Writing historical fiction

As I’m working on a large scale historical fiction, or the story of a famous family dynasty in the late Ottoman era, that built all the great palaces, churches, mosquees, bridges, etc. here, I spend most of my time doing research on the everyday life of these people. However I recently found out that there is a thing called “over-research”. It’s difficult to stay on focus, and not jump to other interesting things in the period. As Shelly Thacker Meinhardt (I don’t know who she is, but her article is very useful) says in an article, “If you love history, it’s easy to get happily lost in research—and never be heard from again.”

Anyway here’s a list of things the historical fiction author should generally know before starting. I had, put some of them in my Scrivener Binder, and am now putting the missing ones. I thought it might be useful to other historical writers out there.

Clothing & Hairstyles
Crime & Law Enforcement
History (politics, wars, kings and queens, etc.)
Shops & Towns
Travel & Inns
Women and Marriage
Words and Names (list of commonly used terms and names from the period, helpful for naming characters and creating authentic dialogue)
Sources (list of every source used, in case you need to go back and check something—or justify some point of fact to your copy-editor)

That list looks an awful lot like the world-building categories used for fantasy and science fiction… but then, the world different from the one we live in is something they have in common. Only thing is, historical fiction gets its details from research :slight_smile:

I’m writing a long historical novel, too, and have, imo, done too much research. A lot of the areas on your list are things you can do research on after the first draft.

Clothes, for instances, can be important for a story, but if the specifics aren’t critical for character or plot at any given time, then they can be added in later when you are clearer about the storyline and the character. When you understand the story at that point and can use the clothing to underline a given aspect of character, or emphasize something the character is trying to project, or just, in general, add a bit of subtext about what is going on. In other words, to do more than just cover the characters up with period costumes.

I think most historical fiction writers do some research to get a handle on character and plot (and story arcs in general), then start writing. During the early drafts, you can make notes about what more you need to know to flesh out a given scene or to give that extra twist to a character’s downfall, for instance.

It’s much too easy for me to take off and spend three days tracking down the exact kind of wine a character might drink instead of writing the scene and just inserting a note to myself to get the right wine. Second or third draft later, that scene’s been cut and I either wasted or saved three days.

That said, I think it’s important to do enough research to understand not just the events and political leaders, but the cosmology of the times - how the people saw things, their beliefs and ‘filters’ if you will - to make your work have richness and depth.

All imo. Good luck with your novel. :slight_smile:

Actually if you’re writing a historical novel, there’s something I’d like to get different views on. I can hardly find enough information on the people I’m going to write on, simply because it doesnt exist. I tried the state archives, the libraries, all kinds of historical documents, and finally I decided to find relatives, but they too, seem to have all vanished in the late 50’s somewhere in Venice. I traced down someone with the last surname, who was an architect, and he showed up somewhere in Egypt. But the name issua, just a coincidence I found out.

This means I’ll have to fill in the gaps myself, with my own humble imagination :slight_smile: But then, I’m not so sure if this is the right approach. I wonder what other historical fiction authors do, when they’re out of info. Someone like Jean d’Arc, or a person that is half legend, can easily be filled in with imagination, but this is the 19. century I’m writing about. People that probaby died not even a century ago.

I’d be very happy to hear your views and suggestions…

That’s the fiction part of historical fiction. :smiley: You do what research you can, then let your imagination fill in the gaps.

If you don’t want to do that, or are uncomfortable doing that, then a non-fiction book might better serve your purpose.

At least, that’s my take on it.

I recall Ian McEwan being interviewed about the researching of one of his novels - probably Saturday.

The story involved a description of a surgical operation. McEwan was invited by a surgeon to watch an operation of the type in question. At first he accepted. But as the day of the op neared, he decided to decline and wrote the description from his imagination.

No critic or reader, to the best of my knowledge, has since complained.

Yes, well you’re both saying what I’m wishfully thinking. :slight_smile: Still there’s a voice inside me that keeps saying, “if you dont know it, its probably because you haven’t found the source where its told yet. Keep on doing some research.”

Like I said, this isn’t the middle ages or the story of Spartacus, but a 19. century family that lived for real, bult some splendid palaces for the sultans that are still there. Ok, I’m repeating myself. What the heck, I’ll to stick to wishfully doing what I’m wishfully thinking. I’ll make the architects fly and give the sultan the humor of Jerry Seinfeld, if thats how I want them to be.

But still, if I ever write historical fiction again, I’ll stick to the ordinary people thats stories weren’t put down on paper.


