Writing the historical novel brings several unique challenges. Obviously, historical accuracy is paramount, and much of your preparation will no doubt be devoted to research. It’s tempting, when you finally begin to write, to use as many of the details you discovered as possible, or to let historic events drive the action on the page. Remember, though, that research can never take the place of key practices in creating effective fiction. Tailoring these techniques to your historical novel will help you capture and hold your readers’ attention.
This guest post is by Sofia Grant. Grant is the author of THE DRESS IN THE WINDOW. Called a “writing machine” by the New York Times and a “master storyteller” by the Midwest Book Review, Sofia has written dozens of novels for adults and teens under the name Sophie Littlefield. She has won Anthony and RT Book Awards and been shortlisted for Edgar®, Barry, Crimespree, Macavity, and Goodreads Choice Awards. Sofia works from an urban aerie in Oakland, California. Visit her at sofiagrant.com.
Describe setting from your characters’ POV
It’s not enough to accurately describe the setting where events in the story take place—you need to introduce it to the reader in the context of your characters’ point of view. In Michael Chabon’s THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND KLAY, for instance, 1930s and ‘40s Manhattan is revealed through the eyes of a young Jewish immigrant who aspires to create comic books. His observations of the world around him are filtered through the unique lens of his artistic ambition.
Enhance your scenes with sensory details
A great way to immerse your reader in the time period of your story is to load up on sensory details. You’ve probably supplied the visual elements you collected researching the setting—now embellish with sounds, smells, and tactile details. In THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, Tracy Chevalier makes liberal use of the senses in describing the artist’s studio which the young maid at the heart of the book is tasked with cleaning. Through Griet’s point of view we experience the chill of the room in the morning, the intense colors of the pigments she grinds, the “clean scent of linseed oil and the musk of the earth pigments.”
Fine-tune your dialog (including internal dialog)
Archaic and outmoded language, slang, and styles of speech can be effective ways to set your prose in time—but also among the easiest techniques to abuse. With practice you’ll learn to choose a few key words or phrases to support the time period – without overwhelming your prose to the point that it yanks the reader out of the story. In Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE, the main character’s internal dialog rings true to a naïve young girl in 1940s Canada: “Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it’s still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say.”
Make judicious use of telling details
It’s tempting to load up your manuscript with all of the wonderful research tidbits that you’ve gathered—but less is more. Choose the ones that will have the greatest impact, keeping in mind that they must be relatable to the reader without requiring a lot of narrative development that will slow your pace. For instance, when describing the 1893 World’s Fair exhibitions in THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Erik Larson chooses to mention innovations that survive today, knowing they will resonate more than unfamiliar ones: “A new cereal, Shredded Wheat, seemed unlikely to succeed— ‘shredded doormat,’ some called it.”
The usual rules still apply
A different time period is not an excuse to stint on any of the essential elements of good fiction: dialog must still move a scene forward; character arcs must be robust, and conflict must be properly motivated. I think sometimes a too-keen focus on “getting the history right” can mean neglecting other aspects of the story. But novels as diverse as THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean Auel, Leon Uris’s I CLAUDIUS, and Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP succeed because they contain all of the elements of enthralling fiction—no matter what the time period.
Know when (and how) to cheat
Occasionally, we historical authors must cheat a bit in service of the story. I find that readers are forgiving when it comes to moving an event slightly in time, changing a few details about a historical figure’s age or appearance, or choosing a location that suits the plot even if it isn’t precisely accurate. However, a note to the reader will go a long way to convincing her that you’ve been clever rather than sloppy. (A reviewer recently noted that I introduced an ice maker into my story two years before they were available in America, a detail I thought no one would catch. An Author’s Note might have satisfied her.)
Writing the historical novel brings wonderful opportunities to lose oneself in hours of pleasant research, but that benefit comes with an obligation to make sure that every word you write is in service to the story. As in all beloved novels, the author must recede from the page, allowing the story to unwind as naturally as thread from a spool. Keeping these tips in mind will help ensure that your novel is impossible to put down.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.