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Writing Historical Fiction Part 2


2.  Be as specific as you can when researching.

When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), then it’s time to narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome. When I was researching my American Civil War story I kept my focus on one regiment during the last year of the war. That is still a sizable topic because a lot happened during the last year of the war, but the fact that I was concentrating on a single regiment helped me from falling too far off the track. It was easier to search specifically for the information I needed to tell my story since I knew exactly what I was looking for.

Sometimes, however, it’s hard to narrow your topic if you’re not really sure what years or which events your story is going to cover. That happened to me when I was researching Victory Garden, a story set around World War I and the woman suffrage movement. As with the Loving Husband Trilogy, which is centered around the Salem Witch Trials, I knew very little about the World War I era. I have this odd habit of coming up with story ideas set during times I know little about, but for me that’s part of the fun of writing historical fiction—learning about the history. For the suffrage story all I had to begin with was a vague idea that I wanted to explore the difficult fight for women’s right to vote. To begin, I did some general research to get some sense of the era. As I learned about the time, I was able to get a clearer sense of how the events would fit into the fictional story I was weaving about a woman involved in the suffrage movement. After I did enough general research I was then able to focus my attention on the specific aspects of woman suffrage that intrigued me. With a lot of reading and even more notetaking, I discovered that I wanted my story to take place between the years 1918, when WWI ended, and 1920, when women finally received the vote. Through more research, I learned that Prohibition was an important factor in American society around the same time, too, and that gave me another angle to work with. Soon (as in a few weeks into my research) I was able to see my fictional character Rose Scofield moving around these true-life events between the years 1918 and 1920, participating in the suffrage movement, watching friends come home from the war, going to Prohibition meetings (though she may not have been happy about what she heard). I wish Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey had been around then. These TV shows could have helped me get into the spirit of the times as I was writing.

Even when you are interested in the era you are researching, the task of digging through piles of information can seem overwhelming, not to mention tedious. But if you are genuinely intrigued in the era and do some preliminary research, you can narrow your topic to a workable size. Once you have your topic whittled to a workable size, then you are making your research time purposeful and even enjoyable. Yes, I said enjoyable. Or am I the only one who loves to read about history and take notes. Anyone? Anyone?

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 1

As the editor of The Copperfield Review and the author of seven historical novels, I’ve been asked to teach classes about how to write historical fiction. I’m often asked to share my best tips for writing in that genre. Here they are, starting today with Part 1.

1.  Write about an era that fascinates you. 

This is similar to one of my tips for writing a first draft: write what you must write. An historical novel is a project that could require months or even years of research, so you need to write about a period that can hold your interest for that long.  Most writers of historical fiction choose their historical period based on a long-time interest in the period and that is a good way to start.  Writers who are fascinated by Victoria’s England feel compelled to write about ladies in corsets and men in waistcoats and find great joy in describing those details to others.

It’s usually best not to pick a time period for your novel out of a passing fancy. If you’re writing a novel set around the French Revolution but don’t find the details or the people of the French Revolution particularly interesting, then your project is in trouble because you’re going to avoid the research with every Excuse you can name. No one wants to spend their time reading about something that bores them. But if you’re fascinated by the French Revolution and the events of that time, then you’ll look forward to digging through the archives, flipping through the index, and skimming for important details as you search for the next big clue that will help you fit the pieces of your story puzzle together.

On the other hand, it might happen that you develop an interest in the era you have chosen to write about. I came up with an idea for a story set during the Salem Witch Trials, which oddly enough happened to be a time I knew little about. Though I had never had much interest in that era prior to my crazy story idea (my only experience with the 17th century witch hunts was reading The Crucible in college and watching the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis about ten years ago), I did become fascinated by the frightening happenings of the time through my research.

Whether you’ve chosen your era from a life-long interest, or you develop a fascination out of your research, you need to enjoy the time spent in your chosen era. You’re going to be there awhile.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at meredithallard.com.

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