How To Write Historical Fiction Well, by Laura Bolt


Historical fiction is a genre that has, and continues to be, extremely popular. It can provide an even greater escape than traditional fiction. It is an exercise in balance, research, and care; and is a challenge, but if you love history and have a passion for fiction, this may be your genre.

One of the benefits to writing historical fiction is that there is a quasi-built in market for whichever period of history you are writing about. Do not, however, get too comfortable and let the quality of your writing slip. This benefit can be a double edged sword, as chances are that fans of a particular era will be well-read in that period and therefore may judge you more harshly. Historical fiction is a significant genre, but can become a fairly small club when broken into various time periods. Whichever period you choose to write about/in, there are a few things to keep in mind…

First, it is important to adequately cover both parts of this genre equation: history and fiction. A good balance can be harder to achieve than you may think. Don’t take too many liberties with the history. The question of accuracy is important. After all, you are writing fiction, not a textbook. It is fine to take some liberties if it is vital to the story, but don’t let it become too egregious (i.e., washing machines in revolutionary France). Let the history inform, but not overwhelm, your work.

To this end, choose an area you are interested in, or be prepared to do your research. Well informed readers (and publishers) will often be able to tell if you phone in the facts. Remember, your knowledge and research will weave the background and context for your piece, but it is only half the battle.

Obviously, the other necessity of historical fiction is the fiction! This is where your own voice really shines through. While it is important to keep the history relevant and well informed, readers are also looking for a good story. The story is the heart of the work, and no matter how well informed your writing is, it is the story and characters people are going to remember.

When writing historical fiction, it can be easy to let the plot slip away under the strong undercurrents of historical events. When considering your plot, it should complement the history, working with it to create a seamless balance of lost times and meaning. Think about Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, or Michaels Shaara’s The Killer Angels. These books were successful because they created dynamic and relatable characters dealing and reacting to their historical environments.

Successful historical fiction will give readers both a glimpse into a different time and an insight into the rich characters you will populate it with. Achieve the balance of history and fiction, and you will give your audience (and publishers) something to remember.

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Posted in 2011, Author's Resource, Non-Fiction
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