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.

Reader Interview Series – Douglas from Warwickshire

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent
Man Reading – John Singer Sargent

Douglas and I met through A Writer of History. If I recall, he had read one of my guest posts on another blog and, as luck would have it, ‘clicked on through’ to me. Our interactions via the comments feature ultimately lead to interactions via email – I value his encouragement and support. When he volunteered for a reader interview, I knew his responses would be thoughtful and interesting. So take it away, Douglas.

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am a three score years and ten male still in a good marriage longer than a life sentence. Grateful to be born safe when bombs still dropping in London. Came to a 44 year old mother as a surprise, or given older brothers, not the daughter she wanted.

I moved around the UK to live and work ending up in lovely Royal Leamington Spa Warwickshire. A figures engineer by training so I have read and made up quite a lot of futuristic fiction.

Sadly as a child I cannot recall being read to or many books at home. When I started school other children seemed favoured by teachers as they could read, so there appeared some advantage in doing so as well. Teen years progressed from historic fiction in Biggles, Sherlock Holmes and Dennis Wheatley on to straight thrillers by Alastair Maclean and Ian Fleming, with off putting reading of Dickens and Shakespeare for school certificates.

Interests – thinking and dreaming, people watching, trains, boats and planes, social, economic and war history, computing, taking snaps, health and mental illness and walking. Reading, one of life’s great pleasures, uses up rest of my waking hours. Life highlights have been crewing in 10,000 miles of ocean sailing, piloting a plane, being a delighted passenger with my wife on Concorde, driving a couple of big steam engines and doing the Tour de Mont Blanc walk.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.   100+ books a year – five or six books on the go at any one time picking up any one depending on mood or where I have left them in the house – unless I have been hooked into a page turner. Also now, where I have left a pair of spectacles. Most reading takes place late, running past midnight into early morning.

Prefer books under 100,000 words each. Up to 2010 for previous 40 years I read mostly non fiction, four out of every five books, including biographies being works of fiction about how people wanted to be known. Reading has changed over last four years to one book out of five being non fiction but this year two books in a drift back to non fiction. I have a Kindle and can read on PC and iPad, but I do not like electronic reading. If I read a book electronically, it will have been a page turner and/or a book I was prepared to pay up to £5 / $8 for as an e book but not £10/ $17 as paperback. My ideal is a large print hard cover book.

My youngest son gave me a copy of Lee Child’s Affair in 2011 and said I would get hooked. I have read all Lee Child’s books finishing with in my view the best , his first book Killing Floor. He said he was angry when he wrote Killing Floor so he needs to get angry again. I am still trying to work out why he hooks me in having tried many of his peers with little success.

Fiction reading is mostly adventure and thrillers covering the background history in my lifetime and my parents lifetime, so anything going back pre 1900 is less interesting.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I try to get a good idea about a book before I borrow, divert from my wife’s reading pile, or buy. I often buy books originally loaned from my public library as I did for a lovely anthology – A Little Aloud , also Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. I apply my five “E” tests to books:

Engrossing and interesting – being hooked in.
Enjoyment – warm feelings about a particular book.
Entertainment – the chuckle and laughter factor.
Emotional – one’s feelings and personal intimate memories.
Educational – learning about a subject for the first time or in more detail.

Ease of reading – I read fiction for pleasure, so books with dull stories or poor structure are discarded. I will work at a densely written book if content is good, for example: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. I have a preference for a good pace but do acknowledge history can be a dry and slow subject. There are far too many good fiction and non fiction books out there to waste reading time.

Price is a factor as I am mean on the amount I am prepared to pay for fiction because I wish to read a lot. 100 new books a year at £10 / $17 or more each is too much. Generally I read and pass on fiction. Amazon used books for a few pence plus postage provides a source for most books I buy. On non fiction I am prepared to pay up to £20 /$34 for new or used books as non fiction books will usually stay on my shelves and/or clutter up our home.

I visit charity shops and lookout for a great cover, an author’s name which rings a bell or good attractive synopsis hooking me in on a back cover or frontispiece. Some new authors I have found this way include Katherine WebbUnseen and Half a Forgotten Song. The latter contains one of my all time jaw dropping scenes. Alastair CampbellAll in the Mind and Daniel Mason – The Piano Tuner.

I would like to support independent bookshops more, but pricing is an issue and I buy few new books. I purchase new non fiction books from them even if I can buy more cheaply on Amazon.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like books with a strong technical background of politics or history. I think this is because I am a non fiction reader at heart. I am not too enamoured with historical fiction pre 1900 which seems too remote. If a good story I would prefer a modern setting. I read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth because of the background about Cathedral building but found his book far too long.

