While planning this year’s activities, I made the decision to focus on a topic I call ‘Inside Historical Fiction’. As I said on my blog, “what I plan to do is look under the covers of historical fiction to illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction.” With that overarching objective in mind, the topic will explore seven aspects of historical fiction writing: setting, characters, dialogue, world building, conflict, plot and theme.
Readers are a critical point of reference. So, what can they tell us?
When asked what kind of stories they prefer, almost three quarters of those surveyed chose ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events; close to half chose ‘the life of a significant historical figure’.
When asked what ingredients create a favourite novel, 86% said ‘feeling immersed in time and place’, but ‘authentic and educational’ stories, the ‘dramatic arc of historical events’ and ‘characters both heroic and human’ also ranked high. When asked why they read historical fiction, 76% said ‘to bring the past to life’.
Readers love historical fiction, but become annoyed when authors play around with historical events. When asked ‘what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction’, a large portion of readers cited historical inaccuracies while others mentioned too much historical detail, cumbersome dialogue, and characters with modern sensibilities.
Well now, that should be an easy recipe for writers to follow, shouldn’t it?
Setting: discover enough about your setting(s) to immerse readers in that time and place. Add details to inform and educate. Help readers understand what living was like for all manner of people.
Characters: if you choose a famous figure, ensure the details you include are accurate and find ways to make bring out both heroic and human dimensions. When facts are absent, search for the plausible. Understand the restrictions and obligations faced by men and women of different classes. Avoid anachronistic behaviour.
Dialogue: use accessible language sprinkled very lightly with references to era-specific language and terms. Avoid words, phrases and idioms not yet invented. Be careful with words whose meaning has changed over time; the word gay comes to mind.
World building: search for details that illuminate the period. Make sure you understand the political, social, religious, legal, military, bureaucratic and family context. Country borders are also a factor. Consider etiquette, fashion, food, drink and social customs. Avoid anachronisms. Find the big events your characters would know about – a plague, a riot, severe food shortages, wars, an eclipse, a monarch’s death, a pope’s edict.
Conflict: understand the conflicts inherent to your time period. These may or may not be the dominant conflicts of your story, however, they will provide context for them and could affect major or minor characters.
Plot: historical fact is critical when it comes to plot, especially when writing about major characters. You can’t have Eleanor of Aquitaine in England if the known facts are that she was in a particular part of what we now know as France at that particular time. Significant historical events cannot be ignored but use them to add tension or plot twists.
Theme: themes are generally universal. Myfanwy Cook offers a list in her book Historical Fiction Writing: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism …” Interpret them against the era of your writing.
Give some thought about how you guide readers into and through your world. It's good to educate but don’t overwhelm with details - and always respect the facts.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.