Someone writing historical fiction recently told me she was planning a work set during the Civil War, but she was a bit overwhelmed. Where to begin?
I could relate. My novel is set during the 1940s. It’s certainly not as remote as the Civil War in our collective memories. Some people don’t consider anything after WWI historical fiction, but I think that any time period that predates your own existence is historical in terms of the learning curve required for you to become familiar with the nuances of that era.
Here are some of the things to remember when writing historical fiction.
1. When writing historical fiction, balance historical accuracy and characterization.
People are not stereotypes. They are complex and prone to do crazy things. Even if your novel is set in Victorian England, your female protagonist need not be completely straight laced and reserved. Remember in the movie Titanic young Rose felt compelled to rebel against high society’s constraints of women in 1912. Isn’t that more interesting anyway?
2. Don’t be intimidated when writing historical fiction. Don’t get paralyzed by research.
When writing historical fiction you have an added responsibility to get the facts of the
time period correct. Some writers enjoy digging through volumes and volumes for the smallest details to enrich the world of their story. For these folks, they never have enough material. On the other hand, those writers who don’t enjoy research as much procrastinate even beginning the novel because they’re not as interested in that part of the job. No matter which category you fall into, just jump right in. Start writing.
3. Don’t get lost in the research when writing historical fiction. Designate research days.
If you come to a point where your character was about to pop some aspirin and you don’t know if that was an option during the Civil War (it wasn’t), flag that section and come back to it later. Then on your research day you can look into all of the flagged items and make necessary changes. I don’t know about you, but I find if I stop writing every time I have a question, I’m off to the races. Before you know it, that one question about aspirin distracted me for the entire day and I didn’t get an actual writing done.
4. When writing historical fiction, Dear Diary may be your best friend.
If possible, read personal accounts written during that time period. Diaries or letters – primary research – can give you a lot of valuable details from a personal perspective. History is often written on a large scale, but diaries contain the hopes and dreams of individuals. A caveat: some people misremember or embellish things in their diaries and letters. If you’re reading a diary that records the person meeting Lincoln after a speech in 1868, it’s probably an honest mistake. If it’s an historical fact, check it out before including it in your story.
5. Backstory bonanza is not your friend when writing historical fiction.
Once you’ve done hours and hours of research, you’ll probably have an inclination to shoehorn every nugget you unearthed into your story. Resist the urge! Doing so equates to showing off and your readers will spot it a mile away. Include what is central to the character and the plot and leave the rest. All of that research didn’t go to waste. It informed your knowledge of the time period and it will come out in more subtle ways.
6. Writing historical fiction doesn’t mean you have to be tethered to history.
Of course you can’t (and shouldn’t) rewrite major events. Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. Man walked on the moon in 1969. But you can take some liberties. It is fiction after all. Maybe your novel is set in Boston but you learn of a rally that happened in Philadelphia. With a few changes you can move that event to Boston. I read about a minor train accident that happened in the 1950s and reimagined it for my novel set in the 1940s. It worked perfectly.
7. Look to the experts to help when writing historical fiction.
When I was researching the aforementioned train incident, I needed to learn about the train cars: how they were laid out, how were they decorated, how big were the sleeping berths. I took my questions to the experts. I quickly realized there are people out there who live and breathe trains. They set up model trains in their basements, attend train conferences and love to talk about them. Once I put the word out, they were immensely helpful. I can’t thank them enough.
8. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Start with your characters. No matter when or where your story is set (read more about setting here), they are the world in which your characters live. It should be a rich and colorful world, but your characters are the heart and soul of your novel. What would Gone with the Wind, the sweeping epic that it is, be without Scarlett and Rhett? Let your story be about them.
Jacquelin Cangro’s first book, The Subway Chronicles, is a collection of essays about the New York City subway system. She’s had two short stories published in the literary journals Pangolin Papers and The Macguffin and she just completed a novel. She recently started The Writers’ Salon, a writing center with classes on techniques, workshops and the business of writing. She blogs here.