All 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.”
Update: During 2020 and 2021, I’ve explored each of the seven elements in more detail and have had contributions from other authors to enrich the material. You can find many of these by using ‘seven elements of historical fiction’ in the search bar. Here’s a few to start you off:
- World Building – Culture & Society
- Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive
- Setting – Authors’ Perspectives and Techniques
- Setting – Research Sources
- The Plot Thickens
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.