The Ultimate Guide to Writing Epic Historical Fiction
Historical fiction has that kind of magic that transports readers to another time and place that is a combination of real and imagined.
To write good historical fiction, one needs to uphold a healthy balance between research and creativity, and while your story may include real events and people from a specific time, this genre gives fiction writers so many new opportunities to tell a completely unique story.
What Is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is originally a form of contemporary Western literature, and the genre dates back to the early 19th century.
Famous literary geniuses, like Leo Tolstoy, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott and Honoré de Balzacwere, were among the first pioneers to explore different historical settings as their own concept for a fictional literary work.
This genre was highly popular in the United States at the end of the 20th century, especially when it came to stories set in past war settings.
Think along the lines of Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel, which was set during the American Revolution, or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, set during the American Civil War.
Writing historical fiction can be a refreshing and exotic change of scenery to your normal fiction tropes and themes.
When one learns how to write historical fiction, you get to appreciate the fine balance between research and imagination, which can make a story all the more spicy and attractive for those of us who carry interest in past events.
Even if you don’t, it’s the creation of a story in another time and another world—one that actually existed.
Imagine a love triangle during the height of the Roman Empire, and how relationships, emotions, and aspirations were so much the same but also so different during this ancient time.
The common denominator is the human element, and that’s what makes historical fiction so attractive and potential page-turners.
When writing historical fiction, there is a blueprint that will bring you the five-star reviews you know your writing deserves.
Being aware of the components of this blueprint and applying it when writing your historical fiction novel is crucial to creating a yearning emotional experience.
3 Universal Historical Fiction Characteristics
The historical fiction genre has three universal characteristics that makes it identifiable among other literary genres. Without these elements, the work cannot be properly executed within this genre.
Authenticity refers to the uniqueness of the historical period the setting or story is placed in, and how the writer conveys the ‘flavor’ of the period using different tools.
For example, different times have a sense of authenticity when it comes to language. Famous historical eras also have factual information that relates to settings, social norms, and relationships, among other role-playing factors.
2. Unpresuming History
Although the writer creates the story, it needs to take place in a historical period that is demonstrated to be well-researched or at least believable and reasonably accurate.
For example, if the story is set in Ancient Rome and the writer refers to awe-inspiring architecture, talking about the Acropolis would be a faux pas that would expose a lack of research as the Acropolis is in Greece.
As time goes on, people’s opinions change. This is also an important detail the author should be aware of.
Writing a story set in another era means the characters should display a reasonable reflection of how people thought and acted during those times.
If there are norms that are now considered offensive or hateful, be sensitive about these things. Develop a sensitive perspective of the era you’ve chosen.
How to Write Historical Fiction Using 5 Essential Elements
The setting of a historical fiction novel is the most important part of the literary work.
Consider it taking place during an authentic period in history and let your story come alive by using a real place, even if it only existed in history and doesn’t anymore. Think of New York City during the Great Depression or, if you want to go way back in time, the Han Dynasty in China.
The reader should feel like they are transported to this period almost immediately when they start reading. And, as they continue reading, they should transcend into your setting even more as the story continues.
The characters can be fictional, real, or both, but it’s important for all of them to act, speak, and appear in the ways that accurately reflect the era you’ve chosen.
For example, if you are writing a book where the main character is a real historical figure but the story is still fictional, your manuscript shouldn’t disregard or reinvent their family history or any well-known historical aspects of the figure’s life, like their social position.
Choose your main character wisely as it might be harder to write fiction using an actual historical figure as a main character. Characters can also be used to help the reader understand certain aspects of historical periods.
The plot in a historical fiction novel will be a combination of real events and your own invented fictional events.
You can invent components of your stories that include characters, areas, and certain events as long as they make sense in terms of the context of the time period. The plot also needs to correspond to the time period in your story to spare the reader some confusion.
A great way to do this is to use historical events to mold and shape your plot. For example, a story about England in the mid-1600s may benefit from the incorporation of the Great Fire of London to enhance its context.
Dialogue is an important component to get right, as it must be authentic and reflect the way people spoke in the time period your story takes place in.
It should also have a deeper context by linking relevant aspects like social class as upper class individuals who lived several centuries ago were most likely more educated than the lower class and this would be evident in their language.
In other words, dialogue can be used within the historical context to help the reader identify the status of a character.
If the historical context you chose requires the use of a specific vernacular, it is also important to still make the dialogue understandable to your reader.
The best option in this case is to introduce some main vernacular phrases to help set the scene but to keep the writing on a level of comprehension for the reader if you are writing for a general audience.
Conflict is such an important and juicy part of a fiction novel. Imagine how interesting a conflict situation can be if you’ve done your research and you are using different elements from a specific historical period to draw the reader into this conflict situation.
This is exactly what you should do with the element of conflict—make it seem almost like it’s a dramatic but actual historical occurrence.
It should be realistic but still have that magic that only fiction literature can bring to its readers. Keep the historical context in mind and be creative with what you know about that specific time.
Research can also bring richness into your story here. Consider this even when writing about internal conflicts.
Start Planning Your Novel Using These Nifty Tips
Freewriting is a great idea if you’re experiencing some writer’s block. Spend 15-20 minutes just writing away in a notebook, not necessarily focusing on your intended project.
Then, gradually start thinking about a specific period, and start by writing down your own perception of this period from all perspectives you think may be relevant.
As soon as you relax your mind into the act of freewriting, the ideas will come pouring.
It’s important getting the facts correct if you want to write good historical fiction. If you want your book to be great rather than just good, make a point of focusing on the smaller details you find during your research.
When starting your research, a great idea is to start an inventory of specific details you think may be useful tools for authentic storytelling or specific details you want to check in the historical context.
Think colors, plants, clothing, implements or tools used during those times, and other details. Using these details nonchalantly but pointedly in your story will impress your reader.
Even if you’re writing about true events, you can still exercise your creative rights as a fiction writer. Introducing fictional characters only or to complement characters based on real historical figures can help you inject personality and keep readers glued to the pages.
World-building is using the historical information you have and building a world that completely draws the reader in.
This world must be just like its historical counterpart with the exception of your creative genius. The purpose of world building is to immerse the reader into another time of existence that makes them want to keep on reading and not go back to reality.
Use all the information you have about the time you’ve decided to use for your novel and be ultra-descriptive and extra-detailed about everything—from architecture to clothing to food to social norms and even details like sensory perception that is historically relevant.
Are you a fan of historical fiction? There is an alluring and fascinating side to it that makes us wish we lived long, long ago. You may have an idea for a great historical fiction novel, but need a partner to collaborate with.
This is no problem at all. Bring your vision from the past to life in the best way possible by connecting with a partner that can help you realize your dream.
Want to get more awesome content like this delivered straight to your inbox and save 10% on your next order with The Urban Writers? Sign up for our newsletter by visiting our website and using the Get on the List sign up box.