- 19 Tips for Children’s Writers
- 59 Tips for Fantasy Writers
- 18 Tips for Memoir Authors
- 9 Tips for Mystery Writers
- 32 Tips for Science Fiction Writers
- 8 Tips for Romance Writers
- 10 Tips on Writing Thrillers
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Click to have Writer’s Tips delivered to your email box
–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 Examiner.com 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.