How to Write Historical Fiction

brainstorming drafting genres
How to write historical fiction

Crafting historical fiction isn't just about recounting events from a history book; it's about transporting readers to a bygone era, weaving a tapestry of rich detail, vibrant characters, and gripping conflicts. But how do you balance historical accuracy with narrative creativity? In this post, we’ll share tips on how to write the elements of historical fiction well.

What is historical fiction?

As a rule of thumb, the historical fiction genre includes any story set more than fifty years in the past. It can include real people, fictional characters, or even a combination of both, living through actual events or time periods. Historical fiction shares similarities with contemporary fiction in terms of story elements like setting, plot, character development, and conflict. However, writing these elements from a historical perspective requires a more thorough approach from the author.

If you’re considering writing historical fiction, you might be wondering how to create a story that is both fictional and historically accurate.

How do you write historical fiction well?

As a fiction writer, you know that writing a novel requires crafting a compelling narrative, strong characters, and a satisfying ending. However, when writing a fiction story set within real historical eras, you also have to transport readers to that time period in a believable way and portray historical figures accurately. Here are some tips to help you do just that:

Research for historical authenticity

Before delving into the elements of writing historical fiction, let’s emphasize the importance of historical research. Research is crucial to achieving historical accuracy and capturing the time and place of your story. Great historical fiction brings specific historical time periods and events to life and makes the reader feel like they're experiencing this period in history alongside the characters.

For instance, when crafting her bestselling novel, City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert dedicated five years to researching New York City’s 1940s theater district. Gilbert interviewed showgirls who lived through the era, studied fashion and birth control methods available at the time, and even scrutinized dialogue and slang. She meticulously collected information, filling five shoeboxes with details to infuse into her story.

When writing your historical novel, approach research with dedication. Gather information from real documents, newspapers, journals, and books from the era. Interview individuals who lived during the period or are experts in that time. While you may use only a fraction of the collected details, research enriches your understanding of the historical context, contributing to a rich and compelling narrative.

Build a vivid world

Research is especially important when building the historical world of your novel. A novel set in Chicago 2023 will look nothing like the Chicago of 1942. When writing your novel, consider these questions:

  • Where did people live? Where did they shop?
  • What was home life like?
  • How did people travel and communicate?
  • What kind of work did men and women do?
  • How were children educated?
  • What did people do for entertainment?
  • What was the economy like?
  • What clothes did men and women wear?
  • What slang and dialogue were common in everyday life?

While authenticity is essential, ensure your narrative does not become overwhelmed by historical details. Include enough to evoke authenticity while maintaining focus on the story's core.

Develop your characters

Creating characters for historical fiction involves more than transplanting modern characters into a historical setting. Characters must be shaped by their historical context.

To achieve this, develop a character study for your protagonist. Consider their culture, heritage, education, family, life events, and socioeconomic status. Reflect on societal expectations during that period. For example, in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott presents Jo March, a character who defies societal norms. Balancing societal norms with individual character traits adds depth to the narrative.

If you're writing biographical historical fiction, you'll need to know everything there is to know about the historical figure whose life you're fictionalizing. Historical fiction writers may take creative liberties with their subjects (a famous example is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical Hamilton, about the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton), but the stories are still grounded primarily in facts.

Craft your plot and conflict

When giving your historical novel plot and conflict, be sure that the plot and conflict are believable for the time period in which you are setting your story. A family of farmers struggling to keep their land after a series of crop failures and falling prices in the Great Depression is a believable plot with compelling conflict. A story about an inventor who creates a revolutionary new product during the Depression and becomes an overnight millionaire, however, is a little less believable. 

One exercise to help with developing plot and conflict in historical fiction is to take a conflict or a scene from your story and imagine it from different time periods. In a young adult novel, the conflict might be a female protagonist experiencing gender discrimination in an academic setting. First, imagine how a contemporary young adult might handle this conflict. Next, imagine how that conflict would’ve played out differently for someone your mother's age when she was a young adult. Finally, imagine this conflict from her mother’s point of view as a young adult. Each woman might experience a similar event, but each scenario plays out differently based on the historical period in which each character is living.

Be sure to give your story a compelling plot and your hero a gripping conflict, but be sure it is one that your readers will buy into, leaving them turning the pages to see what will happen next. This requires putting the right plot with the right conflict in the right time period.

How do you get started writing historical fiction?

There are several different ways to find inspiration for historical fiction. Let’s look at two ways to approach writing historical fiction.

Place fictional characters in real events or eras

In her bestselling work The Four Winds, novelist Kristin Hannah places her main character, Elsa Martinelli, in the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Hannah breathes life into a story about how these events might have played out in the life of a single mother, using a character as the vessel to tell the story.

In The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, historical novelist Kim Michele Richardson creates the character Cussy Carter, and places her deep in the 1930s Appalachian mountains. Cussy joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky, delivering reading material to the impoverished Appalachian people. While Cussy Carter is fictional, the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky was a real event. Cussy is an outlier in many ways, and readers keep turning the pages to follow Cussy on her journey through both the Appalachian Mountains and her life.

Similarly, Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction novel All the Light We Cannot See is set against the backdrop of World War II. The novel explores the effects this major historical event has on the lives of the fictional characters Marie-Laure and Werner, who live in France and Germany, respectively. People are not separate from their time periods or settings, so be intentional about where and when your story takes place.

Write historical fiction based on the lives of real people

Another way to write historical fiction is to base it on the life of a real person, as Therese Anne Fowler did in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. While Fowler’s story is based on events from Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, Fowler takes creative liberties in imagining conversations and scenes that didn’t actually happen. This creative liberty is necessary to drive the plot forward and fill in the gaps where information is lacking.

When using this method of writing historical fiction, rely on research to accurately depict a person’s life while filling in scenes with fictional details that are true to the person’s life, personality, and experiences.

Ready to write engaging historical fiction?

Begin with thorough research, decide on your approach to character creation, construct a historically authentic world, and develop a plot and conflict aligned with the chosen time period. By applying these tips, you'll craft a historical novel that immerses readers in a captivating journey through time.


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How to Write Historical Fiction

Apr 25, 2024

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