The Art of Historical Fiction

Updated: Mar 3


If you could write a story through Abraham Lincoln's eyes, how would you capture it? How did his wife react to that tragic night at Ford’s Theater? How about a simple bystander? Historical fiction gives you that opportunity.

Before diving into this genre, however, it’s important to go over a few tips to make your piece the most accurate it can be.

Research, Research, and More Research

Historical fiction pieces are designed to transport the reader from the modern era to a certain time in the past. One way this type of writing can quickly fall flat, though, is through lack of research. The more historically accurate the piece is, the more immersive it is for the reader. Here’s a few key areas to address when writing your piece:

Time and Dates

It is imperative, when writing historical fiction, to get dates and times right. For example, if you wanted to write a piece about the fatal sinking of the Titanic, you would need to know specifics about the ship. The layout of the vessel is important, but so are the date passengers boarded, the time the ship hit the iceberg, and the time when the lucky few were rescued. Researching dates and times can help you shape your plot around accurate details.

Setting and Clothing

If you’re writing a story that’s set in the past, it’s also important to conduct research on the setting and clothing. Think: where is my story situated? Are there any landmarks I can use to distinguish what time period or year this piece is in? If you wrote a story based in New York around the late 1800s, you could easily reference the Statue of Liberty to help readers contextualize the surroundings. Though, it’s important to be mindful of dates, like I mentioned before. According to libertyellisfoundation.org, the statue was shipped to New York in 1885 but wasn’t completed and unveiled to the public until October 28th, 1886. Keep examples like this in mind while constructing your piece.

Clothing can also be a tricky area to nail. How does one describe the many flounces and layers that made up a 19th-century woman’s bustle? Anna Godbersen, author of The Luxe series, has a knack for doing so. On page 18 of Envy, she hones in on a specific area of a woman’s dress: “It was easy to forget now, as she swept her skirt, its lacy underskirts cresting like a foaming wave…” Just one decorative detail adds another historical layer to this scene.

If all of this sounds difficult, don’t worry! You can always utilize historical photographs, either by Googling specific time periods or visiting your local libraries’ ancestry section. History.com and BBC.co.uk are great places to start. The former has a wide range of data about historical times, ranging from ancient civilizations, World War I and II, and more.

Dialogue and Mannerisms

Creating accurate dialogue is vital in making your historical piece believable. But how does one do it? By studying language from the chosen time period, of course! Books, newsprint, and other media of the time are great resources for finding out how your characters should speak. When in doubt, stay far away from modern slang. For example, teenie boppers in the 1950s were definitely not saying anything like, “radical,” “gnarly,” and, of course, “that’s lit!”

Wrap It All Up

By melding all of these areas together in your piece, you’ll be writing believable historical fiction in no time! So, crack open that dated photo of your grandmother’s prom night, scour the Internet for acceptable 1920s phrases, and get to work cooking up the best historical fiction piece yet!

About the Author: Stephanie Stott is a freelance novel editor and English major from Florida. Over the years, she's found various ways to escape the humidity: taking pictures of her cats, working on her novels, and designing book covers in Photoshop. You can follow her writing misadventures and graphic design creations on her author Facebook page.

#historicalfiction #writingtips

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