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