Genre tips

8 Tips for Historical Fiction Writers

clothingOver the last months, I’ve been writing a series on tips on writing within a genre. So far:

Today, let’s talk about historic fiction. I am writing a series (The Evolution Files–my protagonist is pictured to the lower right) still in draft form that could generously be labeled ‘historic thriller’. It includes all the elements of the thrillers I love–superhero who does the impossible, big goals like save the world, flawed good guys who you love anyway–but set far back in time, in my case, 1.8 million years ago.  Because this era precedes farming, community living, fire, religion, and the wheel, I concentrate on core strengths that shaped man to dominate Earth, that helped him survive when other species didn’t, that evolved the 21st century man who is spiritual, cultured (in a denotative definition of that word), a problem-solver, with a solid center.

These characteristics are critical in historic fiction.

Here’s the fun part of historic fiction: Writers explore a world far behind us that made us who we are. As Adrienne Morris (author of the Historic Society’s Editor’s Choice selection, House at Tenafly Road) says:

My wires hum when I’m ruminating over the past, digging up shards of history and eternal truths. … Modern fiction is just too sardonic, too grating and too pessimistic for me. I wanted stories about families and memories not infiltrated by post-modern irony. I don’t for a second think that post-Civil War Americans had all of the eternal questions answered, but what they did have was a sense that however wrong they might get it, they were trying to be moral, decent people and there was no shame in it.

If you haven’t discovered her wonderful Middlemay Farm blog, go visit. She shares so much hard-to-find detail on historic life, I find myself constantly engaged by her posts.

If you’re considering writing historic fiction, here are some ideas to consider:early man

  1. You must like research. Details, settings, characters, dress, events must be accurate in historic fiction. That’s what readers look for. It’s as close to creative nonfiction as fiction gets because the author presents a story that absolutely could be true based on past events.
  2. Verify the authenticity of your setting, characters, and events. Use primary sources–not newspaper accounts or magazines or blog posts. Have a collection of websites that share these details through the eyes of those who experienced them. This is what makes your novel stand out–the realism.
  3. Wherever possible, be your character–walk in their old-fashioned shoes (how’s it feel), work with your hands, wear their clothes (what chafes? what’s harder to do because the hoop skirt is in the way?)
  4. Include the smells of the era. Modern man is effective about blotting out the scent of life, but not so much in bygone days. Smells would assault your characters in everything they do–and they’d get used to them. Share that with readers.
  5. Setting is paramount in historic fiction. It’s one of the few genres where you include minutia of surroundings. Why? It is often the reason readers pick your book–they want to know how life in that world was lived as much as they want to follow the exciting plot. Think of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire (I’ll review that in June). Sure, the ancient battle of Thermopylae was front and center, but as fascinating was how Spartan soldiers prepared and their wives adapted to a life where brawn and battle was paramount.
  6. Words used and syntax must be accurate. Beware of that. It’s easy to include ’tissue’ when they had no such equipment for stopping a runny nose. Even in idioms. My early man character cannot ‘gird’ himself for battle because those hadn’t been invented yet. Nor can he count. Do research to find out how they phrased common ideas.
  7. Geography changes. Lakes dry out. Rivers get dammed and disappear. Forests shrink. Know what that was for your setting at the time of the story.
  8. Despite the importance of history in this genre, you are a storyteller first. If people want a detailed history, they buy a history book. Your story must include fascinating characters, dialogue, a story arc, crises, climax, subplots and plots.

A warning: This genre requires more research than any other genre (save creative nonfiction), so don’t pick it if you aren’t in love with learning. Lots of other categories allow you to delve into emotion, feelings, characters much more than this one.

If this is your area, what did I miss? I’ll update these tips in about a year and would love to include your ideas.

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–Photo credit: Yuelcalnabi

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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69 thoughts on “8 Tips for Historical Fiction Writers

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  9. Over at my noir fiction blog, I have a few short stories that take place at various times in American history. The furthest I’ve gone back so far is Prohibition. I try to be subtle about the setting though. Very often I don’t include dates only just small pop / sports culture references that readers will recognize if they are familiar with the period. I try to focus on the story and the characters first and then incorporate the historical references. I still have a lot to learn and I found this very helpful and will keep these points in mind for future reference. I’m new to the whole blogging thing and although I’ve always enjoyed writing I gave it up for many years before picking it up again recently. I’m always trying to learn more so I can improve my writing so I’m glad I found this blog as I think it’ll be very helpful for me.


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  13. Thanks, Jacqui. But it’s in the hands, head and heart of the judges now. Of course, your own reaction to Khamsin will be tremendously welcome.

