchdog on a merry chase through the Berlin “U-Bahn” system, I name the stops as if the reader could see the signs passing by them through the subway car windows.

5. Using languages or accents. For a novel written in English, there are plenty of German words in City of Women, but I was always careful not to use words that took too much space to translate. The basic rule of thumb, I think is, if you want to use a foreign word for effect, then look for those words that are close enough to the language of your book that the meaning is obvious.

(Is it better to sign with a new literary agent or an experienced one?)

Or, if you must translate, but you can’t do so in a few words, then consider forgetting the foreign word all together. In the same way that too much explanation of 19th century shoe buttons will slow down the action, so will injecting too much flotsam just to use a word that looks exotic on the page. By the same token, if your have characters from different countries, avoid trying to “flavor” their dialogue by tossing in a lot of foreign words, More often than not it’s distracting, and makes your dialogue sound trite. Use foreign words judiciously, especially in your characters’ speech. Also, if you can imitate the rhythm of a language through manipulation of the syntax in your dialogue, you’ll find that the dialogue will sound more realistic than if your simply pepper it with lots of language in italics.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: DurnKS won.)

 

Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
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promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

 

 

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51 Responses to 5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

  1. kajes says:

    Many thanks from a beginner! Your advise makes a lot of sense.

  2. TheRace says:

    I agree with dtapley. These tips can apply to any genre. Thanks for the article.

  3. zocalo says:

    How did you manage to get your hands on a 1920′s Berlin travel guide? Something like that must have been a fantastic tool for your novel. Since I live in a smaller city, I wonder where I might find excellent resources like that for my own writing. Thanks for the article.

  4. jdmstudios says:

    Great advice! Thanks :) I’m looking forward to reading City of Women.

  5. V An says:

    I so needed the “no history lesson” as I feel a strong urge to “teach.” Thank you!

  6. NotTheNorm says:

    David, thank you for your timely tips that will enlighten and enhance my process. Tip 5. Using languages or accents has been especially helpful.

  7. smleonetti says:

    Your tips were the best I have had so far but….I am an amateur historian trying to write my first piece of “historical fiction.” How do you get rid of the “historian” on your shoulder that slaps your hands every time you try to embellish the story that comes from real life?

  8. joelheffner says:

    History is interesting. Fiction adds some flare.

  9. txtootsie says:

    Great tips! Thank you so much. I am in the research stage of a historical novel based on my great grandfather in late 19th century-early 20th century Chicago. As a novice writer, I love reading tips and techniques on how to do it. I am looking forward to reading your book – I enjoy reading historical fiction.

  10. adam.purple says:

    Useful advice, just when I needed it for my rewrite. Thanks. Looking forward to “City of Women”.

  11. NancyG says:

    These tips came at the perfect time to help me with a piece I’m writing. Can’t wait to read your book.

  12. dtapley says:

    Excellent advice for just about any genre. Thank you!

  13. Karen Meyer says:

    Historical fiction is fun to read and enjoyable to write. I write for middle grade readers and they won’t sit still for “boring” history lessons. Thanks for the tips on how to hide the necessary facts.

  14. indigesjon says:

    David: Thanks for sharing some clever and effective techniques for feeding exposition to the reader/viewer without them noticing it. Marvelous!.

  15. Jennifer says:

    I am currently researching Ancient Egypt for my very own historical fiction book. This article has helped me out. I am a beginner to the writing world. I was a bit concerned with the historical aspect the most. The first point about fiction first historical second helped put things into a better perspective. Thank you so much, it is greatly appreciated.

  16. boatlady says:

    David, your tips are great. As the author of a debut historical set in Caligula’s Rome, I would add a couple of additional thoughts about research. Sometimes it may spark a terrific idea for a plot twist or a character’s motivation (such as the fact that a German king died around the same time as Tiberius Caesar). There can also be value in weaving in some quirk peculiar to the times (like reading aloud softly to oneself; Romans didn’t read silently) that helps readers situate themselves in a different time and place.

    As a big fan of David Downing and Philip Kerr, I look forward to reading CITY OF WOMEN.

  17. jelangdon says:

    Thanks – great post. The main character of my novel-in-progress, The File on Margot Black, is a German refugee from fascism so I definitely appreciated the advice on using foreign words. And I look forward to reading City of Women!

