Guest blogs and bloggers / writing

Why I Write Historical Fiction

An efriend writer originally published this as a guest post on their blog to help me launch Against All Odds August 2020. In case you missed it there, here are my anecdotal thoughts on how to add drama to your story:

***

Historical fiction tells a story based in the past. It requires lots of facts and must wrap readers in the atmosphere of the time. Its popularity often relies on our need to make sense of the tumultuous world around us.  In my case, this is absolutely true. I didn’t understand how man thrived in a violent world where he wasn’t king and had no survival tools other than his big brain. The more I dug into the history, the more reasons I uncovered for his prowess. Now, I feel like I understand that anomaly.

That is why I write prehistoric fiction (a sub-genre of historical fiction) but there are other reasons:

  • I like to learn from the hills where man planted his flag. The reasons why he drew a line in the stand, refused to cross it seem less about rational choice than relentless passion to stand up for something undefinable inside of him. Sometimes, this choice is as simple as it seems the right thing to do. Rarely does he know what the consequences would be, or care, until s*** happens.
  • Writing historical fiction is a lot like grasping at another man’s straws. You weren’t there so you view it through the lens of other people’s experiences and then own it by building a story around it.
  • If history were a person, it would be wrapped in an old blanket muttering to itself, asking why you don’t understand it better. But no matter how many questions we ask, we can’t find out enough. Sometimes, through the elements of fiction–characters and plot–we reveal an understanding of past events that would never be gained by reading a history text.
  • Historical fiction writers (or prehistoric fiction writers) must be willing to fail. Facts are fungible, often relayed by the victor, through his lens, his experiences. The real truth is often impossible to reveal, layered so completely in opinions, emotions, and time. But that doesn’t stop historical fiction authors. We relentlessly dig, pull one thread after another until the pieces pop into place. Then we can tell the story.
  • Historical fiction writers aren’t PhDs in history. We often aren’t even experts in the history we write. But we’re good at researching, connecting the dots. We never quit, never compromise, never fudge the facts in our stories. We always peel back layers to see what is hidden beneath. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, how many books we must read. We continue until we can feel the truth.

Let me use Jean Auel as an example. She’s probably the most well-known prehistoric fiction author in the world. She’s an educated woman but not a paleoanthropologist (anthropology of ancient man) or an expert in the times she wrote about. What she did well was research and tell a compelling story based on the facts she uncovered. That turned out to be good enough for a career writing prehistoric fiction.

If you write historical fiction, what keeps you going?

#amwriting #IndieAuthor

More about being a writer

How I Afford to be a Whale Reader

How to Survive Rejection

A Few Thoughts for New Writers


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature, Summer 2021.

