The ABCs of Historical Fiction Writing

Taking inspiration from another blogger, I offer you the ABCs of historical fiction writing.

  • A is for Author … since authors are at the centre of writing historical fiction, it’s fortunate that A comes at the beginning of the alphabet. Whether you are a new author, a seasoned author, or a wannabe author, believe in yourself, learn the necessary skills, read and analyze those historical fiction authors you admire, and remember that novels don’t write themselves.
  • B is for Books … and all the other sources – primary, secondary, tangible, digital – you will explore to truly understand the history and its relevance to your story. Dig deep and wide enough that you will feel like you’ve lived in that era.
  • C is for Characters … alternatively C is for conflict or cover design or creativity. There are a lot of possibilities and I’m having trouble choosing! (Oops, another C-word)
  • D is for Dialogue … with historical fiction, dialogue has to reflect the era of your novel, which is not to say that every sentence of dialogue should be authentic to that time, however, reflecting the era with occasional words from a given era and country helps
  • E is for Entrepreneur … as authors we are all entrepreneurs, everyday we invent new products for our customers and then find new ways to reach them
  • F is for Friends … I encourage you to discover the wonderful community of historical fiction authors. If my experience is anything to go by you will find many new friends amongst them. As a group they are generous, helpful and insightful.
  • G is for Goodreads … take advantage of Goodreads as a social medium, as a source of comparative novels, for ideas to use in your book’s descriptions or covers, for a way to judge your novel’s success, for a way to reach readers, for a place to post information about you as an author.
  • H is for History … be true to the history of your novel’s time period, but not so slavishly or in such detail that you will bore your readers. Allow the history in all its many facets to delight and surprise you. Incorporate history sparingly from the big events to the tiny details. Remember that you are writing historical FICTION.
Source: Dreamstime
  • I is for Inspiration … inspiration can come from anywhere and anything so what has become most important to me is to remain alert for it wherever I am. Your writing muse can be active at any time – for any aspect of a novel. I remember being on an airplane and watching a man who sat across the aisle and one row in front of me. His posture and profile were perfect for one of my characters. I also recall being on a links-style golf course and taking photos of the landscape and vegetation which have now been incorporated into my latest novel.
  • J is for Juggling – the juggling act of keeping many balls in the air at once: writing, marketing, building your platform, launching a new novel, querying, responding to deadlines. Did I mention writing?
  • K is for Keep Going – novels don’t write themselves. I’ve seen and heard many authors talk about keeping their “bum in the seat” so that the words, pages, and chapters all add up. As for the long term, if your first novel isn’t the success you want it to be, write the second novel, and then the third.
  • L is for Life – writing is an obsessive profession, don’t forget to allow room for all the other parts of life and for what really matters: family, friends, loved ones, community, health, and so on.
  • M is for Marketing – now you knew the M-word had to be in the list somewhere? Love it or hate it, we all have to do it. What I find most challenging is the constantly changing media and strategies for reaching readers. Techniques that worked in the past, no longer work today. However, one dimension of marketing that doesn’t change is being part of a supportive community of writers who will help you as long as you help them.
  • N is for Newsletter – you might want to check out a recent blog post I did on newsletters.
  • O is for Outline – find a technique for outlining your novel. Unless you write by the seat of your pants, as they say — a pantser.
  • P is for plot – have a look at this post on plotting.
  • Q is for Question … question the historical record, look for alternate sources, dig deep to find the nuggets that will make your novel stand out.
  • R is for readers – as blogger Erin Healy said quite a few years ago: “you will succeed as a writer only if you love your reader. And you can’t love your reader if you don’t know your reader as well as you know the characters in your novels.”
  • S is for setting – I’ve written a lot about setting such as these posts: Research Sources; Authors Perspectives and Techniques; Role of Setting in Historical Fiction.
  • T is for theme – themes are universal. Themes transcend time. Theme corresponds to a novel’s central message or idea. Circle of life, coming of age, fate versus free will, the importance of family, good versus evil, power corrupts. These are all examples of themes that have been explored in countless novels. At times, a novel has more than one theme. Every scene must either advance the plot, advance one of the subplots, develop character, or address theme; every scene contains some degree of conflict.
  • U is for unique – as authors we all look for ways to be unique in our writing, our chosen stories, our characters, our style, and the unique perspective we bring to our work. I feel that my uniqueness is still developing and have observed on a number of occasions the difference in an author’s earlier and then subsequent voice as their uniqueness develops.
  • V is for Voice – creating characters for readers requires a lot of work. One of the most critical elements in the character’s voice. Voice is a character’s defining way of speaking. It reflects their background, education, social position, history, biases, desires, beliefs, wants, and agenda. Now that’s a lot of work for one elements of writing a story. Some stories have more than one critical character and hence more than one voice to create.
  • W is for World Building – I’ve written on world building in several posts. World Building: Culture & Society; World Building: Geography; World Building – Another of the Seven Elements. You can type “world building” into the search bar for more.
  • X is for – who needs X anyway?
  • Y is for You – of course, YOU are central to the ABC’s of writing historical fiction. YOUR passion for writing, YOUR interest in a particular time, place, or person, YOUR story, YOUR techniques. Yup, it’s all about you!
  • Z is for Zen – we all need a little zen from time to time, a chance to reflect, to recharge, to get away from writing so that your characters can tell you, perhaps whisper in your ear, what comes next.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s ABCs. Please tell me what you would add.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY. Use the SUBSCRIBE function on the right hand side of the page.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Great post, Mary.
    L is also for learning and P for persistence. C for confidence works, too. So many of the writers whom I met at the beginning of my journey 17 years ago have given up because maybe they weren’t persistent enough, didn’t keep learning the craft all the time or they didn’t have enough confidence in themselves to jump over the hurdles that get in every writer’s way. It’s a journey not for the faint of heart but, for me, it continues to make my heart sing.

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