  18. Martin Lake says:

    Lots of practical advice here, thanks for sharing your ideas. I especially think that getting the language ‘authentic sounding’, (knowing that it will never be and can never be realistic) is one of the most important and difficult feats.

    I’m lucky that my protagonist, the last native King of England, had his story virtually erased by the Norman conquerors so there’s not that much research about him.

    I find that my fingers tremble to put in the research I’ve spent so long on. In particular I tend to focus on everyday things like the foods that would have been eaten then, how to journey across a country still reliant on the Roman roads 700 years old and how long it would take to get from one place to another.

    When I come to review and revise, the bits that shouldn’t be there are really obvious. Then my fingers tremble to cut them out.

  19. Ardent Muse says:

    Hi David~
    First off, let me say that your blog (above) reads SO easy, I was able to take the information in with just as much ease – in short, I like your writing style and would absolutely love to read more by you about this topic, not only to edify myself, but to pass this great information along to a good friend of mine in the UK, an aspiring writer, whose focus IS specifically, historical fiction. I particularly appreciated your tip on how to successfullly incorporate foreign language into your story since words/literature, unlike most forms of art, can “change hues” from one culture to another, and I like to keep the meaning as pure & true to my original intent as possible. Do you have other “how to” books on any form of writing as well? Thanks for offering your book in this contest! :)

  20. fitgirlFL says:

    Great ideas to keep in mind.

  21. dabrigley says:

    That may be so. But if an editor is a stickler for details, you will find yourself floundering with a historical fic that cannot be sold.

  22. Lisa PK says:

    I love reading historical fiction, but would never attempt to write it. I wouldn’t have any of my facts correct and would make serious time period mistakes.

  23. LisaF says:

    I am in the process of revising a YA novel set in WWII. These tips will be helpful as I review the manuscript to ensure that I’ve struck the right balance between historical fiction and history lesson. Thank you. I’ll be sure and pick up a copy of this novel.

  24. ssh02147 says:

    I understand what you are saying about avoiding the history lesson. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how much research is enough. And how much is too much.

    I find that I can spend astonishing amounts of time reading about my subject. I fill legal pad after legal pad with details that I will never be able to work into the story. And just when I think I’m about to finish up with my research I find another article, or book, or museum exhibit, or whatever. And I’m lost to my writing for another couple of days.

    Does this happen to anyone else?

  25. andresfragosojr says:

    Thank you for the blog. I write a lot of my stories with Mexican characters. I always had a hard time writing Spanish and then translating it to English. You have given me great advice on how to use Spanish words better. I hope my writing reflects that. Somehow I thought everyone knew what -mijo- meant.
    Thank you again.

  26. Amanda Helms says:

    Nice tips! I don’t write historical fiction; I write SFF. The tips are still applicable. It’s fiction first, not a discourse on the world-building I’ve done.

  27. miselainis says:

    Looking forward to reading it!

    I’m a historical fiction fanatic– reading AND writing. It’s almost the only thing I read so I can pick up those wonderful stylistic touches and details that others are using to accomplish such great works.

    I was just in Vancouver and Victoria, and bought several BAGS of books for research. It’s amazing how much background material I need just to mention a couple plants of the area or a train line or a grocery that existed at the time.

    But thanks for the constant reminder of making it about the fiction first. Some of us tend to get a little obsessed with all the other stuff, and can forget that basic principle.

  28. mightystacy says:

    Great tips, and much needed, as I’m about to dive back into a historical fiction novel I’ve been working on. Thanks!

  29. DurnKS says:

    David, thanks for the great advise. I’m not writing a historical fiction, but an epic fantasy and I find myself coming across some of these same hurdles, especially when describing a kingdom or race of people. The prose definitely flows more smoothly when the history lessons are intertwined with the action and dialogue.

  30. Janie Reinart says:

    Congrats on being named Amazon Best Book of the Month! Great tips! Would love to read your book.

  31. amitby says:

    Great advice. I especially appreciated the example on how to effectively use research details in the story and not just as standalone elements. Thank you!

  32. Mollykw says:

    Thank you for the great tips. I get caught up in my lovely characters from a lovely time and keep forgetting your first tip, I need friction for there to be a story of interest to readers. I appreciate your time in putting some tips out to help other writers.

  33. kiperoo says:

    Your book sounds fantastic! I’ve been looking for more of this since A WOMAN IN BERLIN. Thanks for the great historical writing advice!

