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A Few Things to Consider When Writing Historical Fiction


woman with a magnifying glass in front of her face
Do Your Research

There are many things I love to write, but the main one I love writing more than anything else is probably historical fiction. For one, historical fiction is easier than making things up wholesale. You have a world and events that have already taken place, and if those events are in the history books, they (and the people/characters involved in that history), are probably, in many ways, fascinating. Not only that, but the setting you’re writing about is already in place. The finale, or resolution, as well, is already established (unless part of the plot of your novel is that you’re changing the actual ending—the way Philip K. Dick did in “The Man in the High Castle” or other novelists did in their fictive alternative histories) did in theirs’. But there’s also a freedom in writing historical fiction—you get to create characters that didn’t actually exist. You get to imagine scenes that maybe never happened, and you get to make readers believe that they didn’t know everything that they thought they knew. The options you, as an author of historical fiction can take, are endless. And they’re worthy of exploration.


But—and there’s always a but—there’s a caveat to taking the path of writing about things that actually happened. That caveat is that you must get it right. History is factual (as far as we know), and because there are facts surrounding historical events, you can’t flub up what actually, verifiably, happened. Not if you want readers to believe your story. Remember, your job as an author is to pull your readers into your story immediately, from the first page, and to keep them reading all the way until the last page. It’s not an easy task. It’s an even tougher task if you lose them because of details, major or minor, that are easily available to you (if you do your research), but that you get wrong.


B 17 flying fortress
B-17 Flying Fortress

I want to tell you a quick story about one of the experiences I had with a historical fiction book I began writing in 2002. I was in grad school, working on my MBA, but I also worked for the university I was attending and had a lot of free time to work on my writing. I started writing short stories about a WWII bomber pilot, because, I think, I’d seen a movie about one, and because Hemingway was (and is) a hero of mine. He was too old to fight in WWII, but he chased submarines off the coast of Cuba. That had nothing to do with why I chose to write about a bomber pilot; I just wanted to write something about war that had an impact on readers the way Hemingway’s writing had an impact on readers when it came to his writing about the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, to ensure authenticity, I created, purposefully, a regimen about how I was going to ensure that I remained true to the reality of the war. Here's how I did it:


1. I watched documentaries about WWII. I can’t tell you how many I watched, but I watched thousands of hours of actual footage taken during the battles, the carnage, the speeches, the major and minor events that impacted the war and its progression, the political rationale(s), the Allies’ perspective, the Axis Alliance’s perspective, what led up to the war, and everything else I learn about by watching documentaries.


2. I watched every movie I could about WWII, including Saving Private Ryan, Stalingrad, The Pianist, The Dam Busters, The Inglorious Bastards, From Here to Eternity, and on and on. I wanted to see how the writers and directors and actors came together to convey their take on whatever fictive view they created based on the time and place of those days. By then, having watched the documentaries, I was well-equipped to identify areas, however insignificant, that didn’t jibe with the reality of the war. I felt like a detective looking for things that were out of place, however rare.


3. I read every book I could get my hands on about WWII. To this day, I have every book I ever read about WWII, nonfiction and fiction. Their pages are almost 100% yellow, that’s how much I highlighted what I believed to be the important parts of the events that took place between 1939 and 1945. Now, I didn’t use everything, obviously, but I did highlight everything I believed I could leverage for my stories. Out of all the books I read, I probably used 10% of the material. To refer to Hemingway again, the other 90% of what I read was below the surface of the water in what I wrote. But I had to know the information in order to “get it right.” The details of WWII are so well-known and so thoroughly examined and researched (and in many cases idolized), that to get even the name of a helmet or cap (peaked or patrol) or the colors of a gymnastyorka (a Russian military smock) wrong, meant giving history buffs fodder for the ridicule of my work (assuming, of course, they got a chance to read any of it).


4. I interviewed an actual WWII bomber pilot. Yep. I was lucky enough to have a friend who knew one. One day I casually told my friend what I was writing about, and he happened to have a friend who lived a couple miles away and who’d been a B-24 Liberator pilot. I won’t mention his name, but he lived in Colorado with his wife, and they were both very generous with their time. In a modest and calm voice, I learned what it felt like to be a pilot on a Lib, but he also told me what it was like being and working with his co-pilot, his bombardier, his navigator, radio operator, flight engineer, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, and his two waist gunners. To say interviewing him about his experience in the war was enlightening is an understatement. The man was (and will always be) a hero.


