Writing Historical Fiction

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. This is a sad day in American history. Fifty-eight years ago, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Most who were alive on November 22, 1963, remember that day. It’s like Pearl Harbor for those who were alive on December 7, 1941, or in more recent years, September 11, 2001. I was only five years old in 1963, but I still remember when my father told me the news. I recall my mother’s tears.

I’ve always admired authors who write historical fiction. There are several definitions of the genre. The Historical Novel Society defines it as works “written at least fifty years after the events described.” Others claim it is novels set before the mid-twentieth century, and still others say anything twenty-five years in the past meets the definition.

Whatever one you use, writing historical fiction requires a lot of research. Knowing someone with first-hand knowledge is a plus. While you may know an aging World War II veteran, you won’t find anyone who was alive during the Salem Witch Trials or the American Revolution. Fortunately, we have a lot of resources to rely on, and with the Internet, the possibilities are almost limitless.

But what about those times when we write about events that happened during our lifetime? Our own Mae Clair set her Point Pleasant series mostly in the early 1980s. I think of those times as “modern” yet so many things have changed since then.

Things we take for granted today weren’t available then. Most people had land lines in those days. Motorola made the first cell phone in 1973, but they didn’t become popular until the 1990s. Use of personal computers wasn’t common in the early eighties and the world wide web wasn’t introduced to the public until 1991.

My short story House of Sorrow takes place primarily in the 1960s. I relied on a lot of memories, but I still had to do my research. In one scene, I mentioned brutal murders which occurred in Los Angeles during August 1969. I almost used the term “Manson Murders” because that’s how we refer to them today. A little research revealed the killer’s identities and subsequent arrest didn’t occur until later that year.

The only other time I’ve delved into historical fiction is a time travel story set between modern times and World War II. Once again, it took a lot of research.

For someone who once thought they would never write anything other than modern-day fiction, those two pieces were among my favorite to write. It could be because I love history.

Although I’m not an expert, my best advice to those who are considering writing historical fiction is “Do your research.” If you know someone who was alive during the time frame of your story, talk to them. Ask them what life was like. Many older citizens enjoy sharing their experiences. And your visit just might make their day brighter.

Have you written any historical fiction? What advice would you offer others?

73 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I have researched english monarchy and knights templar for many years, but getting to a point that history needs something extra to put some life into it. Reading this site interests me, the first steps into writing historical fiction.

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  2. Great post, but even the idea of trying to write historical fiction is scary.
    Maybe history degrees block the way ?
    Research wouldn’t be a problem, and I do enjoy some historical fiction, but I agree with Alex Craigie. the details have to be correct, not just for that period, but for that character. That said, my favourite hf now is Lindsay Davis’ Falco and Flavia series.. Ancient Rome . with a inspired mix of fictional and real characters. Any parallels with our own time no coincidence.

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  3. Great piece Joan.. I am writing a second world war novel set in a village where I was born and thankfully have all of my mother’s memories passed along and as she lived to 95 they were often repeated! Thanks goodness..I was also able to pick up two books by local historians which are being very helpful. I love the research involved. I am married to a sci-fi buff and although it is an imaginary world… they are sticklers for what is and what is not feasible.. xx

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  5. The amount of research that historical fiction requires intimidates me, Joan. I applaud you and authors like you who are so meticulous about getting it right. The nice thing about fantasy is I get to make it all up. Lol. Happy Writing and Happy Thanksgiving.

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  6. I refer my novel, Tripio, as “contemporary historical fiction, as it take place in 1992. I used journals I kept during those years as a Starbucks partner to form the backbone of the novel. I had no idea the events I recorded such as the Starbucks IPO would be such significant events. I did a little research to confirm the dates but was surprised at just how much I could remember when prompted by the journal entries. Thanks!

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    • I’ve recently read a couple of books set in the early 1990s. I like your term. You have a treasure with those journals. Story ideas can come from all sorts of places. Can you imagine the tales a bartender could tell? 🙂

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  7. Historical fiction is my favorite reading genre. I have my favorite eras and authors I read, and every book I read I marvel at the research and knowledge that goes into that type of writing. Great post Joan! ❤

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  8. I don’t do much in the historical fiction realm, but I did one novel with ancient Egyptian facts in it. I loved researching that, and I learned so much. I am not confident in my research that I would get everything correct, and I know someone would find flaws with it.

