7 June 2021

Guest Post by Savannah Cordova: Five Crucial Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

 Knowing how to write a great short story is tough. To condense a narrative into 3,000 words or less, the writer really has to sculpt every sentence, being careful not to sacrifice substance or theme. Despite this difficulty, each week my colleagues and I read dozens of standout short stories as judges of Reedsy’s short story contest. 

One thing we notice is that authors who write in genres which require more worldbuilding — historical fiction included — can struggle to condense their narratives and pack a real punch in relatively few words. This is a shame, since historical fiction stories done right are some of my absolute favorites. To encourage more historical fiction writers to try this form, I’m going to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of short stories — as well as a few stellar examples.

1. Do your research 

Different kinds of historical fiction require different kinds of prep work. For a historical romance, the writer needs to know all about societal norms and expectations; for a fictional account of a battle, the tactical decisions and maneuvers matter most. When writing a short story, it’s all about immediately grounding readers in the culture of the time period. You need to know how people thought, how they went about their daily lives, and what stories they might tell about themselves and their world.

If you want your historical fiction story to foreground a real historical figure, you’ll need to do the kind of research a biographer might do. Then use those facts as your source of inspiration. As long as what you write is plausible, you can use your imagination to speculate and fill in the gaps, taking the story where the historian can’t go.

2. Find an interesting way into the time period

One common misconception among historical fiction writers is the notion that an elaborate, multi-POV, multi-act story structure is the only way to tell “the whole truth.” But writers who try to encompass everything they know within the scope of a short story will inevitably spread themselves too thin.

Leave it to the historian to give an unbiased account. What you need to do is get behind your protagonist and tell their story. Figure out what’s meaningful and interesting about their connection to the time period, then try to pinpoint your story's key emotion. Despite the historical backdrop, it’s this key emotion that will move the reader.

One recent submission that did this really well was The Ritual, which takes place in New York during WWII. The author uses what they know of the period — the hysteria, the uncertainty, and the mistreatment of Japanese and Italian immigrants — to tell a moving story about community, family, and the home. When they touch upon historical events, this sentiment still permeates every paragraph. Take a look:

When the FBI agents came for Luigi, he had been cutting through a beam that was part of a new project that Giovanni had been doing on the house. Giovanni had given the old Victorian a face lift; its termite infested wooden exterior was replaced by cream colored stucco and red window boxes.

3. Infuse your story with historical details

Though it’s true that you shouldn’t try to cram everything you know about a time period into a short story, sprinkling in accurate historical details will keep readers interested and make your story much more credible.

To that end, during your research, keep an inventory of small details that will add color to the world of your story. While writing, you can also make note of any details you include that you might want to check for accuracy, or replace with something more emblematic of the times.

Of course, you don’t want to add information just for the sake of it. To hold your audience’s attention, you’ll want to emphasize select details that advance plot or characterization. Here’s a great example from a story called Treading Water, set when Elvis Presley was king:

The ding of an overhead bell signaled my arrival as I pushed open the door. A wave of cool air hit my face and I sighed in relief. On a shelf, a small electric-powered fan blew a soothing breeze straight at me. I was surprised the store even had electricity, but I supposed that since most of Main St did, there was no reason for it not to. A portable radio rested on the front counter, by an ashtray full of cigarette butts, but it wasn’t turned on.

4. Don’t get bogged down in dialogue

One detail that I’ve seen way too many writers get bogged down in: the vocabulary or grammatical structure of their historical era. Yes, speech has shifted dramatically over time, but you won’t shatter any illusions for your reader by failing to replicate historical speech patterns.

In fact, it’s far more noticeable when a writer chooses to write in a specific dialect. Think of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and the narrator’s thick Scottish dialect — it can make for pretty opaque reading, right? The odd word or occasional phrase can work to reinforce your historical setting, but don’t bust a gut trying to stuff them in. Include too many and your story might become tougher to read than it’s worth.

One of the stories submitted to our contest, Adventurin’, did a great job of adding some historical color to the speech of one of its characters. The story is narrated in modern English, but the protagonist’s loud, loquacious friend Jed speaks, well, like this:

They know our story; you know, ‘cause their Paw has sung our story-song to them in front of the fireplace after their Maw has done the Bible readin’. Not too soon after, mind you, because their Paw don’t want to shame the Word of God with our story. That happens, and kids won’t want to listen to Bible readin’ anymore. Famous is fine, but you and me don’t want to come between children and the Almighty.

Jed’s voice comes through so clearly, helping us understand the character and the world he’s grown up in, and immersing us in the historical context without making the prose jarring to read.

5. Start with a punch, not exposition

Most writers instinctively understand the need to hook readers as quickly as possible. As you might imagine, the need is even greater when it comes to short fiction, where everything is so compact. As a judge, I’m looking for a hook within the first paragraph — if not the first sentence — to convince me that this story is going to be engaging.

If your story opens with a flowery description of a period costume, an antiquated building, or the events of the year in question, I’m going to check out. I understand the desire to establish the time period early on, and that’s not a bad idea — we even prompted readers to do just that in this contest — but as that prompt asked of our writers, try not to lay it on too thick.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of this brilliant story, The Things You Don’t Say, as an example:

It was the hottest summer of the decade the year we bought our first air conditioner. It was August 1988, the summer before I entered high school, the summer before life got complicated. The six of us (seven if you count Daisy, the basset hound) loaded into the green Chevy station wagon and drove to Sears, Roebuck and Co. (as it was still called back then.) We were the only people on our street to get an air conditioner.

These opening lines instantly let us know we’re being transported back to the 80s. (So much so that I don’t think the author needs to tell us the date — luckily for them, it wasn’t an entry in the aforementioned contest, but another contest without such requirements.)

But beyond that, they also create atmosphere, clearly establish the narrator’s voice, and set the tone for the whole story. It’s hot, times are changing, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked. So if you ever submit a story to our contest at Reedsy, remember to open with something like this. I look forward to reading what you write!

Savannah Cordova

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About the Author

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of historical fiction — when it’s done right. Find out more at https://reedsy.com/ and on Twitter @ReedsyHQ

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