Things I’ve Learned About Writing Historical Fiction

I am a firm believer that writers learn more about writing with every new project. With the ability to apply what you’ve learned, every time I have a new story idea, I find myself doing things a little differently than last time, all resulting in a better story, better writing, better execution, better revision.

Before I dived into the first incarnation of The Keegans of Banner’s Edge—way, way, way back when it was a Regency historical romance–I’d never really attempted to write an historical fiction. I’d had a lot of ideas going that way, but I was intimidated. Could I be that accurate? Could I really recreate a bygone era? Did my ideas need to be historical?

In 2010, for NaNo, I wrote 50,000 words of a Tudors-era story, which I never finished, all because The Pilgrimage of Grace fascinated me. Then I went back to the Keegans, but this time, as historical fiction.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that my next idea is also historical fiction. These are just things I’ve picked up from working on The Keegans and intend to carry on into my next project.

1. Preliminary research
I don’t why I become fascinated with certain trends, eras or events in history, but it happens. When you think of a story idea and have an idea of the time period it is set in, start looking the time period up. Even if your historical fiction is based on a real person or event, you should still read up on the Roaring Twenties, the Napoleonic Wars, or ancient Greece as a whole. It’ll give you an understanding of how certain events came to be or why your person is the way he or she is.

My new story is going to be late Victorian. As part of my preliminary research (while I finish up The Keegans’ 4th draft), I’ve come up with a reading list of both broad (What was the Victorian era?) and specific (The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan) as well as compiling a timeline of the era.

2. Notebook of notes, eventual outline
It wasn’t until after the third draft of the WIP that I realized that I was going to need a real detailed outline because that draft was beta read and there were some serious issues with the story. I wrote the outline down in a little notebook and since then, I’ve been taking notes in it (“Taylor is a contact of Beak-Nose making it a little hard for Miles to set up business in Bristol” is my last note). I cross out and draw arrows in between points of the outline I want to change as I’m going as well. It’s a central place to keep myself and the story organized. There’s something about paging through the notebook that works better for notes than scrolling through a document.

That being said, research notes are typed into the computer because I type way faster. 

3. Letting the History Dictate the Plot
This is something you’ll see a lot among historical fiction writers–and if you’re writing about a real life person or event, then yes, of course, the history must dictate the plot. Guess what? Even if your historical idea is not based around a Big Fat Historical Moment or a real person, history can still dictate the plot.

A small example: England had a bad harvest in 1799 and 1800. I didn’t know that until I was about to start the third draft, so I then was able to incorporate that.

But in a bigger way, if I’d let history dictate the plot of the Keegans a little more (instead of vice versa), then maybe I’d actually have a plot.

4. Brainstorming–“What If?” 
The other day, I was in chat with my writing group. My writer friend Krystal is already a fan of the new idea. I don’t have much of an idea of where the story is going beyond a certain point yet, so Krystal helped me brainstorm.

For me, I tend to go into my historical projects with a character, situation, or partial plot already set, then try to apply history to them. I forget the fun “what if?” aspect of writing.

Even for the most accurate, authentic, researched historical fiction idea–don’t forget that it’s fiction. You can always play the “what if?” game with fiction.

5. Being Specific
Once you have broader knowledge on your time period, it’s time to start getting specific. Your initial idea might already be the specific, so get to researching the Pilgrimage of Grace, slavery in Barbados,  or the Dollar Princesses.

But even more specific: Bristol, England in 1800. Sugar prices in 1798. The lack of active abolitionist societies in 1800. 

Specific things I’ll be reading up on as I think out the new idea: West End theater in the 1890s. Paris in the 1890s. American heiresses marrying English lords. The Diamond Jubilee.

Historical fiction addicts and writers—what would be your tips for writing and researching historical fiction? What have you learned through your own writing processes?

6 thoughts on “Things I’ve Learned About Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Taking notes is a must for me! Even if I never look at the again, though I usually have to reference them at least few times while I'm writing. I LOVE brainstorming with people! \”What if\” is how I got the ball rolling on my next project. Even if people's ideas are terrible (and if I'm talking to my sister they often are Lol!) it still helps me get my brain rolling. You know, it's not historical in the least, but I'm going to do a mini timeline for my next project. I think that'll help organize some of the more specific details in the story. It sounds like a great idea! The only historical-esque research I've done, is mostly either fact checking to make sure I'm remembering right, or making sure I'm avoiding any major historical upheavals so I don't have to mention them. Lol! The few times I've been in history, it's for a short period of time or mentioning something in passing. Random things like, when did cameras become popular, were there any major wars, what was the country called in 713 because it may have been called something else. And my favorite, Euorpean nobility ranks in the 17th century. Never underestimate the power of awesome notes. ^_^


  2. I had to do a timeline for the Keegans in order to make sure I remembered everything lol. And then I went and changed the year it was set in, so back to the timeline for that. Some–or most–of these might be totally obvious, but I sure didn't seem on other \”how to write historical fiction\” lists I'd read before.


  3. I cannot even begin to measure the hours I spent – and am still pending – in conducting research for my series of historical novels about the founding of the California missions – Father Serra's Legacy.And then, as one moves forward, other sources appear and one discovers that what once seemed to be appropriate is slightly different than first believed.This is especially true in my current effort – Leatherjacket Soldier – a novel about a major character in the Legacy series that takes place many years before the start of the other. It all places the first in a slightly different light – but it's too late to fix it.So, what does one do?One writes the current story based upon the latest available information and tries to make it relevant to the already existing works.Anyhow, it sure is fun;


  4. I can't imagine! The English portion of my novel was the easier, in terms of research, but the Barbados part was much harder. I was still unsure as to how sugar plantations worked, when I found one of my sources on Amazon. It was a family memoir and it was only published last year. Good luck on your stories!


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