    I agree about talking with people who can be of help with historical fiction, but I also know, not everyone remembers things the same. You may want to fact check if you use people with your research.

    As Staci said, my parents and grandma have some of the best stories, and they happened before cell phones, internet, and social media.

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  9. Hi Joan, I enjoy writing historical fiction too. In fact, all three of my YA and adult books are historical novels combined with another genre. I certainly do a lot of research for my novels and I create an entire timeline of the events of my character/s and the greater war or historical event I’m writing about. People fighting in wars belong to company’s and battalions so you have to decide on which company in which battalion’s historical thread you are going to follow and make sure it works for your book. You can’t have your character jumping about all over the place in an unrealistic way or historical buffs will soon call you out. I had to amend some of my plans for A Ghost and His Gold because it didn’t fit in with the real-life thread of the commando I had chosen for my MC, Pieter.

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      • Yes, I am also writing a cli-fi novel. It has futuristic elements relating to genetic engineering, robotics, and a jump forward in the fourth industrial revolution [we are already in this mode]. It has required significant research. I stopped and returned to my historical novel because I was depressing myself not being able to find a reasonable and possible solution to climate change.

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  10. I’m too intimidated to write strictly historical fiction. If I use a past setting, the story has magic in it, so the plot deals more with that. My friend writes Regencies, and she has to know way too many things to get it right, including what kind of buttons go where when describing clothing. Lots of research! I’d be afraid I’d get something wrong.

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    • I’m not brave enough to write an entire novel set in the past. Even with my dual timeline story (Cold Dark Night), I feared getting something wrong–the way the characters talked, a scene involving a hanging, etc.

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  11. I’ve only had two short stories published and I’m still working on my first novel, but I enjoy writing historical fiction. It’s the best of both worlds. I get to do historical research and then I get to use my imagination to write about it. Writing contemporary fiction intimidates me.

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    • Interesting. I’m intimidated by writing historical fiction. Or maybe I shouldn’t say intimidated, but I fear even with research I’d get something wrong. Good luck with your novel!

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  12. You make some great points on writing historical fiction, Joan. I think research is essential, and as you say, to have a direct link to someone who lived through the event is a big plus. I was in Junior High when Kennedy was shot. They closed school and sent us all home. Everyone was in tears. Such a sad day. Thank you for sharing!

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  13. I love this post, Joan (you probably knew I would, LOL). Thank you for the shout out about Point Pleasant, 🙂
    In addition to that series, I’ve written books that feature timelines in the 1700s and the 1800s. I never written an entire novel set in an earlier century (the idea still intimidates me) but I have set at least 50% of each book in my Hode’s Hill series in earlier centuries, and I’ve written a short story set in Medieval England. I love the research involved. It’s fun but also daunting, as there are so many little things you have to stop and consider.

    I’m planning on starting a new novel project in 2022 and one of the things I’ve been toying with is the time period. I’m thinking of going back to the late 1970s or early 1980s again, mainly because of the lack of cell phones and computers for the general public. But even though I lived through those years, I know I’d still be doing a lot of research. If I do a dual timeline again, I’ll be going with the early 1900s into the 1920s. In addition to writing historical timelines, I also love reading historical novels, especially those set in the late 1800s. I’m also a huge fan of Old Testament fiction.

    House of Sorrow was such a wonderful novella. You did an excellent job of bringing the 1960s to life.
    Fantastic post today. And how appropriate on this anniversary.

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    • I’m like you, Mae. The thought of setting an entire novel in a historical time (or at least before my time) is intimidating. Funny you should mention the 70’s and 80’s. I’m writing a group of short stories, two of them were set in those times. I look forward to learning more about your new project.

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  14. Excellent post, Joan. It seems every book I have written needed research into the facts. My latest, Eternal Road takes the reader into several points of history and the research actually helped with the movement of the plot. Also the research keeps things authentic even if it is fiction. 😊

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  15. I have a couple of short stories but no historical novels. That intimidates me a bit because so many details matter. I remember when I first started writing fiction, I joined a writing group. Someone had submitted a historical piece, and in the dialogue, they’d used “hello” as a greeting. The history buffs nailed them on it. Apparently it wasn’t a greeting used in the time the story was set. Who knew? I didn’t. They picked out tiny details like smoke color from guns that people got wrong. Those are details I’d never think to research. But history buffs would see the inaccuracies immediately. I love to research, but I can’t research what I don’t know I have wrong. So, I’m careful about scenes and stories written in the past.

