How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot: A Guide/Reminder for You/Me

When I wrote my first historical novel, I made all the mistakes.

Not just those pertaining to good writing in general—and I made those big time—but also those specific to historical fiction in particular.

Writing historical fiction is challenging, and is not something I ever foresaw for myself when I envisioned my future writing life when I was a child.  I was always hugely into fantasy, especially the sprawling, epic high fantasy that I read so extensively in my youth.

I’ve since come to believe that you don’t truly choose your genre as a writer; that rather it’s the genre that chooses you.

In my case, my selection occurred when I found myself doing so much research in support of historically-inspired fantasy worlds, it stopped making sense to use all that effort to write something made-up.

(Instead I now write things that are only partially made up—stories in historical settings that contain original characters that might experience mythological realism.)

Having since embraced my fate as a historical fiction writer, I’m now in the process of plotting a brand new novel for the first time in years.

Looking back on my past histfic-writing mistakes, I’ve come up with three key tips that I’ll present in three separate posts.  These will be things I either failed to do with my first historical novel, or else did, but wasn’t conscious of doing so, or why at the time it was helpful:

Tip #1: Choose the year the story takes place in up front

This was the biggest mistake I made in writing the first draft of my medieval WIP.

I started off well enough with my research, reading reference books with titles like “Life in the Medieval Times” or “Life in a Medieval Castle” to get a broad overview of the 400+ years the medieval era spanned.

But then I allowed myself to become enamoured with the ethos of medieval Western Europe as a whole, with how different—yet in many ways strangely the same—it was from modern society.

With that alone, I proceeded to write an entire draft with no real sense of when the story was meant to be happening other than around the time of a barons’ war in England—either the first one (1215-1217) or the second one (1264-1267).

Had I set my novel in a specific year or set of years from the start, this would have necessarily excluded every historical event that occurred after that time.

In that way, not choosing a year up front was a failure to commit to the story I was trying to write.  Because a story that encompasses the spirit and customs of a specific historical moment cannot have that moment readily substituted.

I suspect this might be a common flaw in beginner historical writers, if not writers of all genres.  We want our stories unrestricted and about everything, which paradoxically makes them about nothing.

Meanwhile, the more practical/less philosophical benefit of choosing the year up front is that doing so provides much-welcomed focus to the writing process.

It focuses the choice of references you read and the historical timeline available for you to anchor your story around, which is invaluable in fleshing out the plot.

It allows you to truly delve into a specific slice of history—the intimate features that help the setting come to life on the page.  This helps prevent a kitchen sink approach to history that can lead to the erroneous inclusion or omission of key details.

This too I learned the hard way when I eventually settled on the year 1211 for my WIP’s starting point.  This meant that I’d previously overlooked the Interdict, a period from 1208 to 1214 when England was under divine punishment by the Pope.

During this time, all churches were closed and almost no church functions were carried out, including last rites for the dead (last rites were later restored during the summer of 1212).

This omission didn’t just mean I had to remove all instances of my characters attending Mass.  I also had to show the impact this profound societal change would have had on the characters’ day-to-day lives—the numerous minute instances over the course of the story where this absence of normal church life would be felt.

For my next novel, set during the Classical era of Ancient Greece, I will definitely not be making this same mistake.

The broader time period I’ve identified for this novel is during the 27-year Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies.

More specifically, the story will occur near the period known as the Peace of Nicias (421 B.C.), which was supposed to be a 50-year ceasefire that only lasted until 414 B.C.

The immediate goal of my ongoing research is to pinpoint where in relation to the peace the story will begin—whether just before the start of it, or just before the end.

To be continued in Part 2 and Part 3

(Image source #1 and #2)

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6 thoughts on “How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot: A Guide/Reminder for You/Me

  1. Good point.

    Choosing the time period is something that needs doing sooner rather than later, but it opens as many doors as it closes. Especially for writers like you who do a lot of research to make it all as real as possible to the readers.

    I’ve had to deal with that a bit as I got the idea for PC in 2000, and originally set the story in the ‘present,’ but it took me so long to write it (I published in 2015) that I had gone through a major revision (and then gave up trying to keep writing in the present) and reset the entire thing in 2005/2006 – plotted in detail to the end of the whole trilogy, calendar and all.

    In between, 9/11 had happened – and certain things will never be the same!

    Now I just try not to accidentally modernize phone systems, or computers, or anything I use as a setting or background. It takes more thought than you’d expect!

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    • I’m a slow writer too, so lucky for me the past isn’t going anywhere!

      Choosing the time period up front still doesn’t prevent one from falling down a research rabbit hole, but it does offer at least help keep one contained.

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      • And, as usual, it is important to remember that most of the research should be for the writer (and we love going down rabbit holes), and should never appear in the finished work, much less in an infodump.

        Writers WORK when we do this kind of writing. I think the only way some of the fast writers can keep publishing a book a month is by never doing research. And rarely reworking what they write.

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  2. Serendipity. Another blogger quoted something I hadn’t read before:

    “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real–whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy…. I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein–because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.” Flannery O’Connor

    Historical fiction needs the same attention to detail as fantasy.

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      • I am looking forward to your take on the subject.

        The only reason I commented on that was the close proximity of the two posts – within about ten minutes of each other. Must be in the air.

        I thought, when I discovered the concept of needing more words the harder your premise is for a reader to swallow in one of Donald Maass’ books on writing, with examples from thrillers with ridiculous premises, that it was original. I base my writing on that – words have to be necessary for the premise to be believed, and mine is a difficult one – but Flannery probably wasn’t original, either.

        I’m a wee bit disappointed, but it doesn’t make sense that someone in the 21st century has much original to say about something humans have been doing for a very long time; he just said it well and provided good examples.

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