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Top Ten Historical Fiction Elements

I love historical fiction, both reading and writing it. That stems from my deep appreciation of history. My grandmother told me stories of our ancestors back to the Middle Ages, which made each period of history more relevant to me. When I read historical fiction, I can imagine those ancestors walking the same streets. Now that I am writing Grandma’s stories, I have developed a keener eye toward the craft of writing historical fiction. Here are the ten most important elements to include in historical fiction.

  1. Historical fiction should be used to educate the reader about the past, to show what was different or the same and how far society has come. That involves a lot of research. It’s easy to say, “I’m writing fiction. I’ll just make it up.” This attitude angers historians and causes them to look down on historical novelists. If it’s documented, the novelist shouldn’t contradict it. If it’s not documented, that’s where the fiction develops. The trick is making sure it’s not documented anywhere. In my novel, Under the Almond Trees, I mentioned that a minor real life character worked for Wells Fargo in California during the Gold Rush. A reader emailed me with a note saying, “No, he was an engraver.” She included a copy of his engraving. It didn’t make any difference to my story, but it jolted this reader out of the narrative.
  2. The beauty of historical fiction is that it adds something to history. An author can do their best to portray characters and setting authentically, but the novel still needs a story that engages the reader. The central character should add a fresh perspective on historical events. When I researched the Pearl Harbor attack for The Aloha Spirit, I found very little about the experiences of civilians during and after the attack. Piles of documentation existed for military people and their reactions, but I needed to know how Portuguese families living in Punch Bowl reacted. I had to imagine watching the harbor burn from the hillside, knowing one of your civilian family members was at work that day at Pearl Harbor.
  3. Although I’m thrilled that fiction is now giving historical women a voice, it’s important for these characters to stay true to their time. It’s hard to create a strong, powerful heroine with attitudes correct to her time that is still engaging for modern readers. In The Aloha Spirit, the main character is Catholic and in an abusive marriage. Early readers said, “She should leave him!” In the 1940s, Catholics did not divorce. That was not an option for her. 
  4. Language should be realistic for the time, but archaic language not overused. A well done historical novel may include thee, shan’t or wherefore, or describe someone as fair of face rather than beautiful, but should never have anyone say, “Okay, dude.” I recently read a historical novel where one character ended everything she said with may you have goodness. The book as a whole used archaic language very well, but this phrase was overused enough to make it stand out. When the language stands out, it ruins the narrative flow.
  5. Historical fiction authors should refer to places with historically accurate names, but often there are different names for the same place. In my current work in progress, a Dakota village lies next to a lake. The village was known as Heyate Otuŋwe by the natives. Locals referred to it as Cloud Man’s Village. The Indian agent for the area called it Eatonville. The original names are historically accurate but unpronounceable, but the English names may be seen as offensive. I’ve chosen to use both, but that may change as it goes through edits. 
  6. The geographical details need to be correct. Characters must travel in appropriate conveyances for the right amount of time. If it took two days to get from one place to another, they need to stay overnight somewhere. The author needs to know if roads were mud, cobblestone, or nonexistent, and if a bridge over a certain river existed. In The Aloha Spirit, my main character leaves Honolulu for San Francisco twice. The first time was a vacation voyage to the World’s Fair. The second time was on a Navy ship after the Pearl Harbor attack. That second voyage was much longer than the first one since the ship had to zigzag across the Pacific Ocean. Both trips had to be thoroughly researched.
  7. “As you know, Bob,” is the phrase authors used to describe asides to the reader that dump their research information. Info dumps are very boring for the reader and bad practice for the author. Historical fiction authors need to do a great deal of research to get the facts, language, and details right. Since it’s fiction rather than a textbook, though, the details come alive as the character moves through a scene.
  8. A historical fiction author should tell their own truth about historical figures. Every book has been written from someone’s vision, but which one is the truth? Unless a journal or diary exists, each person’s retelling is their perception of the truth. Any author who keeps to what facts are known should be free to interpret the gaps in information as they see fit. In Bible study guides, the story of Esther has always portrayed her as meek and pure. Recently, she is being portrayed as confident, assertive, able to seize opportunities.
  9. A historical novelist’s job is to tell a story, not write a textbook. A historian can delve into the complex political and social issues of the time, using footnotes and digressions to make a point. The novel requires bigger conflict, more angst over possible solutions, and some kind of empathetic ending even if it’s not a positive one. A historical novel cannot just be a slice of the main character’s life no matter how exciting the times were.
  10. Finally, it’s important for the historical novelist to create compelling fictional characters. These characters are a compilation of research on attitudes and culture. They are the heart of the story when there isn’t enough research to support a biography of a real historical figure. Often the story can be told from these characters’ point of view as history unfolds, as in Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. 

In closing, keep in mind the words of Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

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