Writing Historical Fiction: A How-NOT-To

It sucks to be three out of four of these guys.
(The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th Century.)

I never set out to write a historical fiction novel.

If you go back far enough, it can be argued I never set out to write a novel period, for I never believed I’d be able to sustain a story for that length.

But once it did occur to me that I had a novel-length tale to tell, I didn’t expect for it to be a historical one.

As a result of this lack of foresight, the way I’ve gone about writing this novel (technically novels, for there’s two of them; so much for not thinking I could sustain a long story) is definitely not something I’d recommend.

There’s no one right way to write a novel, but what I’ve done may well be the one wrong way to write HF.  Don’t believe me?  Behold my list of what NOT to do, all of which I did, to my detriment.

1) Begin your HF novel as a fantasy novel.

Why I did it: Because historical fiction?  Too much research!  Too much reliance on reality and things that really happened.  Plus, what about magic?  That’s not historical.  What about creating my own world and reality?  I need to be freeeeee!

2) Decide you’re up to the challenge of HF after all – midway through the story.

Why I did it: Because after the first 10 reference books on medieval England, my story was about to become the most historically faithful “fantasy” novel ever!

Besides, magic can be historical; people in the Middle Ages were superstitious as hell, believing in all manner of paranormal phenomena.  Magic realism anyone?

Except (1/2 novel fantasy) + (1/2 novel historical fiction) = 1 future editing nightmare.

3) Decide  upon your specific historical timeframe – midway through the story.

Why I did it: Because since my novel contains fictional characters (as opposed to real figures from history), my mind evidently took that as immunity from the fact that “the medieval times” spans hundreds of years, with each century – each decade – considerably different from all the others.

4) Go location scouting as if for a film, but forget to visit one of the most important sites.

Why I did it: Because when writing fantasy, you can just make up whatever geographic features to your plot requires.

But after jumping genres, I now needed a real castle guarding the sole navigable pass through a real mountain range in England.  Did England even have mountains (it’s not exactly known for its skiing), or would this be yet another major revision of my HF/F Franken-novel?

Google Earth and Wikipedia assured me there are indeed mountains in Mother England, but the virtual tour only took me so far.  I needed to see it for myself.

So I went there.  For weeks I trudging through the countryside, up to my eyeballs in sheep (yet next to no sheep crap; even the animals are proper over there).

And lo, what did I find nestled amidst England’s Peak District in Derbyshire, much to my surprise, and relief, and amazement at how utterly perfect it all was, but mostly relief?

Peveril Castle (top left corner), from the nearby mountains.

Cue the Heavenly choir: Peveril Castle (top right corner, on the hill), as seen from the nearby mountains.

I was so relieved, in fact (and let’s be honest – so smug about how amazing and adventurous I was for having found my location all by myself), I completely forgot that a substantial portion of my novel also takes place on the other side of said mountains, i.e. in Yorkshire, where I didn’t once set foot.

5) Enchain yourself to history and the way things actually happened.

Why I did it: Because it’s called HISTORICAL fiction.

And because nobody wants to read a spurious plot that’s been shoehorned into the historical record. Besides, fictional characters or not, anchoring a HF novel around an actual event from history is an important genre convention.

6) Play fast and loose with history and the way things actually happened.

Why I did it: Because it’s called historical FICTION.

And because I learned the hard way that Hollywood’s not a reliable teacher about life in the Middle Ages (or anything, really.)

Plus, we all know that history as it’s recorded is just the winners’ interpretation/delusion of how it went down.  That is to say, itself just a story.

7) Disregard the awesomeness of what you’re doing.

Why I did it: Because I believe anyone with enough desire and discipline can write a novel.  And when you interact with other writers on a regular basis, none of what you all do feels especially remarkable.

And yet, can anyone write a historical fiction novel?  I’m starting to think not so much – that it’s a special snowflake that only the most meticulous of writers who can balance the needs of period detail with creativity, of history with a story that resonates with readers of today, can achieve.

At this point, I don’t know if I fit the above description or not, as my HF novel’s not yet finished and it’s my first time trying to write one.  Only time will tell.

Writers – what writing mistakes or questionable writing decisions have you made along the way?  Tell me about it in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G.Noelle)

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13 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction: A How-NOT-To

  1. Wow, your whole list was pretty much a record of what I’ve gone through on my two WIPs over the past two years. One started as a historical fantasy but wound up as alternate history light (only a slight change in history, nothing dramatic). The other one still has fantastical elements, but it’s still in first draft state and can change by the time I revise.

    I guess as writers, picking a genre is more important than it first seems. Balancing is difficult because you may end up making fans of each side unhappy.

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    • Well, at least I’m not alone in my (largely self-inflicted) struggles!

      …picking a genre is more important… I think you make a good point, Phillip. A writer can probably save him-/herself a fair but of backfilling by putting more thought in to genre and sticking to the conventions of that genre. But then, you run the risk of your writing being too genre, that is, too much like everything that’s come before it.

      I personally don’t mind mixed genres as long as I knowing going in that’s what I’m getting (i.e. it’s clear from the blurb). I don’t want to be taken by surprise by a werewolf when I was expecting a cozy mystery. But a cozy paranormal mystery? That’s cool. 😎

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  2. Intriguing post Janna! I like how you found your ideal location by chance, exactly as our mutual (I believe) blogging friend Naomi Baltuck just KNEW that Shaftesbury, Dorset was the place to set her epic historical novel. It’s true one has great license with this type of work as far as real events go.- there is some pretty dubious history, or distortion of the facts out there. You’re brave though if you tear the whole received script up as potential readers might assume you don’t know your stuff.

