10 Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

Masterclass Historical FictionI found this on Writer UnBoxed, and thought it worth a share, but you need to plow through the intro to get to the ’10 things’ so I thought I’d summarize for you, and link you to the post for more of the gory details.

10 Rules for Rewriting History

by  Jennifer Cody Epstein,  the author ofThe Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai

  1. History rides shotgun.  Remember that what you’re writing is a novel—not a history book. This means history should be used only to heighten and deepen your narrative, and not the other way around.
  2. Write right awayor at least, feel like you could if you had to. Many historical novelists put off writing until they feel that they’ve “researched enough.” If your story is strong enough, though, you should be able to write it (or much of it) immediately—albeit with lots of blanks and “[TK]s”
  3. Research like hell. That said, you dohave to research—and the more you do the more authentic your book will feel. I probably read about twenty books for each novel, and countless online pages and papers.
  4. The 30 Percent Rule: It’s one of the depressing realities of researching: the vast majority of it probably won’t make your book. In my experience, between unused index cards and final-final edits I only use about 30% of what I’ve learned. Resign yourself to this likelihood.
  5. Talk to real people. For both of my books, I’ve found that some of my most vivid information comes from people, not pages—and that interviewing and observing subjects related to your story will add real-life nuance that text alone won’t.
  6. Watch out for big-shots. One of the coolest things about HF is the writer’s omnipotence: you can put anyone/thing anywhere you want them.Don’t abuse it. Just because the Fitzgeralds were in Paris during the period about which you are writing doesn’t mean you write about them, no matter how much you loved Gatsby. If their paths and your characters’ would naturally cross, go ahead (but don’t overdo it!). If not, leave them out.
  7. Vet vernacular. One of the hardest tasks a historical writer faces is finding language that fits his time, place and characters. On the other hand, one of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have your Plymouth-bound pilgrim say “gnarly.” Ok, so most of you probably wouldn’t do that. But I’ve been surprised by how even seasoned writers can slip up, even if just subtly.
  8. Make a timeline. It may be all those history tests I failed, but one of the hardest things for me is keeping historical dates straight. Consequently, I find making timelines essential.
  9. Check your facts. Sounds obvious, I know. But it’s incredibly important to get stuff right—with each mistake, you lose a little more of your reader’s faith. In the best cases, these readers will politely inform you of your screw-up (I recently got a helpful one-pager from a well-schooled smoker about 1940s cigarettes, and why Winston wasn’t one of them).
  10. Free your mind (and the rest will follow). It may seem strange, but another hard part of fictionalizing history is just allowing yourself to fictionalize. In fact, the most common question I get from students and readers is just that—essentially: when is it o.k. to make sh** up? The answer varies from writer to writer, of course. But in my case it’s pretty simple: if it can’t be easily proven that something didn’t happen, you can write as though it did.

5 thoughts on “10 Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I particularly like the last one — free your mind, allow yourself to fictionalize. I’m all for freeing my mind to let whatever genre I’m working in have its full expression. For poetry — free my mind for the most layered, clear, vibrant words to hold space for the imagery. For memoir — free my mind to share in fullness, putting down shoulds and fears that get in the way of telling my truth, remembering fearlessly. For non-fiction, free my mind to embrace surprise, to speak with confidence about events and the way I see them. I guess we can all fill in these blanks, what it means to free our minds…. What a difference it makes!


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