Being a Better Writer: Historical Fiction

Welcome back, readers! And sorry for the delay. Life … finds a way. That isn’t always to one’s benefit! This week is just looking crazy.

Which means it’s probably best if I dive right in, given my ticking clock today. So, historical fiction …

Okay, disclaimer. I give these every so often. I don’t write historical fiction. So I’m not the best authority on this subject. While I have written stuff that has taken place in other time periods, both future (Colony) and past (Shadow of an Empire), both of those also deviate quite a bit from what would be considered historical fiction because one’s the future, and the other isn’t Earth, but a fantasy world with magic thrown into the mix.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t throw a little magic into things with your historical fiction—it’s been done. What I’m saying is that my grasp of historical fiction is not as complete as someone who writes historical fiction full-time. I touch on it, they embrace it.

But … even with those who embrace it, there is plenty of historical fiction out there that is truly terrible. Just bad. And if you want to write historical fiction, you’re going to want to avoid stepping into those same mistakes, and into those same pitfalls. So, what are they? Well, let’s talk shop! Writing shop!

So, you want to write historical fiction, do you? You want to delve back into the world’s past for whatever reason. Maybe you love the setting of 1800s England, or 1700s India. Or perhaps 1200s central Africa, or 900s Americas? Maybe there’s something about the idea of lamplight, or firelight, or the gold rush, or something, anything from human history that just grabs you and doesn’t let go, and you want to write about it.

Or maybe you just have a story that you think would work best set in a certain setting. A tale of betrayal in a gold rush, or a tale of two star-crossed lovers during the attempt to build South America into Gran Columbia? Maybe the story fits the period?

Whatever your reason, whatever your cause, here’s the thing. Those of you who are regulars on this site will recognize this mantra, but I think that perhaps out of all the various genres of fiction, this is one where you’ll get schooled the hardest if you screw it up. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints I hear from those who enjoy historical fiction is when this mistake is made.

Did. Not. Do. The research.

Yeah, that’s right. You want to write a historical fiction novel? You have to do the research. This is paramount, no single other thing other than perhaps the ability to write a book at all will be as important in writing a historical fiction novel than getting your facts straight.

This is harder than it sounds, too. See, with a lot of research for other types of novels, it’s admittedly easier to dig into things. For example, say I’m writing a fantasy book that’s set at an 1500s level, and I need to know a few things about blacksmithing. Well, that’s not too hard to find, and before long I can have lots of details about how it was done, where smithies were built, etc etc etc.

Here’s the catch though. I don’t actually need to know everything about smithing in the 1500s to have enough for my fantasy, because my fantasy probably isn’t set in, say, 1500s England. So I can ignore things like proper terms (as long as I know there were terms, I can use my own) and the social standing of a smith. Or I can know just enough to extrapolate how my own world’s take on those.

If I’m writing a historical fiction piece about a 1500s smith, however? Oh boy. I can’t just look up some scarce details and call it good. I need to know everything. Social standing. Finances. Home life. Religion. Work times. Respect of their peers? Training? Apprentices? How much work would they do in an average day. What was their skill? Were other folks respectful or dismissive of them, or even just neutral? How big did a town or city need to be to have a smithy? How would a town like that be laid out? What sort of social classes would it have? What sort of language would the smith use?

And on, and on, and on. See, the challenge in writing historical fiction is presenting a window into a world that no longer exists, but once did. Your responsibility then, is to accurately create that window. You need to capture the setting, the people, everything.

Starting to see why research here is such a big deal? It’s a bit like assembling a model. If you’re making it up from scratch, well then you can handwave a few slips here and there or work them into the narrative. But creating a model of something real? You have to get every detail correct, otherwise anyone else who knows what details are and aren’t correct will know. And in the world of historical fiction? They will call you out on it.

Again, this means that if you’re writing historical fiction you’re going to need to do essentially as much research as if you were writing non-fiction. Because in a way, you mostly are: You’re taking real events and adding your own characters and story to them. Those real events, from what happened to how people acted and how they spoke? They happened. They were real. And you have to know them inside and out so that your characters slide in just as smoothly as everyone else.

Which, by the way, is where we run into one of the most common problems with historical fiction: Stories and characters that don’t fit the time period. Which, in all honesty, needs to be the second thing you consider when setting out to write a historical fiction piece.

The first is the research. Sit down and start doing it. But as you do it, or when you’re done, and you’ve researched your time period to the point that you could answer (or find the answer) to just about any question asked about it, from culture to clothing, ask yourself this question—

Do the characters and story I have planned work in this period and setting?

Ask it. Think about it. Seriously consider it.

Why? Well, here’s why: One of the most common complaints I see and hear today about historical fiction is (and some of you will hate this) the type that does something like follow the “Strong, independent woman” archetype. Put down the torches and pitchforks, folks. Sands, if you’ve read my books, you know I’ve got no issue with strong female characters of all types.

But here’s the thing. My stories? They’re written in places and settings where this can and does happen. They’re written in worlds where the characters that exist can and do exist.

