5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

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.)
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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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:

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