Skip to main content

From the Practical to the Mystic: 7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Bestselling author Erika Robuck provides her top 7 tips for creating an engaging historical fiction novel.

"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.

(Erika Robuck: On Writing Historical Women)

Research

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.

Plan

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.

From the Practical to the Mystic: 7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

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.

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

Simplify

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.

(Historical Fiction: Discover New Truths in the Past)

In Conclusion

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?

Getting Started in Writing

When you take this online writing workshop, you'll discover your voice, learn the basics of grammar and examine the different types of writing. No matter what type of writing you're planning on crafting—nonfiction or fiction—you'll need guidance along the way.

Click to continue.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Dismissing Stories That Aren’t From Books

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Dismissing Stories That Aren’t From Books

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is dismissing stories that aren’t from books.

Why You Should Beware Homophones

Why You Should Beware Homophones

Mistaking a word for a similar one is not an uncommon mistake, but an important one to catch when editing your work. Here, Audrey Wick shares why you should beware homophones and shares a homophone-catching test to practice with.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Blackmail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Blackmail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, one character blackmails another.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

30 Poetry Prompts From 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge

Get all 30 poetry prompts from the 15th annual November Poem-A-Day Chapbook Challenge here. Actually, 35 prompts if you're counting Two-for-Tuesday prompts!

How to Stalk Publishing Professionals on Social Media in an Appropriate Way

How to Stalk Publishing Professionals on Social Media in an Appropriate Way

Many people are self-professed "stalkers" on social media, whether they're following life events of friends or celebrities. But writers can learn quite a bit on social media by stalking publishing professionals too, and this post covers the appropriate way to do so.

Vérant

Samantha Vérant: On Romance and Recipes

Author Samantha Vérant discusses how her writing process changed while writing her new contemporary romance novel, The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 633

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a warm up poem.

Do I Pitch Different to Agents vs. Editors?

Do I Pitch Different to Agents vs. Editors?

Every so often writers ask if they should pitch different to agents vs. editors. This post answers that question and provides some extra help on how to successfully pitch both.

Urban Legend

Urban Legend

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, feature an urban legend in your story.