7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Apparently, more than 10,000 people have read this post since I wrote it in March 2015. Who would have imagined? As it seems to be so popular, I thought I’d repeat it today. Enjoy!

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 5thcentury 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.”

If this post was helpful, 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 READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Historical Fiction Without the Famous

I had the pleasure of being included on a panel at the HNS Denver conference that took place from June 26 to 28, 2015. The panel topic was Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction Without the Famous. My co-presenters were Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let The Read Books and Beatriz Williams, author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant and other novels. Jenny explored the contribution stories with fictional historical characters can make and why we so enjoy reading about them. Beatriz brought the marketing perspective, explaining how agents and editors look at fiction without the famous.

My role was to discuss relevant reader data and provide a writer’s perspective on creating fictional characters.

First the data about readers.

Readers characters and settingsIn the 2015 survey, 84% of readers selected ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events’. This is reflected in the favourite titles mentioned by readers where only 23% of favourite fiction mentioned concerns famous historical figures. As mentioned in the main report, these numbers are good news for authors who prefer to write about fictional characters.

 

After showing other survey data I summarized the challenge for authors: you need to bring the past to life with a great story that helps readers learn using superb writing so that they feel immersed in time and place. Furthermore, make sure your historical details are accurate and make sure you create interesting and complex characters who behave realistically to their time period.

A tall order. And what about developing characters?

Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series, offered this comment: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Authors have to subtly immerse readers in those differences using characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, setting, theme and world-building.

What elements go into that? To make your characters come alive you need to investigate an enormous range of topics – some in more detail than others depending on your story.Creating Fictional Characters in Historical Fiction

Needless to say this list is incomplete.

Dialogue should suit the times without being cumbersome to read or difficult to understand. Authors can do this by dipping occasionally into vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past. Someone uttering the phrase “dog’s breath” is clearly not of modern times. Plot, of course, will be enhanced by including upheavals and major events of the time period. Readers expect such events to have a bearing on the twists and turns of the story. And although you could argue that conflict transcends time, characters must still experience conflict in the context of their time.

Research is absolutely critical and, as Deanna Raybourn, author of A Curious Beginning, said, “Research brings colour and texture, and a well placed detail can anchor a story in its time – but the novel should not be so fact-heavy that it is like a text book.”

Emma Darwinauthor of A Secret Alchemy, has been writing a book on writing historical fiction. She says the worst is when you write with a history book in hand and “The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.”

It was a pleasure to be included on the panel and to attend the HNS conference where I met so many wonderful people and attended great sessions on many aspects of writing historical fiction.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.