I wanted to add that I feel historical novels fill a very real need in that they bring the past to life for thousands if not millions of readers.

Historians are constrained by the ‘facts’ they can document and usually only have other historians as their audience.

We novelists can take the facts and breathe life into them. Give mere names on a page in a history book substance and passion and anger and heartache. One of our responsibilities as historical novelists is letting those in the present touch the past, if only for the hours spent reading the book.

In other words, learn what you can through research, take that and your skills as a novelist - even if far from perfect - and create a world we can visit through your words.

Allow me to give you an example of some of the circumstance that causes these doubts.

This is the fact that is known:
A poor stonemaster is coming to the capital from an eastern village. This man is the ancestors of the family, which the novel is about, and he’s being invited to work for the Sultan, by “someone”.

Now when writing, different questions arise.

  1. First of all how did he travel? Walking, horse riding, carriage…? All are possible ways during the time. Which route did he take? How long did it take? Was he married? If so, where is his wife? (Because the historical sources tells he had a wife, which he must have had to have 5 children, but there is no mention about who his wife was, and when they got married. (To give the novel a more dramatical start I begin with him traveling with his pregnant wife, who is about to give birth.) )

  2. Who is this “someone” that invited him to the capital?

  3. After coming to the capital, who greeted him? Where did he live? How much did he earn?

  4. By the way, why on earth was he invited to the capital?

The thing is, I have some names, some birth dates, and a few stories that have been told about these people. A statement like “The famous architect XXX used to live in this island.” Ok, but where on the island did he live? How did he get there? What did he do there? And most of all, why did he choose to live there? Should I decide all of these?

Another example:

He was being sent away as a punishment by the sultan suddenly. No mention about what crime he had committed. All I know is, somewhere between 1860 and 1870 he was sent away because the Sultan wanted to punish him!

Or (this one is interesting), one night he died of a heart attack, caused by a sudden shock. Naturally, I haven’t got any idea of what that shocking incident could be.

I’m more than willing to “fill in the blanks” but like I said, after a while, it becomes only the names, the era and the palaces they built that is actually about them. Everything else is imaginative. In that case, can it be called “A historical novel about the XXX family”?

I’m sure that by now, you have noticed that this is my first historical novel. :blush:

Somehow I did not notice this thread, it seems. I was and am in the same situation, I wrote a novel about a place and time I knew nothing about in the first place (still not finished), and I am organizing another one about an absolutely different time and place, about which I know a little. Searching for all those details is hard work (which instruments did they play in the evening, how long took it to walk from A to B, etc.). As a scholar, I can write “Problem A cannot be solved with the material known today, but from possible explanations 1, 2, and 3 I solution x seems to be most likely for the following reasons: …” In a novel, one has several choices: stay vague, make it a non-issue, decide for something for logical reasons or because it is dramatically more appropriate.

I am not a professional novel writer as you know, but these are some of the aspects that makes writing a novel so interesting as compared to academic work.

Enjoy finding beautiful solutions in a world that is not perfect!

I found that the greatest difficulty I had, as an academic writing historical fiction, was that I had to turn off my professorial tendency to explain. Years of lecturing and interpreting for students had turned me into Didactic Bore. My accounts of the past were logical, sequential, and dull. In fiction, you need to throw out hints and then fulfill them much later. You also need to tell stories in an offbeat, non-linear way. So if you find yourself being too straight and narrow, stop with the teacher act and think more like a story-teller, one who wants to keep readers turning pages.

Howart, even though I’m by no means an academic, I now feel I’ll have exactly the same problem as soon as I start writing. And if I can’t let go, I’ll have dug my own grave before I know, since I’ll, besides everything else, be ‘lecturing’ about people there is so little to tell about. I work in a publishing house that mainly publishes new authors. And what I over and over again witness is that a writer who doesn’t truly believe in his/her story, always hides behind facts that are somehow related to the subject, but are not directly about the story.

I’ve written three novels, all of them purely imaginative and generally taking place today. And I’ll admit I did the same mistake in all of them. I don’t think being an academic is the only reason. Somehow the first novel one writes tends to be overdosed with information and paragraphs where the clock stands still and the heroes as well as the reader has to forget everything and listen to what you have to say. The last novel I wrote turned out to be a boring half-philosophical novel, and when I finally decided to cut down on the philosophy lessons, approx. 400 pages out of the 100 went away. So this time I decided, I’ll try to write as if I’m telling a five year old sleepy kid a bed time story and must do all I can to keep him awake.

