Oft-quoted advice for writers is to write what you know. But what if you want to write about medieval Europe during the Black Death? Do you have to invent a time machine and pop back through the centuries with a backup supply of modern antibiotics?
That might take a while – and possibly break some laws of physics – so thankfully there’s a better way. The way used by authors such as Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwall, and Ken Follett, all of whom write realistic, best-selling historical novels.
Here are seven quick, but significant, tips to help guide you along the path to historic success.
Know your history
Strong research is vital for a believable historical fiction story – authentic details come from accurate examination.
Hint: An hour or two on Wikipedia just isn’t going to cut it.
Seek out and absorb as much as you can about the settings, people, lifestyles, technology, medicine, and customs of the period. Look for documentaries, non-fiction books, novels, museums, digitized artifacts, historical databases, and try approaching human experts to see if they’d be happy to entertain a few questions about their area of expertise.
For a more detailed article on making research work for you, take a look at our post on productive research for writers.
Avoid information dumps
Just because you know the exact recipe for a delicious pottage that a 12th-century peasant in central England would have used, it doesn’t mean that your readers want, or need, to know it.
Remember, you’re writing fiction, not a textbook. It’s enough to know that 12th-century pottage won’t have potatoes, broccoli or tomato in it – all of these weren’t introduced until much later. Your character will instead be eating turnip, parsnip, and some (purple – not orange) carrots.
Again, it isn’t necessary to describe the entire preparation and cooking process in this example – but thorough research could see you point out the flavor of the carrot, rather than looking like you haven’t done your homework when a character comments on the soft potatoes.
Remember the Titanic film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet? In an emotional scene, as the boat is sinking, First Officer William McMaster Murdoch shoots and kills a passenger, before turning the gun on himself.
It’s a very dramatic moment in the film – but there was no historical evidence it happened, and Mr. Murdoch’s surviving family were understandably upset that their relative’s memory was tarnished.
Family history matters to people – so if you’re writing about a time within living memory, make it as accurate as possible. It’s always safer to keep the roles of your major characters restricted to fictional creations – but if you simply must have Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain in your book, keep their impactful activity to a smaller, historically accurate scale.
That is, of course, if your story isn’t candid about being completely inaccurate in the first place – for example, presenting George Washington as a secret ninja warrior who holds the balance of the entire world in a mystical amulet.
Be careful with back-story
Every person has a rich back-story, packed with triumphs and failures. This history affects a person’s point of view in real life, and the same goes for fictional characters. As a writer, you need to show your character’s personality through actions – not by telling readers everything about them.
Where you need to be extra careful in historical novels is with your characters’ knowledge of the events surrounding them. Perhaps they were part of a significant peasant revolt. That’s interesting, but the peasant isn’t likely to know (or understand) the entire political ramifications of the event.
History may tell us clearly what went on before, during, and after the incident, and your research will fill you in on that – but you have to be careful not to let that outsider knowledge leak into the behavior of characters that are operating without it.
It can be tempting in such a setting to draw connections from your character to major real-life players in the event as quickly as possible, as though that somehow cements them (and your story) more firmly in the period – but it’s important to ask yourself at every point whether something like that feels organic, or just shoehorned in to try and buy some lazy legitimacy.
Prepare for a long journey
Historical novels are long. Long to research, long to write, and often physically long with many hundreds of pages in a typical example. If you’re determined to write about life in France during the revolution, but you know nothing about it, you’ll need to be ready for a long journey before you understand the setting, issues, characters, and everything else.
On the other hand, if you wrote about 1930’s Chicago and you have family who are Chicago born and raised, you’ll likely have a better basic understanding. No matter your starting point, remember that research can take you down lots of unexpected paths, rabbit holes, and total dead ends – so be prepared to invest time in learning, and don’t underestimate how long it may take or you might find yourself becoming disillusioned with the whole idea.
Watch your language
Base languages, colloquial phrases, and word usage change over time. Awful used to mean something that inspired awe. Nice used to mean precise and accurate. Even today, a couple of new words are added to dictionaries each year – words like selfie and photobomb were complete nonsense just 15 years ago.
How authentic you want to be with language is a personal choice, but most commercially successful authors use historical terms sparingly – but they always make them count. If you wanted to be truly authentic and write a novel set during the Viking raids of 9th century Britain, then only a few Old Norse academics would be able to read your work by the time you’re done – and your everyday fiction fanatic would soon grow tired of reading constant source and translation pairings.
Hvars þú böl kannt, kveð þú þér bölvi at ok gef-at þínum fjándum frið. (Where you recognise evil, speak out against it, and give no truces to your enemies.)
Also, when using figurative language like metaphors as description, be careful what you pick. A distant thunderstorm in ancient Greece cannot sound like explosions – they didn’t have explosives in ancient Greece. Your prose should remain as anchored in the timeline as possible, offering comparisons and imagery befitting the knowledge and experience of its narrator.
Have the right attitude
Children’s rights and independent women are not universal across all cultures and times. Victorian children were expected to be seen and not heard and could expect corporal punishment for minor misbehavior. For most of history, women were expected to look after the home and raise children, and not much else.
So a farmer’s wife in Ireland during the potato famine won’t miss her nights out with the girls at the local pub when times get hard. Her world would be restricted to her family and local community – she likely won’t know much of the wider world, its peoples and customs.
You may have your own opinions about how things in society ought to be – but when you’re stepping into a historical realm, those opinions should be checked at the door. That’s not to say that you can’t express them, as the author, through how you convey situations to the reader, but your characters need to inhabit an authentic space and react appropriately.
Total revisionism tends to be frowned upon – unless, as mentioned in point three of this article, it’s made clear that your story is a reimagining.
So… in the end, is it worth all this time and effort to get your historical novel off the ground? Yes, it is! Historical novels offer a rich connection to places, people, and times that are out of reach but feel distinctly related to the world we live in.
Done correctly, they’re awash with cultures, sights, sounds, perils, and human achievements that all ring our intellectual bells – because who hasn’t ever wanted to step into a time machine and see what life was like in a particular era?
Keep these tips in mind, and you could accomplish the next best thing.