Writing the Historical Road Less Travelled (How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot – Pt.3)

(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2)

History as a whole provides a vast collection of topics that are ripe to be made into historical novels.

Even when you’ve narrowed your interest to a specific historical era, the possibilities are virtually endless.

My first post about building a historical plot discussed the importance of choosing upfront the specific year in which the story takes place.  This is to help you start focusing your research—forcing you to go deep instead of broad in the historical details you include—as soon as possible.

My second post covered using the societal limitations people endured during your era of choice in order to cut down on the potential directions your plot could take.

This third and final post on historical plotting likewise involves using history as a tool.  Specifically, the incidental details that tend to make their way into historical references.

Often these are lesser-known facts; sometimes they’re just thrown in as asides, and are well beyond the scope and subject of the matter at hand.

Either way, they can be highly useful in sparking stories.  For that reason, my last tip on how to build a historical fiction plot is as follows:

3) Choose unexpected or little known historical facts of interest and then play “what if”

Often, upon deciding to write a historical novel, the only thing the writer knows ahead of time is the historical era they wish to cover.

For example, someone I follow on Twitter expressed interest in writing a Viking story.  Or in my own case with regards to the next project I plan to work on, I knew I wanted to tell a story set in Ancient Greece.

But I wasn’t sure what specifically the story would be about.

A solution to this, already so often what’s needed to improve the histfic writing process, is more research.

Specifically, keeping track of any facts that jump out to you as either interesting, amusing, or unbelievably strange.  If you’re the highlighting type while researching, you might want to highlight these in a different colour.

Such facts are not anything you can force.  You have to just read and absorb what the historical record has to offer without expectation.

But in essence, what you’re looking for is any fact that makes you sit up and think, even if only for a moment, “Huh.  That’d make a great idea for a story.”

Because often it will.

Truth, as is said, is stranger than fiction.  At the same time, history is often weirder than you could ever make up, or ever need to.

Sometimes the right random fact is all it takes to kick-start your imagination—the right historical hook that you can “what-if” right into a full blown plot.

An example of this is one of my favourite weird facts I discovered while researching for my medieval WIP.

I’ve written about this before—twice, actually.  In the Middle Ages, because divorce in the modern sense didn’t exist, one of the few ways that a marriage could be ended was due to the man being impotent.

(This would mean he was unable to sire children, procreation being one of only two authorized reasons* for marriage in the eyes of the medieval Church.)

However, before dissolving the marriage, the Church first had to verify a man’s claims of impotence.  To do this, the Church would procure the services of “seven honest women” to expose themselves to the hapless man and attempt to arouse him through manual stimulation.

Yes, really.

Just think of the possible plots you could build around that, in a variety of historical subgenres.

What if the man had lied about being impotent and now has to strike some kind of deal with the seven women to not turn him in?

What if the man is impotent and thus now has to leave his wife, but he’s deeply in love with her?

What if he isn’t impotent and therefore must return to his wife, but now one of the seven women has become infatuated with him?

What if he isn’t impotent but rather secretly gay, yet needs to remain married to escape persecution and maintain a comfortable lifestyle?

And so it goes.

The good thing about plots that are developed in this way is that they have the potential to be quite original.

Of course there are no truly original stories.  Every story in the world has already been told countless times in countless ways for centuries.

Still, certain story tropes get rehashed significantly more often than others.  A historical story seeded from lesser known facts might thus feel newer to a greater number of readers.

For the record, my medieval WIP is not about a married man’s claims of impotence.  However there was no way I wasn’t going to use this juicy research in some capacity (even if it’s not until the second book in the series).

Even if an unexpected/surprising/little known historical fact doesn’t inform an entire plot, it can still be used to build a subplot.  Or else to just add colour to the story’s setting through being the kind of intimate detail histfic fans—especially those familiar with the time period—love to see subtly inserted into the worldbuilding.


*The Church’s second official reason for marriage was for the avoidance of fornication.

These seven “honest” women were in fact prostitutes (this fact is not made clear in every source that discusses them, which motivated my writing about them twice).  Since the women were giving sworn testimony in an ecclesiastical court, they had to be accepted and entered into the legal record as honest, respectable women.

No pun intended.

(Image source #1 and #2)

3 thoughts on “Writing the Historical Road Less Travelled (How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot – Pt.3)

  1. No point in writing unless the story grips your imagination, is there?

    Writing gets to use all of you, but only you could write certain stories – so you will write them, or they will not exist.

    And if the bits are not well known, you get to speculate – based on all your other research – and that is half the fun.


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