Historical Fiction Tips

Novels that take place at least fifty years in the past are categorized as historical fiction. This genre is not to be confused with historical romance, a genre whose books are often referred to as bodice rippers. Such stories are set in the past, but they use a formulaic structure to focus on the vicissitudes of the relationship between the heroine and hero. Historical fiction, on the other hand, may tell a variety of stories in a variety of ways as long as the characters’ lives unfold in a particular period of history and reflect actual circumstances and events endemic to that period. These novels bring history to life in such a way that the reader feels as if he or she is experiencing it firsthand.

This broad definition covers a variety of techniques. Some authors tell the story of historical events by fictionalizing the lives of the people who were actually there. Others use historical figures in a story that arises exclusively from the author’s imagination. On the flip side, fictional characters can be placed in real historical situations. Or both characters and situations may be fictional as long as the story is placed in a real historical period. Many novelists employ several of the above to tell their story. My novel Last Stop Freedom, a story of slavery and the Underground Railroad offered for download below, is such a work. The major characters are all fictitious, but a number of the minor characters actually existed. Most of the action comes from my imagination, but it plays out within the authentic context of 1850's America.

Historical fiction may also take a less traditional form. Three of the most common are time-shift stories in which characters are transported to a different historical period, alternate histories in which historic events are manipulated in such a way that the outcome is different from actual history, or historical fantasies in which the characters populate an historic time period but experience things beyond the natural world. Multiple-time novels in which the action alternates between time periods also fit into this genre.

No matter the subject or style, the key to successful historical fiction is accuracy and authenticity. These qualities can be achieved only through extensive research. Before a single word is committed to paper, the writer must be well-versed in every aspect of life in the historical period in question. What did people eat and drink? Where did they live? What did they wear? How did they communicate? What everyday objects surrounded them? How did they get around? What were their customs and code of behavior? What economic, political and religious attitudes prevailed? These facts should be woven into the story in such a way that they lend credibility but do not take over the telling, which must always remain paramount. Likewise, care must be taken that some out-of-time detail does not slip by. This requires constant checking and double-checking, a task the internet has vastly facilitated.

Good historical fiction is like a time-travel machine. It comes in many variations, but they all share one defining characteristic: they fictionalize a specific time in history in such a way that the reader comes as close to “being there” as it is possible to be in the real world.

Julia Bigsby is the repressed daughter of a widowed parson in 1850's Troy, New York. Desperate to escape her dreary life, she agrees to marry Nathaniel Hamilton, who owns a cotton plantation in South Carolina. She soon finds herself a virtual prisoner in a life she increasingly abhors. The only bright spot is her growing affection for her slave maid Fanny. When Nathaniel’s lust for Fanny leads to family chaos, he prepares to sell her away. Agents of the Underground Railroad help Fanny plan her escape to freedom. Julia cannot bear to remain behind, and she decides to flee as well. Thus begins a harrowing journey that tests the ingenuity and resolve of both women.

Return from Historical Fiction to Home