For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major history buff. One of my most beloved childhood books was a children’s history encyclopedia spanning from ancient civilizations to the Second World War. I would sit in my room for hours, staring at the crisp pages and imagining the stories behind the colourful pictures of people milling about ancient marketplaces and on the decks of Viking ships.
When I discovered the existence of historical fiction in high school, I was instantly hooked. Something about reading history through the lens of both fictional and non-fictional characters absolutely captivated me.
Whenever I went to the library or the occasional bookstore, I filled my library bags with stacks upon stacks of historical fiction novels written by my favourite authors, including: Lynn Austin, Angela Hunt, Lisa Wingate, Lisa See and C.W. Gortner.
After I delved into the world of historical fiction, I realized I wanted to write my own historical novel. But as a high school student with no prior experience writing novels, let alone novels taking place in entirely different historical periods, I felt discouraged. Regardless of my fears and the mistakes I undoubtedly made, I learned several tips while writing my first historical fiction novel.
Choose your era
The somewhat obvious first step when writing historical fiction is to select a period you are interested in. Because you will devote months, and perhaps even years, to this project, the era you choose should be one you are enthusiastic about.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to possess much prior knowledge in order to select a time, since you will gain this knowledge throughout the writing process. By the time you finish the research phase of your writing journey, you will be close to an expert.
If you’re anything like me, settling on just one era might seem extraordinarily difficult. However, once you fall in love with a historical period, it won’t be hard to immerse yourself within it. Besides, you can always turn to side projects when you feel you need a break from the novel at hand.
Keep a notebook
Whenever I begin the research phase for a new novel, I find a spare notebook I can use to keep track of my thoughts and questions as I continue the process.
I also make note of whichever aspects of the time period seem important or of interest to my novel. For example, if I am writing a story about a woman who works as a laundress in Victorian England, I will highlight facts about that specific trade.
In addition, I use certain subheadings to keep my notes organized. This is important for when you return to your notebook, and want to find details on a particular subject you remember writing about. These subheadings can include society, belief systems, architecture, transportation, food, government, technology, language, fashion, geography, economy and education. You can add more specific sections to your notebook once you gain a better understanding of the era.
Reading is absolutely crucial for writing historical fiction — or any kind of writing. Not only does reading help one become a better writer through observing the mistakes and successes of others’ work, but it also aids a historical writer in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the time.
After I’ve selected an era to write about, I head to the library in order to collect both fiction and non-fiction books based around the time and place I am researching.
Reading novels that were actually written in the specific era is helpful, as it can help you see through the lens of a contemporary person living at that time.
For example, when I was researching France during the seventeenth century, I scoured the internet for poems, plays, novels and other works penned by French authors who lived in the 1600s — many of which I found translated into English on Project Gutenberg. Doing so gave me invaluable insight into the customs, beliefs and conventions of people living in France at this time, allowing me to create believable and well-rounded characters.
Reading can also come in the form of perusing academic journals and non-fiction books written by historians. Of course, it is challenging to read long essays if you aren’t used to that sort of thing, but reading the work of historians will allow you to gather the larger political, social and religious themes of the time and place being studied.
There are plenty of other ways you can immerse yourself within the historical world being studied. I recommend checking out documentaries and other historical footage. If you are looking into an era in recent history, you can attain knowledge through speaking with eyewitnesses of historical events and other people who lived during that time.
Whenever I’m researching, I like to listen to the music my characters would have listened to. Though this might seem trivial, doing so ignites my historical imagination and gives me a fuller awareness of the world I want to portray to my readers.