The term historical does not actually refer to a genre, of course; instead it is a descriptive word used in conjunction with any genre set in a historical period, such as historical romances or historical mysteries. And yes, you might even find historical science fiction or historical comedy. What makes writing anything historical tricky, of course, is as a writer you really need to do your homework to get whatever period in which you’re writing right.
And there will always be somebody who catches you out if you get something wrong. Not too long ago, my mom was reading a historical romance set in Victorian England, and the child in the story had a favorite Teddy bear. Only one small problem—the Victorian period was June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, and Teddy Roosevelt, for whom the “Teddy bear” was named, didn’t become president until September of 1901, and Teddy Bears weren’t invented until 1902. It may seem like only a little thing, yes, but anytime you as a writer make this kind of mistake, someone will notice—my mom did!—and the writer loses credibility.
Technology and Worldview
The “when” of the story matters greatly, and the two areas that catch us most by surprise when we’re writing historical fiction are the changes in technology and worldview. Communications, transportation, energy, building materials, geographic names, medical issues, plumbing . . . all these things and more change drastically over the years, but it’s more than just a question of whether or not your characters can get from point A to point B in a timely fashion. Worldviews change as drastically across time as across cultures, and you need to prepare for that in your storytelling.
Will your hero have only one shot, or does he have a revolver? Is your African safari in Northern Rhodesia or Zambia? Have antibiotics been discovered yet, or will a character die from an infection? Can your heroine get there by train in a day, or must she take a coach over several days? Does your detective have a cell phone on his belt or a pager? They say, “The devil is in the details,” and as writers, we know they really do matter!
Worldview is just as important when it comes to historical fiction. Are you old enough to remember going out to the gate to meet incoming passengers at the airport? We live in a post-9/11 world, and our views on security and terrorism have changed dramatically over the past eighteen years. Is your story set before 1950? How do your characters cope with emergencies without a credit card? Is the teen in your story expected to go to college, or will he need to start working for a living following the eighth grade? Did she even have the opportunity to learn to read and write? How often do people bathe in the time period of your story? (This last is why I rarely read historical romance beyond the Victorian era!) Does everyone still smoke in your world?
Do your research.
I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested in research for historical fiction, do read my previous posts on the topic:
October 19, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 6: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff”
November 2, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 7: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.
March 22, 2019 – Writing the Story, Part 4: When: Timing Is Everything
And always: read, read, READ!
Just as important as research can be reading what other writers have written. When you read a lot of historical fiction and think about what you’re reading, you can get pretty good at picking out the really good writers from the bad or even the mediocre. You’ll see which authors have done their research and which don’t mind taking a shortcut. Don’t stop with contemporary authors. When writing about the nineteenth century, read novels written in the nineteenth century. While you are writing for a contemporary audience and using contemporary language to tell the story, these historical works can help you to see how people actually lived, worked, and communicated—between friends, family members, classes, races—during the period in which you want to write.
Finally, always keep in mind the period in which you are writing and keep your characters in that time. I find little more frustrating than a historical novel or movie in which everything seems spot-on for the period only to have the characters speaking in contemporary “American.” You don’t need to write with an accent—and probably shouldn’t try for a contemporary audience—but watch your slang, jargon, contractions, vocabulary, and word order so you don’t leave your audience questioning the “when” of your story.
Whether you are writing a time-travel fantasy (like L. Sprague De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall) or want to delve deeply into a period that really interests you (like Francine Rivers Mark of the Lion series), historical fiction can be a lot of fun to write. But it does take work—and a whole lot of attention to details—if you want to do it right. Unless you have a PhD in a specific historical period, count on a lot of hours spent on research. On the other hand, for those who love to write historical fiction, the research is half the fun!
Next time, we’ll look at the hidden traps of writing a contemporary story.
by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.
Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org