With all of the history and background information I had at the ready, I began writing my short stories about my bomber pilot. I began the first story in a fictional town in Colorado, just before my protagonist headed out to join the war, then threw him into the European Theater of Operations, had him flying missions, crashing, facing moral and ethical dilemmas, experiencing new cultures and mores, and more. What I ended up writing was a story cycle (short stories that are related in some way).


But as I workshopped the stories over the years, the short stories morphed into a novel. And then I workshopped the novel until I thought it was nearing the level where I would start sending it out to literary agents. BUT then I went to graduate school to get my MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction, and my advisor asked me a simple (yet shocking) question: What if you got rid of the war parts? Naturally, I thought, WTF is this guy talking about? Is he crazy? I’ve spend thousands of hours researching and writing all about the war.

But then I remembered Hemingway’s iceberg. I got rid of the war scenes. And to my surprise, the novel improved. Significantly.


military uniforms
Military Uniforms

Now, I digress here, but I just wanted to quickly make the point that sometimes, even in historical fiction, you must do what’s best for the novel. In this case, I had to kill my main darling—the war! Sometimes it works that way. It’s the book that’s important, not your darlings. Anyway, back to writing historical fiction.


Your job, as a writer of historical fiction, is not to give your readers a history lesson. While they’ll learn things they didn’t previously know about the details of your venture into WWII, Vietnam, the assassination of JFK, the war of the roses, 9/11, or any other historical event, history lessons are what history books and documentaries are for. Your job, as the author, is to tell a story within the setting of your chosen historical events—the time, the place, the event or events of intrigue of the day, how things may have transpired, perhaps the political landscape, the mood of that particular time in that particular place, and so on. Your job is not to list out every single detail of every single event that happened at the time as you would a grocery list. Do that at your own peril. And believe me, it will be at your own peril (I’ve seen novels written like history books and they’re horrid. I won’t name them here, out of respect, but I own a couple tomes in particular that baffle me in terms of how they got published—and by one of the bigs). This requires a basic knowledge of how to write a novel, but it doesn't hurt to refresh yourself on the basics of writing once you've concluded your research.


Readers, my fellow writers, want a story. If they’re into the romance you’ve created between two characters and it happens to take place in Paris in the 1920s, where they bump into Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Gertrude Stein, great. Wonderful. But the story must focus on the romance between your characters—the story can’t simply be the fact that these famous people were walking around beside your characters in a cool period of time. Your reader will cease reading your novel if there’s no story there for them to read. Yes, you can include these famous people in your characters’ lives. Yes, they can become primary players in your plot. But the story is the romance between your characters. The story is not simply a clever regurgitation of the facts of the day. You’re still writing fiction. You’re still writing a novel. You still need a plot and compelling characters and enthralling scenes and great dialogue. What you aren’t doing is writing a history book.


Paris and the Eiffel Tower
Paris and the Eiffel Tower

The fact that you’re writing historical fiction and your reader has decided to give your novel a try means they likely have at least a passing knowledge of the history in which you’re setting your fictional story. Do them right. Don’t disappoint them. And the only way to do that is to do your homework. Dive deep into the setting that you want your novel to take place in. Print out pictures of the streets where your characters live and love and fight. Keep visual dictionaries at the ready. Google the months and years and places where your characters are, and check out the newspaper headlines of the day. What was going on on the day your lovers met? What was the weather like when the Hindenburg went down? Did you know its full name was LZ 129 Hindenburg? You should.


Remember, historical fiction gives a lot of opportunity to the writer, but that doesn’t mean the writer shouldn’t secure the authenticity of the time and place and events they’re writing about. Get the facts right. Ask the questions your readers might ask—and make sure you have the correct answers. As a writer, you don’t want to lose your readers. As a historian, you need to ensure you’re doing history justice. Who knows, you may just have the next Wolf Hall, The Sympathizer, or The God of Small Things ready to burst from your pen.


Cully Perlman is a Developmental/Substantive Editor. If you have a novel or long-form fiction ready to be edited, drop him a line at Support@novelmasterclass.com

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