The hardest part of writing historical fiction is authenticity. These tips on how to write a book set in the past will help you write a historical novel that readers (and editors!) love.
Before the tips, a quip:
“It’s not a documentary. It’s a historical fiction. But we have attempted to make the world, the background, the detail of that world as authentic as possible.” ~ Jonathan Stamp.
As Stamp indicated, authenticity is important – even crucial – in historical fiction. If you’re writing a historical novel set in medieval France, you won’t know exactly what life was like back then – but you still need to make your story’s setting and events as realistic and accurate as possible.
To learn more about writing historical fiction, read The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.
And consider these seven tips before you start writing…
Tips for Writing Historical Fiction – Books Set in the Past
You want to write a novel, but not just any novel. Say, for instance, you want to write a book set in medieval France. Perhaps this is your first historical novel, or the first time you’re writing a book, and you don’t know much about France in that historical time frame.
Where do you begin? With your characters, of course!
Create Your Characters
You won’t have a novel idea if you don’t have people, fictional or non-fictional, to play a role in the book. Before you put the pen to paper, you should know who your main character is and what he or she plans to accomplish in the story. If your main character is a person who lived in the past, you will need to know about that person’s status, lifestyle and personality. Historical fiction allows room to “play” (because it’s fiction), but it still needs to contain the ring of truth.
Research the Era Your Book is Set in
Once you have a strong idea of who your main characters are, you can better clearly define the setting of your historical novel. Here are several questions that will guide you as you write this book: What year will the story take place? Will it span over a number of years, or will it be confined to one year or to one season? Where will your story take place? This is where you must do your historical research. You can borrow books from your local library, purchase them online, or read articles about writing historical fiction online. Once you know the setting well, you will be able to create mental images of the physical landscape and of the buildings that inhabit it. These mental images will help you write historical fiction in a believable way.
Learn About Fashion in That Pocket of History
The next step is to research the style of clothing people wore in the time period of your book’s setting. Learn the names of clothes and the fabrics people used in that time frame to make clothing. If you want to write a book set in the past, you need to learn the details because that’s where authenticity is found.
Study the Architecture (an important part of writing historical fiction)
From the greatest cathedrals to the smallest country cottage, architecture plays a significant role in writing historical fiction. Why? Because it reflects the ideals of the people of that given historical period and it is what defines a civilization. For example, Gothic architecture in western Europe flourished from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Such cathedrals boasted pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. Medieval architects built these structures with the intention to glorify God.
Before writing your historical novel, it is important to learn the names of every structural feature and the raw materials from which these structures were made from.
Learn Warfare (even if you’re not writing a book about war)
Warfare dominates history. There was not one century that was warless. If you are the kind of writer that wants to include fighting in your historical novel, then it is important you study the art and nature of warfare in the chosen setting of your book. You will also need to know the various weapons soldiers used to fight with and the armor they wore. Again, to write a believable book set in the past, you need to learn the details.
Research the Socioeconomic Status of the Era
Unlike today, the socioeconomic status of an individual was very important. Status defined a person’s lifestyle and how he or she dressed. There was no fluidity, no moving upwards. If you were born a peasant, you were a peasant for life. It is important for you to know, before writing your historical novel, the socioeconomic status of your characters.
Write Dialogue That Represents the Past
You have completed the hardest part of your outline — your research. You know much about medieval France. Your characters are well developed and now it is time for their book to be written. They will need to interact with each other (most great historical fiction contains character interaction!).
This is where writers can take liberty when writing historical fiction. Realistically, the people in medieval France spoke French – possibly a very old, formal version of the French language. But, there is no way you will have them converse in French in your story unless you are fluent in French. In your novel, they will be speaking English. Although this aspect is not technically accurate as far as a book set in the past goes, it is necessary to engage readers in a meaningful way. Yet, you must be mindful of the historical timeframe in which your characters exist. They would speak formal English and not the twenty-first slang that has crept into modern-day English.
Accuracy is king in historical fiction. That is what makes writing a historical novel more difficult to write than other genres of fiction. That said, if you do your research thoroughly and effectively, you will be able to write an excellent historical fiction book – and get it published.
For more tips on how to write a book, read Story Writing Help – 6 Ways to Write Better Fiction.
What do you think of these tips for writing historical fiction? Comments welcome below!
Deanna Proach is a novelist. Her first historical suspense book, ‘Day of Revenge’ was released by Inkwater Press. She currently resides in Sechelt, British Columbia where she is writing her second book, ‘To be Maria’.
Deanna also wrote Promoting a Book – Should You Hire a Book Promotion Company?, here on Quips & Tips for Successful Writers.
I'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello and share your thoughts below. If not, go well....and don't forget to come back! :-)