70 thoughts on “Why I Write Historical Fiction

  1. Like Mark Twain apparently said, “Never Let The Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story.” The story has to be key, not facts. Just started reading Sapiens, which is trying to map man’s journey from prehistoric to the present times. Though Harari is a professor in the field, I find that he still uses sweeping generalizations at times, I believe to keep the story (and his theory) on course.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this perspective. Prehistoric eras are utterly fascinating. I agree a key interest is to understand how people managed their lives in times past, with challenges that are both the same as today (e.g. interpersonal relationships) and also very different (primarily the daily task of survival that was typical for anyone but the rich until fairly recently – and remains for many). It’s a journey to another place as well as time, and can be as alien as science fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At a historical-fiction-writing workshop I attended some years ago, instructor/author David Morrell said that you’re writing about a world that no longer exists — and may have never really existed. Historical records and research documents can point the way, but we never really know what life was like in the times of yore — and that’s precisely why an author’s imagination and sense of empathy is so vital!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Jacqui – I certainly admire you and the work you do for your books – and your ability to create a story around the paleo-historical side of the information available. Stay safe and enjoy all the research possible – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting, Jacqui. Your point about wanting to understand how someone who isn’t king and has no tools can survive, really resonates with me. It’s comparable to modern fiction where surviving violence and conflict against the odds keeps readers turning the page. I’m so amazed how realistic you make the prehistoric world seem, when so little is really known about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a good worry and it happened for a while. I researched ancient man until I thought I understood him (took about 15 years) and then I had to tell the story. So, my MC Lucy wouldn’t allow me to stay lost too long!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only dove into historical fiction once, so far. I spent a lot of time at the library and pouring over old newspapers. The research is my favorite part 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I like learning about history and fiction. It seems like a no-brainer that I’d also like them combined. I’ve tended to look more at Revolutionary history and books like Johnny Tremain but reading Survival of the Fittest convinced me to expand my horizons.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. My love for historical fiction began in grammar school first with biographies of famous people. I love to learn when I read. If famous people began with simple fractured lives like mine then maybe my life would get better too. When most of my friends in school read romance novels I discovered the wonder of history with fictional characters in James Mitchner’s historical fiction books. Ken Follet with “Pillars of the Earth” grabbed my imagination. His writing ignited a flame in me into thinking maybe I could write a book of historical fiction. I discected how Follett and Mitchner layered history with characters and a story that grabbed you. Research is one of my passions. I think my novel, “Einstein’s Compass a YA Time Traveler Adventure” would have be written sooner if I had ended my research earlier. Blending historical research of how people lived, dressed, spoke, traveled and communicated is a craft I am still learning. Historical fiction can teach as well as entertain. Stay tuned for my next novel. Researching historical characters now, can you hear my little gray brain cells twinkling with delight?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The fact that you’ve done a lot of research shows in your books, Jacqui. I find myself asking, “How does she know all this stuff?” The fiction part is on trial too, as you write, because you have to remember that people of that pre-historic time might not have the same experiences to draw on as we modern humans do. So again, there is challenge even in the fictional part of your writing, and you handle it well. Love your books!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. There’s a lot more freedom in a novel than trying to write history or creative nonfiction. In the later two, you can’t create dialogue unless it was really said and can be documented. I think we can learn a lot of history by historical fiction–I have read a number that led me to go out and read historical accounts.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. One can use the fictional historical setting to illustrate recurring human themes, even current issues, to throw them into the context of the species, and illustrate the continuum of the human condition. Some things never change…love, attraction, greed, competition.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I really need a helping hand from you guys, am really sorry /!

    > Jacqui Murray posted: ” An efriend writer originally published this as a > guest post on their blog to help me launch Against All Odds August 2020. In > case you missed it there, here are my anecdotal thoughts on how to add > drama to your story: *** Historical fiction tells a sto” >

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I enjoy reading historical fiction and while I weave a good deal of historical aspects into most of my novels, I’ve always been intimidated by the thought of writing a true historical. I admire your dedication and passion for your genre. What you said about Jean Auel is perfect and really hits home. Go, you!!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I also write historical fiction, Jacqui, and I also do a lot of research. I am also not a historian although I always loved history at school. I also liked English. I think that history is only one piece of the writing a historical novel puzzle. You can do a ton of research and it ends up being a few lines in your book. It’s purpose is to give the correct historical atmosphere and not to be the storyline or plot. That is probably why most historical writers are writers firstly and then historical researchers.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I admire you, Jacqui. I love research, but I usually weave what I learn into modern tales. I’m afraid to get the details wrong if I write something historical, especially a long work. Kudos to you for doing it, and especially as well as you do.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I love your metaphor in your third point – such beautiful writing, just like you include in your pre-history novels. I’m looking forward to your next book which I’m sure will be just as exciting and compelling as the others.
    In point 4, I had to look up the meaning of ‘fungible’. What an interesting word.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Love this line. “Writing historical fiction is a lot like grasping at another man’s straws. You weren’t there so you view it through the lens of other people’s experiences and then own it by building a story around it.” You are a pro with a tremendous amount of patience, Jacqui.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would actually argue yours is more difficult, GP, because there is so much data to sift through. You have to decide what’s reliable. Me, there’s not that much from 1.8 million years ago and everyone accepts what they have is based on minute amounts of evidence.

      No, yours is the more difficult challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I love this sentence: “If history were a person, it would be wrapped in an old blanket muttering to itself, asking why you don’t understand it better.”

    I write 20th-century historical fiction, which I guess counts as historical fiction? The main reason (and this is a gut response to your question) is that I have no interest in writing about the present. I’m living in it; why would I want to write about it? When it becomes the past, then I’ll write about it!

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s an interesting perspective, Liz. I completely understand it. Yes, 20th Century is history. The proof is how many different opinions are out there about what happened. Who knew we would ever deny the Holocaust? Or the Moon Landing?

      Liked by 1 person

      • You make a good point about all of the different opinions about the history of the 20th century. My WIP is about a historical event (rather than inspired by family history), and I fear I may be veering too far in the area of imagination. I expect I’ll be able to rectify that once I’m able to get my hands on the relevant historical records. Or should I say, IF I’m able to get my hands on them!

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