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    • Gotta be honest, Roy: I was pretty stressed that whole trip before I found my location, fearing I wouldn’t find anything – that it was all a big mistake me thinking I could write historical fiction, if not a novel period. Plus, I’d come down with what I’m pretty sure now was bronchitis, and was worried about how I’d access a doctor as a foreigner.

      So when I finally arrived in the Peak District, it was like a reaffirmation of everything positive I’d always believed about myself as a writer. The sun even came out for the first time in days, making the moment even more affirmational! ⭐

      You’re right about people thinking you ignorant if you go too far off the accepted historical script. My goal isn’t to be too revisionist, but to bring to light some less known details of medieval life, particular as related to women.

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  3. I admire your discipline in tackling this type of story. You’re so right about medieval times spanning many centuries and witnessing many changes. Architecture of the past is a big part of modern people’s connection to a specific time in history, so I think I would anchor such a novel in an architectural style or even an existing structure. At least so I could make it real for myself as I write.

    England, eh? My WiP is partly set in Baltimore, which is about 3 hours south, and I haven’t gotten off my butt to do any scouting yet. I suck. And that’s more fair warning for pantsers: When you type “Baltimore” at the beginning of your novel because whatever-you-felt-like-it, you have to understand these decisions come with consequences.

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    • Within the specific plot, I’m anchoring the story around a specific event from history (the First Baron’s War). But in my mind, rather than architecture, I differentiate from the various medieval centuries by the clothes they wore. This is one of the aspects Hollywood gets totally wrong. I bought this fantastic book they showed drawings people wearing all the different articles of medieval clothing broken down by century, occupation, and sex. It also showed drawings of the patterns that would have been used to make these clothes. A funny thing about this book (as a friend pointed out to me) is that every single person in the book looks angry. 😡

      Dude – you gotten get yourself down to Baltimore! You’re depriving yourself of the chance to sound utterly pretentious when you tell people that you’re a writer and are scouting locations. 😎

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      • Oh look, we’re living gender stereotypes! You’re into the fashion and I’m into the big stone buildings.

        Clothes are a cool mental anchor as well. Clothing/costume design is such a critical part of “selling” a movie, so I can see the importance of those details in historical fiction. I took a course in Medieval Architecture as part of my Art History minor, which is probably why I think in those terms. if you ever set a story in the Carolingian period, let me know. I’ve got some cool buildings.

        In fairness to me (whatever that means) I’ve been to Baltimore my share of times. I’m using Google street view to reacquaint myself with the layout of certain locations. My bigger problem right now is that one of my characters has to fly a single engine prop plane, and my local library is short of operator manuals (people with planes tends to own their manuals, not borrow them), so now I’m looking for a cheap used one on Amazon. How many people buy operator manuals on a vehicle they wouldn’t get in in a million years?

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      • Oh look, we’re living gender stereotypes!
        I had a laugh at that one. I didn’t even pick up on that (I hope I haven’t just invalidated my feminist card with that admission!)

        Re. the operator’s manual, if you can get an ISBN for one, you should try your library’s inter-library loan system. That can be a brilliant way to get obscure reference items. I’ve used my local system a number of times while researching my novel, and have gotten materials from as far away as Michigan, if memory serves. (I’m wishing now I’d kept a list.)

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      • You can be a feminist and still be interested in fashion. I’m a feminist and still enjoy James Bond movies and exotic sports cars.

        Thanks for the library-exchange suggestion. I’ll look into it. Sorry if this comment looks strange by the way. WordPress is acting funky today with the comment sections.

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  4. I never know where my novels are going to take me, Janna, but that seems to work for me (I’m no planner!). I tried to write HF once (about a convict sent to Australia from England) but it’s still in a drawer somewhere. You’re so right about what history tells us – it’s written by victors and wow they can exaggerate! I love the fact that yours will have magic (great idea!). I imagine King Arthur and the knights of the round table, there was plenty of magic in that 😀

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    • Those poor convicts sent to Oz get all the bad breaks (including stories about them not getting finished). 😛

      The magic in my novel will be very subtle, not conclusively defined as magic, and will remain largely hidden since we all know what the liked to do to women accused of witchcraft during the medieval times.

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  5. Hm….writing mistakes. Let’s see. When I was younger, I’d just write out the scenes as I was inspired each day. A year later I realized I had a bunch of scenes I liked with huge holes in the middle I didn’t want to be bothered writing. Lucky me, I was fifteen. I’m so past that now!

    More recent writing mistakes? Not keeping an exacting encyclopedia of my characters in my epic fantasy. Two guys ended up with the same name and in my head, they both have that name. It also would have helped to alphabetize the names before one of my beta readers pointed out how many main character names I had that started with the same letter. And I loved all the names. Had to change a few for readability and really hated that. So now I have this massive world document in Scrivener under the encyclopedia tab and I’m keeping it meticulously as I finish my edit, so books 2 and 3 in the series don’t come back and bite me!

    Really, really enjoyed this post, and the pictures! Do I get extra points for researching architecture and fashion? I want to hang on to my feminist card to ^_^ Cheers!

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    • I don’t think I even understood the concept of a “scene” until I started this project (I certainly didn’t get it in my first novel, which is shelved), so good on 15-year-old you for that!

      Changing character names is the worst! I had to do it for a bunch of characters when I switched from fantasy to historical, and for some, I still think of them by their original names in my head (though I’ve thankfully gotten better at not typing them).

      We all get to keep our feminist cards. Luckily, unlike its counterpart, it’s not revoked for having lived up to a stereotype so long as it was an informed choice. But, of course, studying architecture and fashion is super-cool! 🙂

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