If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I’m a speculative fiction writer. I enjoy fantasy, science fiction, and any sub-genre thereof. I like to discuss worldbuilding techniques, how to write those genres, and why they’re important.
Today, however, I’d like to turn to a genre that’s a little less exciting for me. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite genre, by any means, but as I’ve begun preparing for my own historical fiction work, I’ve stumbled across a few important ideas behind historical fiction that I thought I’d share.
Because I’m new to historical fiction, I’d love to hear what you have to say as well, so go for it. Give me that thousand-word rant on how everyone is doing historical fiction wrong and how you’d like to fix it.
Time Period Matters
Of all the different time periods out there, I think there are three basic kinds that authors shoot for when they write historical fiction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does open doors for you and I to find our own little niches, where wonderful stories can be told set in our world, but with a feeling of “I’ve never seen this before this is interesting”.
These three basic settings are medieval war, Victorian peace, and modern war.
Yes, I basically just described the useful parts of history: the crusades (or some made-up battle in the Medieval period), Victorian England, and any war starting from the American Civil War through world war two. Again, I’m not saying these are bad settings by any means. Across Five Aprils, Oliver Twist, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Boy Knight, and dozens of others stories by dozens of other authors are all wonderful tales set successfully in these time periods.
But… what about the rest of history? Medieval France did have peace-times. England does have time periods besides King Arthur’s reign and the Victorian Era. There are a dozen other wars that are just as important, just as pivotal, just as conflict-driven as World War Two. There are other countries besides England and America and France. You can write a good story set in Russia (thank you, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn and others), in South Africa, in China, and even in Canada. Really, you can.
Our world has thousands of years of history spread out for us. If you were to take every historical fiction novel ever written and represent each with a pin stuck to a timeline, you’d find huge clusters in some spaces and wide gaps in others with only one pin. Maybe zero.
When you choose your time period, choose one that excites you. Even if that means writing in a time period everyone’s written in. That’s okay. But also choose one that interests you. When possible, pick a time period you might not know much about, but sounds interesting. Then, it’s time for what writers do be: research.
Searching and Sources
The hardest part about writing historical fiction is this: every time period has its rules. Things happened in this order, at this time, and these were the consequences. Our world isn’t fictional; all the history is already laid out for you. You don’t hold the reins here; you can’t make up things as you go. Instead, you have to know the time period well. Not well enough, necessarily, to be able to write a Master’s Thesis and defend it, but enough to avoid writing Columbus into tenth century A.D. South America.
“But research is hard!”
If I were telling you that you had to research the easiest way to kill a character with a knife, would you complain? I doubt it.
Consider your historical research like digging for a way to kill characters with knives. Only this time, you have to know which knife would be available, what sort of protective armor/clothing the character would be wearing, and what sort of words the character would scream as they died.
The thing is… where do we research? Wikipedia might be convenient, but are they accurate?
As a general rule of thumb, it’s okay to trust Wikipedia for basic stuff. If you find an article on “technology in 1700s America”, you can probably trust it. But when you’re attempting to unravel the intricacies of parliament politics in 1600s England, you might want to look for a different source.
Unlike writing a paper, having one source on the subject for this sort of research is okay. You’re not going for 1000% accuracy; you’re going for “I won’t have the wrong King of Spain mentioned in this time period”. When one encyclopedia or “Spanish king archives” website tells you Ferdinand II was the king of Spain at the time, you can assume he’s the right king, without having to find and quote two other scholarly sources.
Believe it or not, history textbooks are actually great places to find the information you need. They might have it laid out in a dry and factual way, but it’s still what you need. Jot down a few notes from the section that’s relevant and ta-da! Information.
I know I’ve talked about these sorts of things a number of times, but I’d like to focus on his-fic info-dumps for just a moment.
These sorts of info-dumps are an attempt by the author to share historical knowledge with the reader so they know what’s going on. It’s a quick “here’s the setting and this is where we are and who’s in charge of the country and what these people do for a living and all the social customs you could ever want”.
Many times, this sounds like the writer set their research notes next to their chapter outline and then got confused about which was which. They meant to write based on the chapter outline, but ended up glancing at the research notes instead.
Your reader is smart. Unless you’re targeting kids aged 5-8, all of your readers have taken some sort of history class. They know the basics. Even if you’re writing in an obscure time period, most readers will be able to recognize the name of a country or city and the mannerisms of a certain time period.
Let your reader do the math. Give us the benefit of the doubt and assume we know as much about the time period as you do. You can let us know which time period we’re in without telling us all about it. Instead, inform us of the period and move on into the story. Your descriptions of people and places will be far, far more natural than a few paragraphs summing up the political climate of the whole country and the current international affairs.
Give the reader bits and pieces. Never ramble for more than a few sentences. Give us one detail that we can grasp onto and remember, use it to show us the emotion of the time period, rather than the drudgery. You had to read the history textbook, your reader doesn’t. One detail, then emotion and conflict and story, then another detail. It’s much like describing a person or a place: you give us three or four things we can remember vividly, and then let us fill in the blanks. Again, your reader is pretty smart.
The setting is never more important than the story. You can write a good story in the more “cliché” time periods, and you can write a bad story in a totally unique setting. Better to write a good story, and use the time period – well-used or completely new – to make it even better.