I think I should try to read more classic historic fiction as when I look at 100 best books of all time lists I struggle to find books I have read. However, my inclination is weak and not improved by a web site last week which gave low star rankings to and witty comments about most of the usual 100 best books.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    Robert Harris, (25th on Mary’s 2013 survey ) is a favourite … books about Cicero and the politics of Rome rang true of recent UK politics … he even made Pompeii a great read, even though I knew the volcano would erupt. The background of aqueduct systems proved very interesting. I find his recent historical fiction settings are best. In Fatherland and Archangel he has written a different outcome to historical events.

I have a number of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks books on my shelves – some good – some great – some awful. Jeffrey Archer is a good story teller. I liked his book on Mallory on Everest and his own Prison Diaries.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    My four and five star recommendations during the last year in rank order below show how historical fiction is a strong preference for me and meets my “E” factors – sadly all have war as the historical background. However, I still prefer to read about war in non fiction.
Garden of Evening MistsTan Twan Eng – WW2
Never ForgetAngela Petch WW2
Gift of RainTan Twan Eng WW2
UnravelledM K Tod WW1 and 2
Empire of the SunJ G Ballard WW2

The self published books at 2 and 4 stand up well against the others. These front runners are out of a wider fiction field of general fiction by Morpurgo, McGregor, Holt, Hall, Cain, Campbell, Jacobson, Roteman, Baldassi, Kureishi, Shan, Silva, Dyer, Lawrenson and Moggach and historic fiction by Webb, Deighton, Wilson, Bragg, Cornwell, Follett, Goddard, McEwan and many others.
Personal lifetime historical fiction book highlights ranked by period
Piano TunerDaniel Mason 1880s
War of the WorldsH G Wells when published futuristic, now to me historical fiction c1910
Arthur and GeorgeJulian Barnes c1910
The English PatientMichael Ondaatje WW2
The ReaderProf Bernhard Schlink WW2
A Robert Harris book WW2 – a hard choice which one,
A Thousand Splendid SonsKhaled Hosseini late 1970s and 1980s
The SettRanulph Fiennes 1980s
All the above include memorable scenes and continue to give me warm feelings and most I will read again.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I am a dinosaur as far as Twitter and Facebook are concerned. Goodreads seem to me to be too female dominated. I limit my reading to reviews in the national press and on Amazon and I ask friends what they are reading and for their best book reads. The answers are not always successful as reading tastes are very personal and some just follow fashion and the crowd. Some of my best reads have been accidental. The national press in the UK are promoting some new books very cheaply; also supermarkets virtually give away new popular books. I have purchased with mixed results. The Book Lovers’ Companion reviews over 250 books and many look to be worth reading. The extracts from what the critics said are often amusing. I find face to face book club type discussions a little false often being about reader’s own egos.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?

As a reader I do look for success in balancing the educational historical factual background with the writer’s story. I prefer historical facts to be clearly stated and as far as possible verified and correct, or indicated as supposition or fantasy variation written for the story. Although as a non fiction reader I am happy to have chunks of history and fact in solid text I am sure creative writing classes will preach ‘show rather than tell’ with more dialogue. In my recent reads list above the authors have balanced the history facts and their stories very well in all the books particularly those based on war with Japan where cultural differences came much more into play and also historic Japanese and Chinese relationships. In Len Deighton’s Winter I thought the excellent WW1 and WW2 history from the German perspective overshadowed the fiction story lines.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    Read a wide range of authors and genres in library books to provide context to historical fiction. Do not be disappointed if you cannot get on with a particular author. I do not like Hilary Mantel’s books but clearly the literary establishment does. Try some self published books. Go around the on line self publisher book shops.

Try and review on Amazon all books you start and finish because the thought process does often draw out and clarify why you liked or disliked a book and informs then what you might read in the future. I always give a review as soon as I start a book and another on completion if I get that far.
Many thanks, Douglas. I particularly like your five Es test for books as well as your suggestion for readers to review the books they read. Reviews are a real gift to writers. And you’ve given us some great recommendations to consider – I can see some overlap in our reading preferences!

Men have their say on favourite historical fiction authors

Last week I published the 2013 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors list which drew over 5000 people to the blog and resulted in more than 1000 Facebook shares. An awesome result!

This week I want to follow up as I did last year with the male perspective. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to discover that men have different favourites. Quite different, in fact. With a healthy does of military adventure and war, many set in medieval or Roman times.

Subtracting the men’s numbers from the overall tally gives us the women’s favourites. In both cases I’ve listed the top twenty – all authors tied for twentieth are included.

Men's Favourite HF Authors

Completing the picture: 319 men offered at least one favourite author. A total of 301 different authors were chosen as favourites.

What do you think?

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes. Mary can also be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.