What is Historical Fiction?

As the holidays close in and another year comes to a close, I’ve had a chance to think about the books I’ve written, and those on which I’m currently working, one of which is definitely historical fiction.

The working title is the name of the town in Hungary where the protagonist lived – Harkau.

Not all of the events in the story are completely imaginary, as the main character is based on someone who actually existed (my late father-in-law’s great aunt).

It was her journal, after all, a spotty, inconsistent but interesting document, which my father-in-law had translated from its original German, that became the basis for my story.

The world of this story is based, as closely as possible, on the reality of the particular time and place in which she lived, even though most characters mentioned are totally imaginary.

In other words, it’s just a story.

However, in order to write it, I have to invent a tale about things that happened during real events and, no matter what options I choose, nothing in my story can go against the known facts.

That Means Research
While true historical fiction can be interesting to write, you shouldn’t attempt it if you hate research. You’re not writing about contemporary Americans in old-fashioned costumes, after all.

You have to remember the time period and place will shape your characters with different attitudes, beliefs and knowledge than might be familiar.

I normally research heavily, since there are historical references in many of my books. It takes an effort.

At the same time, remember your characters are more than just the historical moment in which they live. Everyone has a personal story, quirks, good and bad qualities, worries and secret desires.

Remember too … you’re writing a novel, not an encyclopedia article. After you’ve done all that research, it can be tempting to try to use it all, but resist that temptation! Use only the details that naturally belong in your story.

And always remember: show, don’t tell.

It’s the same caution I mention for other fiction writing. At the end of your novel, your reader shouldn’t feel as if he’s read a history book — he should feel like he’s visited the place you’re talking about.

Avoid Mistakes
I can’t say it enough. To write good historical fiction, you need to research, research, and research some more. If your readers notice a discrepancy, they’ll step out of the story which, as an author, is the last thing you want to happen.

You need to get to know your characters’ corner of the world well enough that you can move around it in your imagination, picture your character walking down a street or sitting at a table, and know exactly what they would see, hear, feel, and smell.

You need to research until the historical part of your novel becomes almost second nature, so that you can focus on the story.

If possible, take a trip! Travel to the setting of your novel, in order to absorb the atmosphere and take advantage of any local archives, museums, or residents … who may be a gold mine of information.

What to Look For
Like all good fiction, there are special things to look for in your research. What was the social structure like? Who was rich and who was poor? How did the social classes interact?

What were the attitudes of the time toward religion, family, marriage, the role of children, gender, race, etc.? What was education like?

What kind of homes did people live in? How were these homes organized? What would all of the rooms have contained? Were there servants? What was the structure and rhythm of domestic life?

What was the physical world like outside your characters’ homes? Farmland? City? Forest? What animals and plants would there have been? What kind of crime or other dangers existed? What were the modes of transportation?

What was the political situation of the time? Was the map different? What were the boundaries of the countries? What were the current events of the time? The latest scientific discoveries? Who were the important people? What did men talk about? Women?

Where would people in your characters’ positions have worked? Where would their money have come from? What kind of food did they eat?

How did people talk? What kind of vocabulary would they have used? Give little hints of the local vocabulary so your reader gets the flavor (without annoying him with hard-to-read prose) … and be sure any slang is appropriate for the time period.

Choose Wisely
Once you’ve done all that research, it will be tempting to show off everything you know. But remember, your reader is there for the story. Use only the details that belong in the story.

But be accurate. Even though what you’re writing is mostly made up, historical mistakes can be disastrous, because they interrupt the reader’s imagination. The last thing you ever want them to do is leave the story. You want them wanting to know what happens next.

That’s why it’s essential to get the facts right. Then your readers can sit back and enjoy their imaginary journey to another place and time.

Do it right, and watch the good reviews roll in!

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My novel “Blood Lake”, a Readers’ Favorite Bronze Medal Winner and a ForeWord Indie Finalist, was also named a 2018 Book-of-the-Year Finalist by TopShelf Magazine. Winners will be chosen before the end of the month. Stay tuned!

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Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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4 Responses to “What is Historical Fiction?”

  1. Kamanda Koroma Says:

    Very enlightening.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Wonnacott Says:

    Terrific advice for us beginners. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

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