    But you could vote for my “PASHA, From Animal Shelter to A Sheltered Life.” The cover made it into the July competition here:

    Just click on “Vote Daily,” check out the thumbnails, go down to the list and vote for your favorite daily – hopefully it’ll be Pasha (he’s the only cat on there).
    You might even want to enter your own cover for a future month ($5).

    Here is Pasha’s own blog where I feature authors with pets (and books!) –


  14. Jacqui, you just made my day! That calls for another cup of coffee. However, I think you’ll need quite a few of those plane rides to be swept up by the Khamsin – and don’t miss the appendices if you need clarification for anything (one reviewer did and later wished he hadn’t – even though they are listed in the ToC). Of course, I really will love to hear your reaction.
    As to your own paleohistoric undertaking, you have me beaten there with the research.
    Thanks again for the vote of confidence!


      • “Wikipedia: c. 7000 BC: Neolithic economy was established on the island of Crete (domesticated sheep or goats, pigs and cattle together with grains of cultivated bread wheat)” – that’s what I am shooting for in “Khepri, The Winged Scarab” – dealing with an exodus from Crete to the establishment of the Badarian culture along the Nile…(Dr. Zahi Hawass may or may not crush his fedora over that).

        That would be for what is planned to become essentially a “prequel” to Book 1-Khamsin. Books 2 and 3 are what I would call “Archaeological Thrillers” dealing in 2012/Arab Spring, followed by the 2014 dystopian “After the Cataclysm.” (All have the ancient Egyptian golden tablets in common.)


  15. Great blog feature, Jacqui. The research for my Egyptian Old Kingdom (3080 BC) fiction was not only fascinating, but actually frustrating over the years as new discoveries came to light and I had to go back and tremble, ‘Did I do that right?’ HF in its best form must be complex. Hence, the broad public is often too impatient to read a lengthy exotic tomb…
    Oh well, I have threatened to start writing tantalizing erotica. Oops, that, too, demands a good measure of research…yeah, right; in a retirement community! And there bursts another dream bubble.

    I am enjoying your blog features with its animated comments.


    • How funny you’d bring up how things change. In my IWSG post next week, that’s exactly what I’m whining about. Stuff in my WIP I started 4 years ago has changed and now I have to update.

      It’s interesting that happened in your early history field also. Can you share what that was? I love reading how ancient people lived.


      • Sure, I’d be happy to – I assume you are referring to real HF (and not my irreverent remark about “the other” stuff).

        A year and a half ago, I did a blogpost about the Minefield of Writing Ancient Egyptian Fiction (it came from research of my “Khamsin, the Devil Wind of the Nile,” HF novel which I started when there was no Internet yet!
        You can glimpse the article here:

        In Book 5 (4 isn’t out yet) of the “Legends of the Winged Scarab” I am planning to go back to 6500 BC – the “origins of the real Egyptians”…You’d think I could make everything up. Alas, not. we know the Sahara was a green savanna with a wide river and lake, and the Nile delta was huge. It’ll be a bit of challenge.


      • I just bought Book 1–Khamsin. I can’t wait to read your take on those times. I will love to read about 6500 PC, too. My series goes back to 1.8MYA. That’s paleohistoric. Lots and lots of resarch.

        I have a 5-hour plane ride coming up Friday. Think of me lost in ancient Egypt…


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  20. Jacqui, I stumbled onto here from another blog ( and am glad I did. Your theme is close to my writer’s heart as m own research caused me lots of trouble, doubt and – eventually – satisfaction.

    (If interested, see my own blog article about the pitfalls of writing about Ancient Egypt.

    Meantime, thanks for telling me that I didn’t spend all those library & museum hours in vain – and if you ever wanted to review KHAMSIN, The Devil Wind of The Nile, it’s yours (just hinting).


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  22. Reblogged this on Maryde and commented:
    As a Historical writer and reader, more than any other genre, I found this blog by Jacqui Murry very interesting. Any writers who wish to take on writing a Historically based or set novel, may like to take on board some of Jacqui’s important tips. Interesting of them all for me was the geography. When you start your research, it’s amazing how many landforms have changes and rivers etc are no longer where they once was.
    Thanks for letting me share Jacqui.


  23. Of all the genres I write I Love Historical Romance Fiction best. And here you have covered most important points quite accurately Jacqui. As much as I enjoy the truths of Historicals, I see there are many writers straying off the path. This may be authors using poetic licence to bend history to suit their story, I’m not sure. There are many debates on whether it is OKAY to write a HIstorical novel that doesn’t quite fit the mould. I like real facts to be unchanged, details of the era must suit, and yes using all the senses, Sound, Smell, Taste is another good one for back when, Feel/touch, as much experience as possible builds a realistic world.