I’m slowly beginning to shape up the mood and mentality I’ll have to be in to make this work. Your warning was a blessing. I’d probably never think about it, and soon find out I was doing the same mistake, and then put a heavy object on my backspace key and make myself a coffee.

Maria, this is the sentence a historical novel, or any novel should begin with. I’ve always felt one needs to be a little bit extra idealist when writing a novel. Even Camus or Sartre would have found very few reasons to write, if they didn’t posses this amount of idealism.

Lord Lightning gave a useful link about a forum on the history vs historical fiction issue.


I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Howard Fast, I personally tried to follow everything he wrote before he died in 2003. He wrote numerous kinds of books, (all in all he wrote almost 100 novels, and numerous other kinds of books). Spartacus, Freedom Road, April Morning are among his famous historical novels, but the Lavette family saga might be considered one of his greatest works too. Starting from the San Fransisco earthquake (The Immigrants) it tells the story of two familys and the serie ends in 1986 with the last novel “An Independent Woman”. I don’t know if these can be called historical fictions since even though the story starts in the early 20. century, Howard Fast himself was born in 1914, so the serie generally covers his own life era.

Anyway having written over 50 historical novels, its interesting to know how he created different eras. In his own words:

[i]“I make no effort to simulate the so-called ‘atmosphere’ of an era,â€

I also enjoy Howard Fast, but his idea that “people, regardless of their era, are essentially the same” is hard to accept. I prefer L. P. Hartley’s notion, that “the past is another country. They do things differently there.” An obvious example is that earlier people have no concept of bacteria or ground water seepage, so they dig their wells near latrines. In writing and reading historical fiction, it’s important to honor the strangeness and otherness of the past. At the same time, it’s best not to have characters speak an antique language. Some compromise between then and now makes for an informed and entertaining historical fiction. My two cents.

PS: this is a great forum for both practical and esoteric discussion. And the software is fantastic!

It seems to me that Fast and Hartley do not necessarily contradict each other.

The basic human drives are likely the same regardless of era, but how people respond to those drives can vary enormously depending on the culture. The person who sticks pins in the image of a romantic rival is not so different from the person who vandalizes his rival’s My Space page, but both acts are defined by their particular time and place.


This sounds reasonable, and I agree that it can be applied to many aspects of history, still many of the things that form a culture do not change over time. I say culture because things like water treatment or the scientific knowledge of bacteria changes our everyday lives, but cannot be said to be the essence of a “culture” somewhere. Where I live many things haven’t changed for hundreds of years, and as I have lived in other countries, I know the same goes for them. In many ways its easier to write about ones city two hundred years ago than its to write about another country today.

The lesson I got from Howard Fast was that when you write about the past, you have to keep in mind that they are no more or no less human than you and me are. They dont feel any more special than we do and in that sense, their frame of mind don’t have to be any different from you or me. That essence does not change over time. It’s just people… wherever or whenever they are. Knowing or “feeling” this when I write, makes be write bolder.

I agree. Definitly.

I’m working on a novella inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit to the Blue Mountains during his Australian lecture tour in 1921. Because I’m writing it in the form of a letter written by ACD, I got hold of a copy of his book “The Wanderings of a Spiritualist” which is his memoir of the tour. Reading it gave me an idea of his voice which I wouldn’t have been able to imagine.

The voice in which I’m writing the piece is not ACD’s voice, though, because he has this ironic, digressive style which wouldn’t suit the dramatic tone I want. I’m using certain of his attitudes which came through in his book, some of which seemed to be unconscious and some of which I’m probably projecting. The style is not ACD’s, though, nor is it my own. It’s a synthetic style which I hope while give the illusion of ACD’s personality while meeting my needs for the story.

I’ve also looked at the history of the Blue Mountains, and while it’s given me material for colour which I wouldn’t have been able to imagine on my own, I’m playing fast and loose with the facts where it suits my dramatic purposes. I’m having ACD meet artist Norman Lindsay, whose work ACD admired in real life but whom he never met. I’m including an airplane which was built locally, but I’m dragging it back a good ten or fifteen years from its real historical period, and I’m giving it a fate it never had in real life. I’m inventing characters who meet certain dramatic needs I have for the story and who advance certain ideas of my own which have nothing to do with either ACD or the Blue Mountains. I’m inventing events that couldn’t possibly have happened in real life and elaborating on the events of an entire week that ACD covers in about three pages in his memoir. Because I have a story to tell that was inspired by real people and events but which I need to go way beyond the facts. It’s going to be a better story that way.