There's something incredibly fascinating about history, whether it's uncovering the strange customs and manners of previous civilizations or realizing just how consistent human nature has remained over the centuries. Of course, history becomes infinitely more interesting when we get to make things up.
Whether writing a Regency romance (Bridgerton: The Duke & I) or a literary reexamination of the early 20th century (Ragtime), historical fiction offers readers a time and place that really existed that's also safely secluded in the past. Sometimes these stories try to tell the truth of that time and place; other times, they're just a fun escape into the dark recesses of "what could have happened."
In this post, be sure to enjoy the following tips and quotes from authors on writing historical fiction and click on the links to read the full post that covers each topic in more depth.
20 Authors Share Tips on Writing Historical Fiction Novels That Readers Love
"It goes without saying that writers of historical fiction need to become at least amateur historians in the areas that consume them. On the shores of history, writers of historical fiction have to sift through the washed-up clothing, the splintered furniture, and the yellowed journals to try to make sense of who the passengers were. The freedom to tell the story can only come once the writer has a strong grasp of the facts, has read every book and letter, visited every archive, and—when possible—walked in the footsteps of her characters."
—From the Practical to the Mystic: 7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction, by Erika Robuck
"Unable to settle on one particular time period, I came up with the brilliant idea to write about a time traveler who experiences life in several different historical eras. (When I say brilliant, I mean really, really challenging.)"
—How to Write Time Travel Historical Fiction, by Jodi McIsaac
"As a horror writer, when I learn about interesting places—and eras—I tend to start thinking about the harrowing stories I can set within them."
—Scott Kenemore: Finding Horror in Historical Fiction, by Robert Lee Brewer
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.
"A novel is full of inventions—lies, you could say—and lies in books can be as delicate as in real life. To pull off the deception, in both cases, it helps to stay as close to the truth as possible."
—5 Considerations for Writing About Historical Figures in Fiction, by John Thorndike
"Evocative historical writing is made up of more than facts and figures. By examining old pictures—either paintings or photographs—you can glean impressions that inspire your imagination and details that populate your descriptions."
—8 Rules of Writing Historical Fiction Research, by Kim van Alkemade
"And that’s another thing I have learned, often the hard way: Sometimes what you think will be an interesting life doesn’t turn out to be able to fuel an entire novel, more like a short story."
—Blurred Lines: Writing Historical Fiction From Fact, by Melanie Benjamin
"Rather than just dumping a bunch of facts on the poor reader, let your characters interact with these details with all these senses. Let them smell the offal dumped onto the cobblestone streets. Let them squint in the fading light of the tallow candles. Let them feel the tingling sensation as the physician places a leech on their bare skin."
—How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity, by Susanna Calkins
"I feel a meaningful connection with my great grandmother not because the texts tell me she came of age in the period characterized as Reconstruction, but because I know she was the valedictorian of her high school class, had an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, and later in life lost a four-year-old son to diphtheria."
—Historical Fiction: Discover New Truths in the Past, by Eliot Pattison
"Check a good slang dictionary (Jonathon Green's is my favorite) before allowing your colonial character to indulge in phrases like 'don't flip your wig,' a quip dating from the 1950s."
Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel.
"When it comes to attitude, read the newspapers of the time. We have a lot in common with our ancestors, but views change. Our sensitivities are not their sensitivities. That doesn’t mean you wallow in the prejudices of another time. But I like to portray my characters’ feelings with as much respect for their time as possible."
—How to Write Historical Fiction, by Mariah Fredericks
"Many stress the importance of accuracy in historical fiction. Others think too many historical details sink the story. Still more believe it isn't possible to achieve total historical accuracy in storytelling. Almost all agree that the author's choices should be explained in an author's note."
—Stretching the Facts in Historical Fiction, by Marci Jefferson
"For historical fiction, the world that our characters populate must believably be one that actually existed in the past, and yet one into which the modern reader enthusiastically enters."
—10 Steps to the Past: How to Do World-Building Right in Historical Fiction, by Rebecca D'Harlingue
"While a luxury and certainly not always possible, I cannot overstate the value of traveling to the place you are writing about."
—6 Tips for Confidently Writing Historical Fiction, by Jaclyn Goldis
"The past is a complicated place. Falling into fantasy regarding history can be easy for some, and more difficult for others, as it can evoke gentility, manners, pretty clothes, and breathtaking settings. Yet the backbone of much of this privilege came at a cost to many, with a darker, grimmer side that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored."
—The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction, by Eva Leigh
"It's tempting to load up your manuscript with all of the wonderful research tidbits that you've gathered—but less is more."
—6 Keys to Writing a Compelling Historical Novel, by Sofia Grant
"All the other important things in a novel—sympathetic characters, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and unexpected twists and turns—spring from portraying one's beloved heroes and villains in all their glory and infamy just like the real-world, flawed historical figures they were in life."
—Getting the History Right in Historical Fiction Using Declassified Records, by Samuel Marquis
"Sometimes what really happened just doesn't sound plausible, or it's way too complicated to explain in a novel. When that happens you have a choice. You can guide the reader carefully through the truth, or you can simplify the facts."
—7 Ways to Make Your Historical Novel Come Alive, by Alison Love
"Stephen King tells us that the source of most bad writing is fear, and he’s right. Historical fiction writers who research and write from a fear of getting something wrong often drown the story with facts and details."
—Writing With Wonder: Weaving Time and Place With Story in Historical Fiction, by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
"Since I was not writing a memoir, I was free to change names, make up characters, and alter events. In other words, don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story."
—Writing Historical Fiction Based on a Family Story, by Shannon Hitchcock
"We need quiet moments to take in stories. We need spaces in which we can react to stories. We need to see ourselves on the shelves around us. And we desperately need to feel whole enough to tell these stories."
—Nadia Hashimi: On Seeing Ourselves in Historical Fiction, by Robert Lee Brewer