Updated: Sep 8, 2022
History has always fascinated me. Even as a child, I devoured books about the sinking of the Titanic, the French Revolution, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and the destruction of Pompeii. When I got older and realized that I could take that love for history, the facts that I’d devoured for years, and put it in my own writing?
That changed my life.
Writing fantasy no longer held my attention. I put aside dwarves and elves going on epic quests to save the Queen and started writing about plagues and the Russian Revolution. Visits to local battlefields became more than learning about the past and became sources of inspiration. Pictures and accounts of people coming down with mysterious illnesses and the disease fighters that did their best to cure them became the focus of 1970s tales, instead of merely tragedies to be read and quickly forgotten.
Historical fiction lets us learn from the past, while also exploring what could have been, and how insignificant people survived the large events around them. The characters we imagine, regular people who lived and loved during times of great upheaval and tragedy, jump off the page just as much as the gritty detective, the charming king, or the romantic heroine.
Just like every genre of fiction, historical fiction contains a large number of subgenres. From Civil War fiction, to Revolutionary War romances, to treasure hunts set against the backdrop of WW2, no book is the same and every author’s voice rings different. Some focus on the day to day life of a revolutionary woman moonlighting as a British spy who falls in love with a colonial corporal, while others take history in an alternate direction where the Axis wins World War Two (I’m looking at you Man in the High Castle). The one thing they share is a narrative that is grounded in historical fact, and the richness of a time gone by.
By design, historical fiction is grounded in reality, and research is key. Writer and philosopher George Santayana once wrote (later cannibalized by Winston Churchill in his address to the 1948 House of Commons), “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” And as a historical fiction writer, you better know your history. Before you can change it, or mold it into your own imaginings, you must know what happened in reality.
Does Marie Antoinette survive in your take on the French Revolution? Before you can save her from the Guillotine, you need to know what she went through before the blade came down. Want Anastasia Romanov to have lived to a ripe old age? You need to know what she lived through in those months after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and, spoiler alert, it’s not nice. You must know every inch of your source material; the good, the bad, and the really ugly, especially if you want to earn the trust of your readers.
Historical fiction readers? They live for facts. If you get something wrong without a good reason, your readers are going to let you know about it, loudly and at great length. Historical fiction readers are passionate about history, about facts, and about the authors they follow. They will be your biggest fans, your biggest cheerleaders, and your biggest critics.
Want to read more historical fiction but not sure where to start? Pick a period in history and there is an author out there for you. Some of my personal favorites—fair warning, I love Civil War history, any and all plague periods, WW2, and Russian History—include The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (set during WW1 France and 1947 London), The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak (A novel about Catherine The Great), and The Woman in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (Set at the end of World War II Bavaria).
Historical fiction can be daunting to read, and even more daunting to start writing, but when you do, you find stories and people you never imagined and tales that stay with you for years.
Is Historical fiction for you?
Only time will tell, but why not take the plunge?
About the author: Leigh Davis writes a mixture of genres from contemporary romance and YA fantasy to historical horror and everything in between. Her current projects, when she can find the time to devote to them, include a 1950s Southern horror and a contemporary romance featuring two of the best characters she's ever created.
She first got involved with the Writer's Games as a pinch hitter for a judging spot and never really left. For her, it's all about seeing people do things and take their writing careers to places they said they never could. She loves helping people find the confidence to believe they can.