7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Inside HFAll writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.” Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.” Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5th century China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story.

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell: “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

You might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

FOR MORE ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION, SUBSCRIBE TO A WRITER OF HISTORY (check the left hand margin for details).

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

45 thoughts on “7 Elements of Historical Fiction”

  1. This is all so true!! I recently finished a novel set in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. It was by far the hardest one I’ve written because of dialect and lifestyle. It took a lot of research and because it was so long ago, it was hard to come across as much as I did for the other novels. I’m going to reblog this post on my website (www.angelachristinaarcher.com) and my press website (www.longvalleypress.com). 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Angela Christina Archer and commented:
    As a historical romance author, myself, I know how hard each and every one of these elements can be at times. I’ve transported myself to 1861, 1897, 1692 (which was, by far the hardest), and now I’m working in 1930. Reposting this post from a very informative blog! Check out A Writer of History and follow!!

  3. This is an excellent analysis of the challenges faced by authors of historical fiction. And for readers, it’s an explanation of why they find some books lacking!

  4. I think the hardest part is getting the historical setting right (or as right as possible) while still just telling your story.

    Sometimes, writers end up lecturing rather than presenting the historical setting, but what bothers me the most, is that sometimes readers would like to be lectured. Have you ever come across this attitude? It goes together with the common comment, “I get it, but maybe you should explain it better.” I get this all the time, and I always think, if you get it, that means I have explained it well enough, no?
    Sometimes I feel as if historical readers would like the same, they’re not content with seeing it ‘on screen’, they would like ‘to be explained.’

    Is this just my impression?

    1. Different readers have different views, of course. In one of my novels, a few male readers wanted more of the war bits while some of the female readers wanted less. Can’t please everyone! And if you look at top historical fiction writers you will find a spectrum of historical detail. Conn Iggulden, for example, is very sparing, while Sharon Kay Penman includes a huge amount of historical fact. Both are very popular!

    2. I am writing a historical memoir. I have several Beta readers givining me feedback on rewrites. Many have done exactly what you are referring to. They want to know more about specific things that are ancillary to the story. For example my antagonist goes to Liverpool, England on a ship in the late 1800s. I am getting questions asking me to explain their dry-dock system or asking for mor infor about certain kinds of ships. I am a voracious reseacher so I am fine with this. But will some of my readers be turned off??

  5. Thanks for your observations. I love the Cornwell quote. We really must make the teachy bits intrinsic to the story.

    I have a character who is passing through some fascinating places, but observations of the architecture and historical events are the last things on her mind – so I must force myself to ignore anything irrelevant to her immediate concerns or actions.

    Our characters can’t be tour guides – much as we might be tempted to use them that way.

  6. As an editor of historical fiction I do wish every writer of the genre would read your blog. Thank you Mary. Great insight into the workings of historical fiction.

  7. I do believe your quote on world-building is not from Harry Sidebottom but actually the first sentence in The Go-Between (1953) ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ by L. P. Hartley.

  8. This is some really good information about writing historical fiction. I have been thinking about trying to write historical fiction. I liked your advice about doing some research about the time period you want to write about. It does seem like a good idea for me to read a lot of historical novels.

    1. Hi Colleen … good question. I don’t think there is a “most important” one. I would say that some get more emphasis from various authors as well as in the context of a specific era. For example, you might write a novel set during the second world war, and in this case, dialogue might not need to be too different from the way people speak today. Some of the elements are more obvious than others – setting for example. Theme is more subtle in my opinion – some themes transcend time period – the significance of family for example – other themes might reflect a specific time period. What do you think?

  9. […]   By interviewing parents or grandparents to understand better a historical event that happened in their time and home country, our ELL students were able to create compelling stories with the key elements of historical fiction. The storytelling elements included plot, conflict, theme, setting, character, dialogue, and, most importantly, “world building” which is defined in the the article, “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction” as “the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time…” (Tod, 2015) […]

  10. Talk about a post with staying power! Very thought-provoking. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a fictional work based on my life. The first book is steeped in the 1950s and I sprinkle in lots of famous names and products from that area along with attention to geographical sites and addresses. I’m wondering — when assigning a genre to such a work would it be a fictional memoir, fictional autobiography, or historical fiction? Although I’ve striven for historical accuracy, the main character — and his relationship with his father — is by far the central focus of the story. Any help greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Walter … thanks for stopping by. As to your question, I’m no expert but I think you need to gauge where you are on the scale of truth and fiction before making that determination. Some authors have gotten into trouble with memoirs that aren’t true. If you’re making a fair amount of stuff up and it’s only loosely based on your life, then I would go for historical fiction. Some might even quibble with that since you were alive during the time about which you’re writing. Sorry not to be more definitive. Please stop by again.

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