    All that said, I love research. If I knew what things to look for, I wouldn’t mind writing and researching for it. And more “modern” history is a lot easier. You raised a lot of great points, especially about talking to people who lived through those times. My grandmother and parents (103, 81, and 81) still tell stories rich with detail from when they were younger. And I could listen to them for hours.

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  16. Great post. I’ve done it twice, and the research isn’t just needed it’s fun, too. When I placed Teddy Roosevelt in my Panama story, he really was in those places at the times he appeared. Will o’ the Wisp was a bit easier. I peppered it with things that no longer exist, like Montgomery Wards stores and International automobiles. I still had to do a bunch of research, but it wasn’t work, it was fun.

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  17. Great post, Joan. I’d stretch your advice to all genres. We need to be sure our references are accurate and the only way to do that is through research. Though I’ve not written historical fiction, I’ve certainly set a story in a context that required immense research. That process, of digging deep, actually changed me rather permanently. I suspect that’s every writer’s experience who’s done the same. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Thank you for writing on such an important topic. 😊

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    • That’s an excellent point, Gwen. Whatever we write, we need to do our research. In my time travel story, I had to make sure I got the facts correct about our modern-day Navy as much as those World War II scenes.

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  18. Research! My two historical fiction books are set in Roman and Viking Britain, so no chance of talking to someone about it!. The net is a brilliant tool, though.
    If I need to change something to fit the story, I always put a note at the end. E.g. in my Roman one, I needed to change the date the Governor of Eberacum (York) arrived for the storyline. But I confessed in Author’s notes. I hope not too many people were offended by that little alteration of the facts.

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    • I heard a story about author John Jakes (I think it was him) who put something into a story that actually wasn’t around until a few years later. He later apologized to his readers. There is also such a thing as creative license where a fiction writer can stretch things. 🙂 I think you’re probably okay.

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  19. I had no idea the first cell phone was created in the 70s. That’s crazy. lol! My dad bought one of the first computers in 1983, I believe. I still remember what it looked like and what programs I used (Sticky Bear typing was my favorite!). One of my short stories took place in the 1600s and the other in the 1920s, so they both took some research (and I am NOT a fan of research). I’m happy how they came out. My newest release is nowhere near historical fiction. In fact, it’s contemporary. I wrote in ten years ago and left it on a shelf. When I finally got around to editing and revising it this year, I realized how much technology had changed in just ten years. So, your advice to do your research is spot on, especially if you want your story to be authentic. Great post, Joan. 🙂

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    • I didn’t know about cell phones either until I looked it up to write this article. 🙂 It is amazing how things have changed in only a decade. When I first went to work at a hospital twenty years ago, the use of cell phones was prohibited in certain parts of the hospital because of possible interference with medical equipment. Now, we frequently use them to communicate with one another. We had surveyors at our facility last week, and I’ve probably never received so many work-related texts and calls in such a short time.

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  20. I love reading historical fiction – but the details do have to be correct. I’ve read plenty of reviews where the author’s been slated for making the tiniest of mistakes. I think some readers do like to show their expertise! As for research, I’d follow Jill down the Internet rabbit hole! Your suggestion of asking someone older about their experiences is an excellent one. We videoed my mother as she went through her old photos telling us who was one them and the memories they triggered – it was fascinating. Thanks for a great post, Joan.

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    • Ha! I agree about some readers wanting to some readers show their expertise! I once hated research, but now I’m like you. And I can go down more rabbit holes than there are in Watership Down!

      I love the fact that you filmed your mother. My mom told me lots of stories about her childhood and early adult years. I’ve tried to write many of them down from memory, but I regret that I didn’t at least use a tape recorder.

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  21. Great post, Joan 🙂 I do enjoy reading historical fiction. I wrote on book set in WWl and loved the research. I found more to add to the story by the things I found in my research.

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    • I can imagine how fascinating your research into World War I was. I have a friend who is Choctaw. They were the first code talkers during that war. We hear a lot about the Navajo cold talkers of World War II, but not them. Sarah wrote and released a book about the code talkers on the 100 anniversary of the end of WWI.

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  22. I wouldn’t call any of my novels historical fiction, but they are set in the early to mid-20th century, so I have had to check on details of technology and popular culture to make sure I didn’t mention something that didn’t exist at the time. The internet (and yes, Wikipedia) is indispensable.

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