  34. carolelehr says:

    Thanks for the advice. I am currently writing an historical fiction novel and these tips are very helpful. I love historical fiction–especially romance. The history of the novels interests me, but without too much intricate detail, just as you mentioned. Looking forward to reading ‘City of Women.’

  35. burrowswrite says:

    I love the advice! looking forward to reading more.

  36. vickielb says:

    I love historical fiction, and I have been researching one for some time. I too, like some of the commentors above, have felt a bit nervous about how much I need to research, and at what point is the history “too much info”. I have chosen a setting that is limited in history, but set in a very stong history line. I will use all of your tips. Thanks so much!
    I used to live in Germany for 4 years, and was unable to make it to Berlin. I very much want to read your book, and see your tips in action. I loved it there. Thanks for your time!

  37. cmines says:

    Thank you for those tips. I love to do research but find that I use that as a way to procrastinate actual writing. Any tips on how not to procrastinate??

  38. Scott M says:

    Great stuff. This looks like a fascinating read. (I might buy this one, even though I’m commenting merely for a shot at a free copy.)

  39. nash62 says:

    Thanks for these tips. I love historical fiction but too many authors get bogged down in the details, forgetting they still have to tell an interesting story.

  40. KB1976 says:

    This was good advice and timely, too. I’ve had a historical fiction novel rolling around my head for over ten years and it’s just about ready to roll right onto the page. I especially appreciated Tip #2- Avoid history lessons. I just read Follett’s Fall of Giants and was struck by how blatantly he beats you over the head with his personal agenda. Definitely a lesson learned by me!

  41. HuffmanHanni says:

    This is great advice. I’m in the very early stages of research for my first novel which will be a historical fiction novel set in medieval Wales. I was finding it frustrating because I’m not sure about how much I need to know and I’ve been worried I’m going to turn the thing into a history book. Probably doesn’t help that my degree is in history and I’m much more comfortable writing academic papers than creative fiction. I’ve been trying to remind myself I have the story in my head and the setting is what will flesh it out. In fact, once I picked an actual event to set my story against, I’m finding it’s much easier to focus my research and I think, to add more flavor and depth to my characters.

  42. Kama says:

    I am writing simple fiction, as opposed to ‘historical fiction’, but I still found your advice timeless and valuable regardless of my genre. In my writing, I have to explain a significant amount of military protocol, and your advice suits my needs as well; I need to involve the descriptions with the drama of the story to make it flow. Thank you!

  43. patricialane says:

    This is great advice for anyone writing a historical fiction novel. It is tempting to do history lessons during the course of the novel. I was working on one that ended up on hold for favor of my current one. It does need a lot of rewriting…

  44. AMserendipitous says:

    I loved this book. Read it in one sitting because I could not put it down! The characters are complex and ever evolving and danger lurks everywhere, amazing.

  45. jbrwr22 says:

    Thanks for the tips. Very helpful.

  46. CJKEats says:

    Great tips! There is an historical novel rollling around in my head right now, and it is the initial research that was daunting me at first, but now also realize it is more important to write the story and fill in the historical perspectives and details as part of the more important ficiton narrative, as David describes. Excellent.

  47. ksolomkin says:

    Hi! I’m very excited to read your book. I’m thinking about writing historical fiction and I’m visiting Berlin next year, so this book is on the top of my to-read list!

  48. MarkMcGaw2 says:

    Recently explored the outbacks of Ethiopian Northern Region while reading Phillp Mardsen’s, “Chains of Heaven.” He won several awards for his travel writing books describing the history and legends of Ethiopia as he also toured the mountaineous norhtern terrain. Remarkably, his prose style as he recounts his explorations are not only vivid, but also fiction like, mystifying and fantastical. I would like to see how you write the historical like accounts into fiction and compare it to his narrative technique of writing an actual past account into non-fiction.

  49. I’m looking forward to reading your book. I love authentic historical fiction and am learning how to work details in the action without boring the reader. I’m writing a memoir and find the same challenge occurs. So many memories and details that may bore the reader, even though they seem crucial to me. I’ve had to table information. I like the idea of letting another character describe a medal and relate to it rather than just list the items. Have a blessed day.
    Heather

  50. bungerfam says:

    Excellent tips. I’m about a quarter into a historical fiction set in 1910-19 and was getting stuck on the details. This helped. Thanks.

  51. iola_reneau says:

    Great Tips. I look forward to reading City of Women.

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