Quick tips for historical fiction writers

Historical fiction is perennially popular. Readers love to read about people from different eras, with different expectations and experiences than we have today. The different approaches to mystery-solving or to marriage and romance offers an irresistible appeal. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re writing anything set in the recent, or even the distant past. Here are my five tips for writing historical fiction.

  1. Try to remember you are writing to entertain, it is not the main goal of historical fiction to educate, although that may be a part. When you’ve worked hard to carry out research, it is so tempting to cram it all in, making sure none of your effort goes to waste, but that will not result in a rewarding story for your readers. Pick a few key elements that are relevant to your plot, such as mode of transport, or social events, or maybe build your plot around a real event in history. Don’t write a lecture.
  2. Be accurate, but don’t be a pedant. True, it’s important to have a high degree of historical accuracy to avoid knowledgeable readers getting irritated by your mistakes, but if you are pedantic, you may create too alien a world, meaning you will spend a lot of time explaining the era to your reader. This, obviously, will impact on their enjoyment of the story.
  3. Language. Language is living and evolving, and if you write novels set in the past, the language they used then will certainly be different to the language we use today. However, remember that you are writing for a modern audience who may not understand if you stick too closely to the language of your era. To avoid a sense of incongruity, use a few key idioms from your research, and in general, simplify the language you use, especially in dialogue, making speech a little more formal than is normal for ‘now’. Also, take care to avoid very modern phrases and ideas. You can’t have women from Victorian England described as ‘Babes’, unless your book is about time travel!
  4. The same goes for costume, food, pastimes and attitudes. You can have your protagonist as a very forward-thinking person who bucks the trend, but in most cases they will have the same attitudes and beliefs as the majority of their era. Read books that were written in your chosen time period where possible, to get a feel for the norms and manners of the day.
  5. Check that what you think you know is true. We unwittingly absorb so much from inaccurate or Hollywoodised movies and books, that it’s easy to carry over their misconceptions into your work. We understand that communication was slower, for example, due to the relative lack of technology, but even in the mid-nineteenth century, in Britain, a letter could be expected to be received and replied to, within a week of posting. And transport may have been different, but speed was still possible. I once edited a ‘Regency’-era novel in which the healthy young male protagonist took three weeks to travel from London to Calais, a distance of a little over twenty miles. He could have walked it in a couple of days, even allowing for the sea-crossing, and there were plenty of fast stagecoaches to take one from London to the coast. So do make sure you check vital plot devices for accuracy or you will earn some one-star review from readers who are experts on the era and are frustrated by your mistakes.

Glaring inaccuracies will grate on a reader and spoil their pleasure in reading your carefully-crafted novel, so do your homework, but just don’t use it all in your book. At least it will come in useful for the next book in your series!


2 thoughts on “Quick tips for historical fiction writers

  1. Some really great tips here. The one that resonated with me was picking a few key elements from the era and detailing them as a way to show you know your stuff, but not boring the reader with your research.

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