    Your book sounds intriguing. Can’t wait for it 🙂


    • Historic Fiction can be a powerful learning tool, but because it’s ‘fiction’, authors–as you say–need not tow the factual line. My anger comes when my colleagues at school present these fiction histories as though they’re fact, with no effort to discuss where they vary. Suddenly, perception is reality and the past is changed.


  24. Interesting post and some good tips. I love research too, but have so far focused my research on more current topics, with a particular interest in human nature and how it’s impacted by various stressors.

    My only objection is your quote from Morris, stating that post Civil War people were “…trying to be moral, decent people and there was no shame in it” This to me is a gross generalization kind of like “back in the good old days people were…” Post CW was the time of carpetbaggers, Jesse James, robber barons, Al Capone…you get the picture.

    Never was there a time in history when people were all trying to be decent, but in the past and perhaps even more so in the present, most people are trying to survive, thrive and do some good in the world. We just hear more about the perverts and sociopaths these days, but they have always been there.

    So, suggestion for historic fiction writers would be to make sure your characters are still as varied, authentic and driven by a variety of human needs, even back in the good old days.


  25. I recently read a historical fiction, “In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal” by Kenize Mourad, set about 200 years back. While it was a good read, the one doubt nagging me throughout was historical accuracy. Your statement “you are a storyteller first” puts my mind somewhat more at ease.


    • I had a similar experience with “Tongwan City”. It was so hard to believe it was true, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Of course, it was historic fiction so there was wiggle room.


      • You give me [and surely others] so much inspiration and hope that I feel one day I will really write a book I wanted to write [as Adrienne did] that I’m happy with. Recently I wrote a piece on an eight year old refugee girl riding a boat and train for over twenty four hours without going to toilets – escaping from an old warlord…forced marriage, child slavery etc. After arriving at a refugee camp near Calcutta with thousands of people without any toilet facility she was forced the full force of the nature. What could she do? Her mother advised her just to shush the pigs eating raw human excrement, make a room for herself, close the eyes to ‘shut’ all those nasty stuff around her – and the pigs and the masses of people and do the business avoiding eye contact and the shame of doing the toilet. I was advised by some critics to avoid this ugly scene from the Western audience. I was a bit down. Now I’m delighted with your comments. Thank you Jacqui. Arun


  26. One of my pieces of advice for historical writers is to check what happened 20 years before your setting. My piece is set in the 1920s and I had to be aware of the father of my character being off in France for World War I and adjust the age of the youngest sibling.


  27. Wow, Jacqui. thanks for the kind words. I would add one really great bonus to writing about the past–research librarians. They truly restore your faith in humanity with their enthusiastic devotion to helping researchers.

    Incidentally, I never really thought I was writing historical fiction until after. My original intent was to write the kind of book I was having a hard time finding –long, complex and full of characters I loved–so I wrote it myself. The research came naturally since I just LOVE reading history and discovering tidbits that bring the past to life. 🙂



    • Hello Adrienne, forgive me for butting in but as an aspiring historical novel writer your words about ‘long, complex and full of characters’ books to me are like a drop of ‘amrit’ to me. I’ve been dreaming of writing a historical novel based a long…..etc that some say will be difficult to handle. I know it will be, but your words have given me a dose of ‘amrit’ – a medicine from heaven that relives a deadbody. Thank you.

      And Jacqui, what more can I say about your contribution to our – the novice writers – writing skills for all your ready-made advice and help! Thanks again, especially this one on historical novel that many people discourage me tackling with long…etc Your hard work is our ‘profit’ Jacqui. Arun.
      What’s Adrienne’s website address?


      • Yeah, Jacqui I now found Adrienne’s MiddlemayFarm website. I agree with you it’s a real treasure trove! She should be the first American to win the Booker Prize.


      • I am thrilled to help! Probably the greatest adventure of my life has been taking the tiny steps, that led to bigger steps writing my first novel. If it is your passion please don’t let fear or the kind but misguided advice of friends stop you from doing what you dream about.

        When I first sat down to write I thought I’d be lucky to get 100 pages down–the original manuscript was over 1000 pages and while it was challenging it was so much fun (even after having to cut some parts out to make a smoother story).

        People wonder if they should write because maybe no one will ever read it–here’s how I deal with that concern: I imagine how I would feel if I discovered a long gone relative’s novel (so when you write if all else fails it’s your gift to the future). I’ve also read my own novel over and over and I still laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad ones–you can have that same joy. Of course having others enjoy your work is great, but the real pleasure is in the writing. Good luck, Arun!



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