When I was in the second grade, we had two units. Remember units? The first semester we read books about animals. And the second semester, we read books about the “Olden Days.” In June, the teacher asked everyone to raise their hands as to which unit they liked better. I was the only one who voted for “Olden Days.” I was a historical fiction fan from the get-go.
As a literary agent who has represented many successful historical fiction authors and books, I think it's important all writers who want to break into this great category consider these key elements when writing and marketing their work. Here’s what you need to know about this very particular yet wide open area:
1. Historical fiction can be anywhere from the dawn of time up to about 1950-60
Any later than that and it hasn’t yet acquired that special patina. We want it real, but without feeling like we’re reading the news.
2. This kind of fiction requires high quality writing
It’s not like genre writing and it’s not something you can just dash off. It requires education, thought, and skill.
3. No matter how clever you think it is, it must have a hook
A general story about a real person’s life may not be enough. Which would you rather read: 1) a story about General Sherman’s march to the sea, or 2) General Sherman skips the town of Augusta, GA on his march to the sea, because he promised his southern girlfriend that he would leave her home town intact?
Writing and Selling the Historical Novel is a crash course jam-packed with advice from the start of your novel to the finish, from picking a concept with immediate appeal to pitching your finished product to the agents and editors who will take it to publication.
4. You can write about anything that really happened
You can’t write about things that you know didn’t happen. But the catch is that you can write about things that could have happened. No one will ever know what General Sherman said to his girlfriend in private, but maybe he said “wait for me”. He could have, right? You can go with that.
5. Time travel can work
Yes, time travel is historical fiction, if more of the story takes place in the past than in the present. You can also do split stories, with some in the present and some in the past.
6. The more famous, the better
It’s far better, if you choose to write about someone who really lived or any iconic personality, to go with a marquee name. Which would you rather read: 1) the real story behind Helen of Troy, or 2) the real story of Menelaus? (If you’re saying “Who?, then you get my point.)
7. Promoting minor characters
However, you can take a minor character from literature and tell the story from that person’s point of view, providing a fresh take on an iconic subject. Example: THE RED TENT, which provides an eye-opening take on a little-know character in the bible. It works because it’s the bible, which is kinda famous, and because it also features Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a little sexy. Not a lot, but enough to dispel any lofty perception of the bible as preachy.
8. Strong women needed
In the last several years, historical fiction has focused mainly on women. That is starting to change. You still need that hook, though.
9. Western Europe is the safest place to set a story
American settings were not popular for a long time. I’m not sure why, but American history didn’t seem very sexy. Now American stories are starting to come back into the light. It’s about time!
10. What’s out? The Tudors. All of them
Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I—the whole gang. They were mined incessantly during the last decade or so. If that’s what you want to write about, think about doing something else unless you have something very new and different to offer about the Tudors.
11. What’s in? WWII is very in at the moment, but it’s starting to saturate
Wholly fictional stories are becoming prominent, as opposed to novelized biographies. Strong women are very in. No doormats. This can be a problem, as women weren’t often in a position where they could take a lot of action, but you can show their spirit and also show the constraints.
12. 17th Century big names
What would I love to see? Something in the 17th century. I know, sounds vague, right? But what if I said Cyrano de Bergerac? That helps, doesn’t it? I would also love to see something to do with Harriet Tubman. She has been one of my heroes since I first learned of her when my daughter was in the 4th grade and schools suddenly discovered her. Now she is going to be on the twenty dollar bill. (Harriet, not my daughter).
13. Research, research, research
You knew I was going to bring up research, didn’t you? You were right. Historical fiction requires more than a Wikipedia check. It means going to the places where they lived and worked. It means going to real brick and mortar libraries or museums in order to find that one out of print British book or that obscure Italian recording.
14. Weave historical details in seamlessly
Don’t let anyone say “Your research is showing!”
15. Always check the comp titles
Let’s back up a little. Before you do any of these things, find out if your subject has been done before. Spend some time online looking at comparable titles, or comp titles, in publishing speak. You may very well find something similar, but that’s not a bad thing. They want to know there’s a market for it, but you must present in a way that gives it a fresh look.
16. Start organizing early
Have a web site. Get on social media. Do anything you can as early as you can to promote yourself and start building an audience. Oh, and don't forget the most important element of writing historical fiction: Have fun!