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What Are the Best Tips for Writing Historical Fiction?

Crafting historical fiction requires a delicate balance of fact and imagination. Start with meticulous research to ground your story in authenticity. Then, weave in rich, period-appropriate details to transport readers. Develop characters that resonate with modern sensibilities while remaining true to their era. Remember, your narrative should enlighten as it entertains. How will your tale illuminate the past? Continue reading to find out.
Michael Smathers
Michael Smathers

One of the appeals of writing fiction is the ability of the writer to create his or her own world while paying attention to reality only as much as would facilitate the narrative. More so than in other genres, writing historical fiction requires careful attention to detail to maintain readers' willing suspension of disbelief. There are also several conventions of historical fiction to keep in mind. Depending on the specific genre of historical fiction such as historical fantasy, alternate history or period piece, historical fiction can be more difficult to write but more rewarding. An advantage could be that works set in the real world require less world-building by the author.

The setting of the work determines the amount of research necessary. Some settings, such as Nazi Germany or the Roman Republic, are widely studied and information is readily available to readers; historical inaccuracies can therefore be easily spotted. Other settings are less well-known to the average reader. Also, settings further in the past tend to have less reliable information available because of records being lost or altered over time. When writing historical fiction, the setting needs to be chosen carefully.

A stack of historical fiction books.
A stack of historical fiction books.

Adherence to clothing fashions, culture, dialogue and politics is important to the integrity of the narrative when writing historical fiction. For example, many American locations before the 1960s and 1970s had a highly conservative culture. A character with liberal views is unlikely to exist or be socially accepted during such times. This will affect plot and characterization.

Counterfactual, or alternate, history presents another common problem when writing historical fiction: the historian's fallacy. This occurs when writers treat historical figures as though they made decisions with full knowledge of the consequences. Another problem is the butterfly effect, or small changes that occur over time. The further back in history a writer sets the point of divergence into an alternate timeline, the more drastic the changes that will occur.

Fictional works that deal with war should be handled exceptionally carefully. War rarely has pure black and white morality; even the "heroic" side of a war can commit atrocities. When writing historical fiction, authors must also be careful not to oversimplify the causes of war. Instead, they should try to represent the war with a recognition of its complex network of causes and effects.

Similarly, it can be tempting to paint famous historical figures as outright heroes or villains. They should be written as people, with flaws and/or redeeming qualities. Writers should do their best to obtain speeches, photographs and other relevant data about historical figures whenever possible.

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Discussion Comments

@pleonasm - I think established writers say that sometimes, but they mean they don't want to read new stuff in their own genre, in case they unconsciously steal ideas or are influenced. I don't think any historical fiction authors worth their salt will have skipped the great classics of their own genre, like for example Gone with the Wind.

And it would be a shame to miss out on books written during the time they want to base their own work on. If you're writing about Victorian England, for example, to not read anything by Charles Dickens would be a real loss.


@pastanaga - To be honest, I don't think that people who don't read very much historical fiction should be writing historical fiction. Which is not to say that if you never read it, but have a good idea, you shouldn't pursue that idea. But read as many books on the time you're interested in as possible before starting to write, or at least before starting to edit your writing.

That's the secret of writing a novel. You have to write and you have to read. I've heard too often people saying that they don't want to read within their own genre in case they get contaminated. Well, if you don't want to read it, how can you expect anyone else to?


This is excellent advice, particularly pertaining to making the characters in historical fiction out to be human, rather than as good or evil depending on how history views them.

One thing I would suggest before you begin to do more than formulate an idea for your novel is to have a look online for lists of what other writers and readers of historical fiction find to be common flaws and cliches in the books. This is particularly vital if you haven't read very widely in the genre, as all too often someone will think they've developed a new idea, only to find after it's half written that there are a dozen books exactly like it.

Once you've done that, make sure to decide exactly when and where you are setting your novel, because the difference of even ten years, or twenty miles can completely change the speech and dress of the people you're writing about.

Historical fiction writing is quite a long process but it can be very rewarding if you stick to it.

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    • A stack of historical fiction books.
      By: carballo
      A stack of historical fiction books.