The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

Happy Friday, everyone! I know some of you were expecting a different sort of announcement today — one revealing the winner of my epic holiday giveaway. But truthfully, you all made it so difficult to choose that I need a little more time. Which, as frustrating as it is, should be a testament to the talent pool I’m perusing. I promise not to leave you in suspense for much longer though, and will be posting the results by the end of next week.

In the meantime, I’ve invited Tammy Farrell, author of The Dia Chronicles and whose newest release I featured on Wednesday, to come talk about the challenges of writing historical fiction. As someone who writes historical fantasy, she’s intimately familiar with the struggles of accurately portraying history in fiction. So please give her a warm welcome, and be sure to check out her highly reviewed series!
 

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

by Tammy Farrell

 
When I started writing the first book in The Dia Chronicles, I was fresh out of university and had spent the previous few years studying everything from Greek mystery religions, to the development of post-Roman Britain. At the time, I felt that I had a good understanding of the Middle Ages, but when the inspiration struck and I started to write a novel set in 6th century Britain, I realized there was still a lot I needed to learn.

RESEARCH

Researching the time period was my first order of business. I re-read my history textbooks, scholarly articles, library books, historical maps; I ordered books from Amazon, and I even read real medieval letters (particularly those between Peter Abelard and Heloise) to get a sense of the language. I did some Googling, and even looked at Wikipedia from time to time, but I made sure to source that info before I accepted it as fact.

As I quickly learned, simply reading a lot about a certain time period wasn’t enough to make me an expert. I had to research as I wrote. At first, I found that writing a scene was a slow process because I had to keep stopping to look things up. But this process actually helped cement facts in my mind. The further into the book I got, the more confident I was with the details of the world I was building. And while I still don’t consider myself an expert, I can now write a scene without stopping ten times to research. 🙂

LANGUAGE

Deciding how my characters would speak was no easy task. I’ve read historical fiction that uses modern language and lots of contractions, and I’ve also read historical fiction that uses formal language, old English, and no contractions at all.

What I found is that the best way is somewhere in between. The truth is, in the Middle Ages people used contractions all the time (i.e. ‘t is), and they often placed words in a different order than we do today.

It took some practice and playing around with dialogue, but I chose to give my characters both formal and informal voices, with some old English mixed in. If a character is speaking to someone of authority, or if the tone of the conversation is serious, they often speak more formally and with fewer contractions. When they are in a more casual situation, I give them a more relaxed dialogue with more contractions. If you pay close attention, you can almost always tell how one of my characters feels about a person by the way they are speaking.

WHEN TO MAKE THINGS UP

In The Dia Chronicles, I try to insert as much historical fact as possible, but there’s a lot of fiction involved in writing history. For the most part, I invented village names, people (with the exception of King Erbin and King Gerren), and some historical events. In The Embers of Light, one of the main settings is a mountain called Ayrith. I created Ayrith, but this fictional place is set on Snowdon in Snowdonia—a real set of mountains in Wales.

Sometimes inventing history is necessary, but I’ve found that as long as it’s believable, readers don’t mind.

FIND THE RIGHT EDITORS AND BETA-READERS

You can’t pick just any editor when it comes to historical fiction. I had to learn this lesson through experience. Unless your editors and beta-readers are somewhat familiar with historical fiction, you might find them trying to do things like: reword dialogue (e.g. “What of Malcolm?” vs. “What about Malcolm?”), question word choices (e.g. dais instead of platform, mantle instead of cloak), and question your characters actions and behaviors (such as the execution of justice, a woman’s place in society, the importance of land and titles). If an editor or beta-reader isn’t familiar with the basics of historical fiction, you’re wasting their time, and your own. I was really lucky to have Julie Hutchings work as a DE on The Embers of Light, and I feel like she understood the tone, the language, and the actions perfectly. Make sure your team can help improve your historical writing, not misunderstand it.

The Lesson — LEARN BY DOING

I think some writers avoid writing historical fiction because of the many challenges it presents. But the ONLY way to get past the obstacles is to write! Sit down and write as much as you can. No matter what genre you write in, you’ll always need a plot, you’ll need to know your characters, and you’ll need to know your setting. The best way to build the foundation for historical fiction is to write the story you need to tell, research as you go, and add in the details later. The more you research and the more you write, the more confident you’ll become and, one day, you’ll be the expert of your own world.

2 thoughts on “The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I went through nearly the same path for my story.

    Now I’m having it beta read and what you said is nagging at me. None of my beta readers are expert of Twenties America, but most of them are dieselpunk writers like myself. Hope this will help them – and me.

    I do think many people are scare of writing historical fiction because, as you said, it presents many challanges. I read writers saying they don’t write historical because they feel constricted into the limitations of history.
    I actully think this ‘limitations’ are challanges, and seriosuly, all the challanges I came across while writing the Twenties made my story a better one. For me, it made writing even more fun 🙂

    • I really like your attitude toward writing historical fiction. This isn’t my genre as a writer, which is why I invited Tammy to speak about it, but I do really love it as a reader. All the research and effort taken to adhere to history makes a story vastly better, in my opinion. So I applaud your willingness to view what others consider a limitation as merely a challenge to be met and overcome. 🙂

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