When you’re writing historical fiction, however, you don’t have this luxury. The characters you create must fit into the world and time period you’re building a window to. And if they don’t? Well, you end up writing bad historical fiction. Bad historical fiction such as the kind being mocked in this reddit comment by ovoutland I stumbled upon the other day:

“By damn,” Lord Bastardton cried, “you shall recognize me as Master of this house or I shall slap a bitch.”

“And you, my lord,” Felicia said proudly, snapping her fingers in his face, “need to get over yourself.”

Funny? Oh yeah. Because it’s utterly ridiculous. No one talked like that in the 1800s setting the poster was mocking. No one acted like that either, male or female.

Which is where the current trend of “strong, independent woman” story is raising issues in historical fiction: Many readers of historical fiction are picking up books that are historical fiction … until they get to the characters act completely out of time. Women acting not at all like women from that time, period, or place, and instead behaving like someone from the modern era.

This is not the only way to have this issue, it’s merely one of the most prevalent complained about currently. Another example one reader offered lamenting this trend was a doctor that used modern medical treatments and knowledge, such as sterilization, hundreds of years before such things were common or even understood. In fact, if a doctor even two-hundred or three hundred years ago tried to perform such acts, many would likely consider them mad. Which would then earn them a ticket to an asylum (and in case you’re alarmed, that actually happened in the 1800s).

I could go on and on. Folks using modern animal training or horseback techniques in the 1700s. People acting completely at odds with social culture and class in a set time period. One I heard at LTUE that was a personal peeve for a historical fiction writer was folks in fantasy and historical fiction both putting tanneries in the middle of medieval villages, when in the real world they were far on the outskirts because tanneries stink horridly, and no town would want one inside its borders or even nearby.

Okay, so that last one is moving toward research failure more than “story not fitting the period.” It’s still a fun story (and a good note if you’re writing about it).

Point being, once you’ve done all this research, you need to sit down and look at the story you had in mind and see if it fits into the setting you planned, because it might not. Which will leave you with a conundrum to consider: Change the characters and story to fit the setting? Or find a setting that better fits the characters and story you had planned?

You’ll have to be honest with yourself about this. Yes, you can probably stretch things a little … but how far before it breaks a reader’s suspension of the window? How long before that frame cracks and reveals itself for what it is?

Look, this question may be hard, yes, but you have to examine your story with it in mind. You’re writing historical fiction. Not some other form of fiction. The moment your story or characters break historical convention … you’ve kind of jumped genres, and not in a way your audience will appreciate.

Okay, so we’ve talked about research, and we’ve talked about whether or not your story fits. Now let’s talk about another challenge of historical fiction: language.

Sands and storms, this one is a tricky path. Look, there’s culture you’ve got to know when writing historical fiction. History. Societal customs. But language? This one straddles a tough line. Why?

Bene, quod vertit linguam habet.

Oh, sorry. My mistake. That was Google Translate Latin for “Well, because language has changed.”

Yeah. This one is a can of worms. See, one half-exception we make for historical fiction is language. Because let’s be perfectly honest: Even if the language of the time was English, if you wrote it in pure, of-the-time English, it would be hard to read. English—and most other languages—change both a lot and frequently.

So, if you actually tried to be historically accurate with the language in your historical fiction, you’d run into issues almost immediately with the audience. However, at the same time this does not mean you want your 17th-century merchant from India greeting his trade partner by posing the salient question “Sup dog?”

So what do you do? You “translate” things. You look at the method and manner of speaking back then, and you take that manner and method and apply it to your characters. They may be using modern English spelling, but they can still use old mannerisms and methods of speaking. Learn how people spoke to one another in the time period you’re setting your story in. Were people polite? How? Were honorifics of some kind used? How did people address one another in private? In public?

This is a challenge, make no mistake. And what you’ll end up with is a sort of “hodgepodge” of modern language (whatever language you’re writing in) and the mannerisms, colloquials, etc, of the time you’re writing about. And that’s okay. That’s about as close as you can get to stepping over the line of “this is unreadable to the modern reader.” It’s just something that you’ll have to live with when it comes to writing historical fiction.

And … that’s about it, really. You may have noticed that I didn’t say anything about genres, or subplots, because the truth is you can do all that with historical fiction just fine, as long as your story fits the period and you’ve done all your research.  Adventure? Romance? Intrigue? History is full of it. That isn’t an issue as long as the story fits the period.

And if it doesn’t? Well, maybe you didn’t want to write a piece of historical fiction. Maybe you wanted an alternate history novel. Or a fantasy-adventure. You can go ahead and do that. Or, if you really want a bit of historical fiction, you’ll make the needed changes.

Okay, so recap time. You want to write historical fiction? First things first, you need to do more research than you’ve ever done before. Will you use all of it? No. But you need to know it. Social etiquette, culture, the works. To build a window of this world, you need all the details.

Second, you need to examine the story and characters you had in mind and see how they fit into that frame. Do they fit into the historical period you want to write about? Or do they bring issues and problems. Can they change? Or will another historical period fit your planned story and characters better?

Lastly, learn the manner of speaking, tones, and obligations of the language of the time, and adapt it to the language you’re writing in. Keep track of honorifics, colloquialisms, methods of address, station, etc, and replicate them accurately.

Do all that, and you’re on the way to having a great start for a historical fiction novel.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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