I’ve done many consultations and networked with many authors recently who are interested in writing historical fiction. This excites me—after all, my book, The Goodbye-Love Generation: A Novel in Stories, is anchored at the Kent State shootings in 1970 and follows the same characters over 50 years.
I’ve written historical fiction for close to 20 years—in fact, nearly every major project I’ve taken on is centered in another place and time. People often asked me why I was so reluctant to focus on the present day in my work. Usually, it was because I felt drawn to existing stories and used them as a backdrop for my original characters.
What I’ve discovered, though, is that much historical fiction has gotten sloppy. The world isn’t believable enough, the story is melodramatic, and there is a weird incongruity between the characters and the setting.
I think the problem many writers who attempt historical fiction have is that they think they can start with a character and then pick a setting and time period to put them in, bending that character’s desires and conflicts to fit with the events.
Actually, it’s the other way around. You find a setting or event that can birth a compelling story and then develop a character who inhabits it.
When done well, historical fiction can create a seamless narrative that blurs the lines between reality and imagination. This power lies in creating believable characters and settings while staying true to the historical context. By striking the right balance between fact and fiction, writers can create entertaining and educational stories.
That’s really just the beginning, though. Aspiring historical fiction authors, listen up—here are some quick tips to help you explore the techniques and strategies that will help you seamlessly integrate historical facts into your fiction and bring your characters to life.
Researching Historical Events and Characters for Your Writing
To create a believable historical setting, thorough research is essential. Start by immersing yourself in the period you are writing about. Read books, watch documentaries, and explore primary sources to gain a deep understanding of the historical events and characters you want to incorporate into your story. Look for details that will bring authenticity to your writing, such as clothing, customs, and language.
I’m a big fan of music, for instance. Most of my historical fiction revolves around events in history where music played a crucial role—I guess it comes from having a dad who’s a musician. Every one of my projects has a Spotify playlist; for The Goodbye-Love Generation, every individual character even has one. It’s a great way to get transported into the culture and emotional attitude of the time.
It is important to note that while research is crucial, it should never overshadow the story. Use the research as a foundation to build upon, but keep it from bogging down your narrative. Remember, you are a storyteller first and foremost—if you find yourself too fascinated with the facts to integrate fiction, it might even be a sign that your project should be nonfiction instead.
Developing Believable Fictional Characters in Historical Settings
Creating believable fictional characters is the key to engaging readers in your historical narrative. Start by giving your characters depth and complexity. Consider their backgrounds, motivations, and beliefs and how these factors would shape their actions within the historical context. I
It is essential to strike a balance between historical accuracy and relatability. While your characters should reflect the time period they inhabit, they should also possess traits and emotions that resonate with modern readers.
This is a delicate line to walk. It’s easy to either numb the characters' personalities by focusing on the period too much or letting them become too modern to the point of being anachronistic. That’s why immersing yourself in the details of the time period you’re writing about is so critical—eventually, your character naturally will behave like someone from that time and place.
Writing Authentic Dialogue in Historical Fiction
Ugh. Dialogue. This is the place where a lot of budding historical fiction writers struggle. Yet, the ability to have your characters interact in a way that is believable for the time while still maintaining a core sense of personality is crucial for your story to succeed.
Here’s the thing to remember. Times change, historical moments come and go, and culture shifts . . . but the way people communicate with each other basically stays the same. Your ability to hone in on how your characters realistically interact with each other is way more important than integrating whatever slang was popular back then.
There’s also the problem of archaic language. Just because certain words or sentence structures were really used back then doesn’t mean they fit into your characters’ conversations. In fact, including such terms can cause the reader to become confused and taken out of the story.
It’s important to be true to the time, but you must be ready to forego any language that might disrupt the story.
Creating Immersive and Vivid Settings in Historical Writing
The setting of your story is as much a character as the individuals who inhabit it. Pay attention to the details to create an immersive and vivid setting in your historical writing. Describe the architecture, landscape, and atmosphere of the period. Consider the social and political climate and how it influences your characters' daily lives.
Remember, though, that it’s possible to overkill this. You don’t want to keep dropping world events, names of historical figures, or pop culture references to the point where it sounds unrealistic.
“Hey, Fred! Did you get that new Beatles record? I’m gonna listen to it as soon as I go drink some Tab and watch President Johnson’s address on Vietnam!”
That’s not how we actually talk. Our conversations might contain passing references to Taylor Swift or Barbenheimer or politics, but we’re rarely going to do a verbal dump on all of them. Our present culture and current events are more of a backdrop that informs our relationships and conflicts.
For a FANTASTIC example of how to successfully do this, watch the show Mad Men. The story’s primary focus is the characters’ external crises with each other and internal conflicts, but the changing world of the 1960s is always in the background. When it does directly intersect with the central conflict, it always informs the story in a way that makes the period crucial to it.
The main point is that by painting a rich and detailed picture of the setting, you can transport your readers to a different time and place, allowing them to experience history through your words.
The Role of Plot and Pacing in Blending History and Imagination
In historical fiction, plot and pacing are crucial in blending history and imagination. It is important to strike a balance between historical events and the fictional narrative.
I mentioned this earlier, but I’ll say it again: the historical events in the story are not the plot.
Imagine a story like this. A teenage girl—we’ll call her Katie—cuts class at her Dallas high school the week of Thanksgiving because she’s heard the president’s motorcade is coming through town, and she wants to catch a glimpse of the dashing leader.
She finds a place on a patch of grass to watch. The president’s vehicle passes by, and she sees him and the First Lady, dressed formidably in a pink suit, waving at the crowd, when suddenly there are shots fired, and his body slumps forward. There is total pandemonium. In the midst of it, Katie glances upward at a building nearby and thinks she sees movement in one of the windows.
She makes a run for school and returns just as lunch ends, continuing her school day without notice as news of the assassination breaks. For the rest of her life, this moment will haunt her.
This is an intriguing concept, but it’s not a story. It’s a character experiencing a historic moment. We don’t know anything about Katie apart from the fact that she’s brave enough to cut class and has a crush on JFK.
For this to be a complete story, we must know something about her world. What’s her family life like? What does she really want? Apart from just witnessing the assassination, how will this moment specifically affect her?
Then, now that we have our character, we can think about the external story. Does she get called in to give a witness statement to the FBI? Does she hide the fact that she was there from her family? How does this reality color all the other realistic conflicts in her life that a girl her age would deal with during this time?
Again—if you want to write about historical events directly, that’s awesome. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a fiction writer. It just means that you perhaps should be writing something that focuses directly on the history.
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