5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

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Venturing into the world of historical fiction can seem intimidating. The good news is that anyone can do it. All you need are a few tips—like the advice below.

What Is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is one of the most popular literary genres. It takes readers back to various time periods throughout history and weaves themes in the various settings.

Readers pick up historical fiction books to feel transported back in time. It can also be exciting to read about relatable human experiences happening so far back in history. People love feeling connected, which happens when fictional characters from history process shared emotions and experiences in real-time as people flip through each page of a book.

Is Historical Fiction Hard to Write?

Writers often believe historical fiction is a hard genre to write. That really depends on how you approach your story concepts.

You may need to research more heavily for a historical fiction story or novel. You’re grounding your world in a time period that already existed, so you’ll need to rely on things like societal structures, way of life, technologies, medicine, and other factors from that time period that would have influenced your characters’ lives.

However, you’ll also use research skills for other genres. Science fiction writers often lose themselves in research regarding physics or the latest space exploration discoveries. It just depends on what your story involves.

What Are the Seven Elements of Historical Fiction?

Like other fiction genres, there are seven elements you can establish early in your writing planning process to give your work a solid foundation.

1. Theme

You can pick any theme for your story because ultimately your genre is how you interpret that theme for your readers. 

2. Setting

The time and place of your story create your setting. You should pick a concrete date or set of dates for your entire plot, along with a setting. Your story may also involve multiple settings, like if your character travels. That’s fine! Just have names for those places to make your writing research easier.

3. World Building

World building is the process writers use to pull together numerous elements that make their fictional world seem both vivid and functional.

You can proceed with this step by recording information for details like:

  • How your world appears (terrain, weather, planet size, etc.)
  • How your character’s society works
  • How their country functions
  • Their country or society’s history
  • Their economy
  • Their education system
  • Their magic system (when applicable in historical fantasy)
  • Their world’s religions or primary religion in your story
  • Who lives in their society/country/world
  • Which nations or kingdoms also inhabit their world
  • How those nations or kingdoms function
  • Who lives in those other nations or kingdoms

When it comes to historical fiction, you’ll find the answers to these world-building steps in things like history textbooks, first-hand accounts, scientific laws, memoirs or biographies, and anything else that might relate to your chosen time period.

You can also use free world-building resources to keep track of this information. Creating maps and character outlines, plus pictures of your characters, makes it much easier to remember how your world operates.

Even though your historical fiction characters most likely live on this planet, it’s still difficult to remember every small detail of a time period you’ve never lived in. Spend as much time as you need researching and recording your world-building details so the world comes to life for your reader.

4. Characters

Your characters will be unique individuals, but they’ll also be influenced by your time period. You wouldn’t have an alien goddess living in the 1400s with an iPad and teleporter inside her floating house. However, you could have an alien goddess trying to live in the 1400s while adapting to that time period/location’s housing, societal laws, and ongoing cultural events.

Character have to live within the boundaries of their setting. Remember that as you create the characters for your historical fiction story.

5. Plot

Every story in every genre needs a plot line that includes conflict and character growth. If your characters don’t go through experiences that make them question who they are, what they value, how they see the world, or who they love, they won’t grow.

You don’t have to make each character go through all of those things, but your plot should challenge them. That can be through interpersonal or external conflict, which I explain in more detail down below.

6. Dialogue

Writing dialogue often takes practice. It’s all too easy to write dialogue that feels stiff or unnatural, but you can read dialogue tips while practicing.

Historical fiction writers also need to take time period accuracy into account. Do you want to use period-appropriate slang and regional speech patterns? That may take additional research and refreshers before you jump into future writing sessions.

Some historical fiction writers also choose not to use period-accurate dialogue. They may want to make the time period more appealing to readers by modernizing the dialogue. Some characters may also not use it, like if they’re time travelers from the future or have their own way of speaking from their past time period.

7. Conflict

Great stories always have conflict. There are a few different types to consider, like:

You can have multiple types of conflict in a story too. Many great stories and books do! It depends on which conflicts best serve your theme and genre. 

5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Ready to start planning your historical fiction story? Use these tips to navigate the path forward and create a compelling plot line.

1. Read About Your Chosen Time Period Before Writing Anything

It’s so important to fully understand your chosen time period. At least, you should have a good grasp of how the world or your chosen society worked back then. 

Reading about details like the terrain, weather, economy, religions, political systems, and more will add layers to your fictional characters’ world. Your reader will automatically trust you with the story because you’ve spent time developing it.

There are so many resources available for historical fiction writers. Look into online articles and stop by your local library to find resources like microfilm records. You can also read biographies, autobiographies, and textbooks.

Don’t forget to keep track of the information you find most relevant to your story. You likely won’t use it all, but it could all come in handy at some point.

I have an ongoing love affair with Five Star notebooks (they’re how I exclusively wrote my first novel!), but you can also use notebook apps or free word-processing programs if you prefer gathering everything online.

2. Try Field Research Whenever Possible

Field research takes you to the location of your story or one that’s nearly identical. It’s invaluable to see the size of castle ruins when you’re writing about that castle in particular. You’ll visualize your character’s world more easily after touring a historic property and learning about their daily lives from people who teach the research. 

However, you might not always be able to do in-person field research. Unless you get selected for a writing grant or win a paying writing competition, finances might be limited.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do field research! Find your chosen location on Google Maps to scout the terrain and surrounding area with the 3D view. You can use weather apps or backlogs to learn what the area experiences throughout the year. 

You could also search “what’s it like to live in ___” with your chosen city, country, or region in the blank. You’ll find blog posts and social media threads with people discussing the information you need to start your historical fiction story.

3. Find Inspiration in Real Events

If you have characters, themes, or conflicts in mind but don’t know how to pick a time period, pick a real event. Your story could center around or feature the event, grounding your plot in a specific period for your research.

4. Add New Plot Twists

This tip is especially important if you’re writing about a real event. Your readers might not know every detail about the specific battle or natural disaster framing your plot, but they can Google it at any point. It would satisfy their curiosity and ruin the ending.

Historical fiction writers have to add unique plot twists to their stories. The fictional characters make that much easier. You can make anything happen to them leading up to, during, or after your chosen event. Any real-life people have to follow their real histories, but your fictional characters don’t have the same limitations.

Your story could also be inspired by a what if scenario. What if instead of sailing across the ocean, a hurricane took out Christopher Columbus’ ship and your character (a crew member) survived? You’d only have to align your story with history for a short time before exploring that period through the eyes of a character who could potentially do or experience anything.

5. Don’t Use All Your Research

If your do your research thoroughly, you’ll have pages of information—if not an entire notebook or two. Including all those details will quickly turn your story into a textbook.

Monitor your use of research as you write your story. Keep things vivid by showing instead of telling your scenes, like adding sensory details or emotional weight to the plot-relevant research.

You can also trim your research use during the editing phase. You’ll know when something wasn’t used in the best way when the paragraph pulls you out of the experience. Your story will feel less like a movie in your head and more like a lesson.

Prepare for Your Next Historical Fiction Story

Anyone can learn about writing historical fiction. You don’t need to have a history degree or receive research training. All you need are a few helpful tips like these and some encouragement to get started.

Have fun daydreaming about your characters and the time period you want to explore. And if you need help, I have free character and world-creation tools at your disposal.

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