Ask a Ghostwriter – How To Write Historical Fiction

Feb 27, 2020 | Ghostwriting

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There is an undeniable appeal in images and language of the past. The way things were back then (whenever that is) entrances the imagination and infuses storytelling with richness. But the question of how to write historical fiction is an apt one.

Consult the list of best selling fiction books from any year and the theory bears out: historical fiction is wildly popular.

Talk to people about the books they love and they’re bound to mention works like The Outlander or One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is difficult to argue against the appeal of films like Titanic or Inglorious Bastards, however much the latter is a spoof.

What about television? That medium which is at its zenith right now. Downton AbbeyDeadwood and again, The Outlander.

They’re not just good stories. They are works of art.

What makes something a historical fiction though? In each of these examples, the story centers on an element of history. While none of these stories is really “about” the era they represent, character conflicts and story problems are heightened and enhanced by the time period.

Tips On How To Write Historical Fiction

Allow me to put one fact forward. I can’t tell you how to write well. Presuming you’re a capable writer and storyteller though, what you find here will help you better write within the historical fiction space.

With that out of the way, the first tip on how to write historical fiction is one of motivation and purpose. Your story has to organically fit within the context of the era, otherwise, your story will fall short.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you chose to write in the historical fiction space because it’s hot, that’s fine. It’s wise to write to the market.

But your story has to fit optimally within the historical era. Look at The Outlander. Of all the eras to send her heroine back to, author Diana Gabaldon chose the Jacobite Rebellion of the 1740s. Why?

For one, she was writing a story about time-traveling, star-crossed romance. What better era to send Claire to than one steeped with conflict and centers on a tragic ending? There is also an element of connectedness. The characters in the story needed to make connections to their history, so it had to be an era where with a rich written history.

If your story fits the era, great, you’re one step in. The second tip, however, is one about details. Because in historical fiction the details matter and there is a whole heck of a lot of them.

This is why I say: Your story comes first. The details come second.

I realize I’m treading dangerously close to a plotter-versus-pantser debate, but it is important to understand that the first standard is excellence. Whether or not you know the manufacturer of the China used on the Titanic is irrelevant. The story is about Jack and Rose and we remember that movie because the writing of their relationship was utterly timeless.

At some point in the writing, your details will come under scrutiny though. When I say that will come many passes down the road, I mean it.

Currently, I’m working on a novel set in the old west. There are going to be a whole lot of details that I need to get right. More importantly, though, the characters, story, situation, and resolution need to resonate.

My process has been to write the story. As I go forward, I highlight areas that will need a historical detail or an appropriate word.

I can go back and add those later. If the proper word is “carriage” instead of “wagon” that’s an easy fix. It is an easier fix than being 75,000 words in with a character I cannot use.

I need to nail down the motivations and actions first and foremost. Otherwise, my novel will sink.

Now that you’re in the right era… and you’re committed to writing the story first and details second, what comes next?

Be sure you’re not writing into a corner.

This is a big one for me. It would be wise to look at the historical era as a whole first to make certain you’re not limiting your potential.

Yes, we know the Titanic sinks. Sorry for the spoiler. The writers of that film knew going into writing it that they were working in a limited world.

Heck, that inevitability is part of the story’s tragic appeal.

Series are hot though. They are far hotter than historical fiction.

If you’re going to write something in an era, great, but are you giving yourself enough room to grow one book into two? Or three? Do you have the storytelling elements in your story to go all the way?

Yes, the Jacobite Rebellion lasted only a couple of years. But Gabaldon deftly uses time travel to extend her story onward.

Deadwood only existed for a short time. This is why the ensemble styled cast used in the HBO show allowed it to run on for multiple seasons.

Downton Abbey came to an end. It could have, I suppose, gone on forever, examining the upstairs/downstairs relationships. The contrast between classes is forever interesting and universal.

There are a lot of ways to approach writing any story. No two writers do it the same way. What you need to understand going into historical fiction is that, with every enticement, the genre comes with points of caution.

But if you use the genre correctly and maneuver within it effectively, there can be a lot of future success in working with the past.