"History can only make her pictures and rebuild the past out of the things she can save from a shipwreck; she will piece together just so much of the battle of Agincourt as the sea washes up to the shores. The Memory of the world is not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.”
—Herbert Butterfield, The Historical Novel: An Essay
If a history text is like blown glass, historical fiction is like a mosaic. Each art form has color, beauty, and harmony of design, but when fiction is inspired by real historical events, assembly is required. For those who feel a call to write historical fiction, there are many points to consider, but these 7 tips in its construction will help produce a true work of art.
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.
Writing is personal, and authors have unique approaches to pre-writing. Freytag's Pyramid is a tried-and-true structure that allows one to plot the key points of the novel while allowing the freedom to explore the journey between those points. In addition, writers of historical fiction should create a detailed timeline of the period covered in the book. Taking the time upfront to sketch the art, makes filling in the color easier as one progresses.
Invite the Sacred
My desk is an altar, of sorts. I fill it with photographs, art, and artifacts of the period. Before I write, I light a candle, turn on a station of classical or instrumental music that reflects the time, and invite the Holy Spirit into the work. This allows for a sort of hypnosis, freeing me to travel back in time to the place I want to make come alive for my readers. When the hypnosis is complete, I feel more like a conduit for the story than a creator, and that is when I produce my best work.
Imagine the Fireside Storyteller
From markings on a cave wall to stained glass in a cathedral, story is the way humans communicate, learn, and grow. If you're having trouble getting started, before writing each day, try channeling a "fireside storyteller." Imagine an old man or woman before a sea of rapt faces saying, "Listen to what happened." If that feels too mystical, imagine gossiping with a friend. Either way, beginning each chapter by thinking, "You won't believe this," causes a natural leaning forward. This level of engagement serves both the writer and the reader.
Fiction frees the writer to massage the facts, if necessary, to create a novel. Sometimes it feels like a grave sin, but when there are too many people or events on the historical stage, one must relentlessly condense, consolidate, and delete in the name of Story. The Author's Note—where writers can alert readers to any dates changed or characters combined—allows for explanation.
Be Faithful to the Time
The writer of historical fiction must resist the temptation to contemporize the characters. If one finds men and women ahead of their time, fantastic, but don't force it. The reader can sniff that out in a second.
While the history text can teach the known, provable, or quantifiable truths of the past, historical fiction allows the reader to experience the past, exploring the emotional truth of the time period. It is one of the best genres for exposing readers to worlds outside their own, inspiring empathy and understanding, and helping us learn from the past. Like a mosaic, it takes many pieces coming together to make a coherent image, but if it's assembled properly it results in a unique and beautiful work of art.
Writers of historical fiction: What would you add to this list? All writers: What are your writing rituals?