Thursday, July 20, 2006

Writer Tip #1 -- Writing Historical Fiction

I've been asked many, many times how to write historical fiction. In addition to the classes I've taught on the subject at the LDStorymakers' Writers Conference, I've spoken at length to individuals on the topic. What it all boils down to is this: get your facts straight and make them interesting.

I can't even tell you how many times I've had a friend read a manuscript for me to be told that I got everything wrong. I rely on friends to keep me on the straight and narrow, to help me see where I've gone off track -- or not given proper attention to the political ramifications of the event -- or given the wrong impression. Without this important feedback, I would not be a published author. Your facts have got to be straight or you will come off looking like an idiot. I've been there, done that, and it doesn't feel very good. After all the research you can do, always have someone with more knowledge than yourself read it for you. Research can't take the place of the personal knowledge that comes from having lived through the experience yourself. This is why I like having really old friends.

Now, you must make your facts interesting. This can sometimes be the hardest part. You've gotten your information from a very dry textbook and you must now translate it into something that the reader will devour. The most effective tool you can use is emotion. Your character has just witnessed the death of Abraham Lincoln. How did she feel when she saw him fall? Did she see the gunman make his escape? How did she feel when he was captured? A recitation of facts is all very well and good in a college classroom setting, but your reader wants to be enthralled. Use your imagination and put yourself in your character's place. If you were there, what you would have felt?

And as always, watch for repetitive word use, punctuation, and grammar. Nothing breaks up the emotion of a scene like a mistake. It will leap out and wave a flag in the reader's face, pulling them out of the moment and reminding them that it's just a book. But we don't want them to remember it's just a book -- we want them to get sucked in completely. Choose your words carefully. Edit like crazy. Study your manuscript for anything that would jar the reader, and when your work is ready to be published, study the galleys very carefully. Don't shatter the illusion with a badly spelled word or a misplaced comma.

Stay tuned for more, and in the meantime, visit This is a fabulous article on writing historical fiction.


Paul West said...


Neat site here, and your web site looks great. I wish I could design one as nice.

I too want to write historical fiction. I have two novels in mind, one set during the Civil War, and the other around 1910. They won't be YA novels like my first two. I appreciate the tips you've given here. (and thanks for visiting my blog site).


Tristi Pinkston said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for your comments! And I enjoy your blog as well. I'm sure I'll be back, frequently.

Annette Lyon said...

As a fellow historical writer, I've got to say, "amen!"

Getting your facts straight and making them interesting goes hand in hand with your post about beginnings and setting the scene--don't cram the facts down their throat. "It's 1863 in Atlanta. That's during the Civil War, in case you didn't know . . ."

The same principles apply to historical fiction--work the details in naturally as you would any setting. And make sure you get them right!

I've found another good way to make it real is to make the characters' feelings real--make today's reader understand what it felt like then. They already feel the same emotions, and many issues from the past have underlying similarities to things that go on today anyway. Tie them together.

Like your example--how does your character feel at seeing Lincoln shot? But historical pieces don't necessarily need something that huge--Little House on the Prairie is all about settling new land, building a cabin, and daily life in that time.


Tristi Pinkston said...

I love Little House on the Prairie! I have the set of books and am reading them with my daughter. The TV show totally messed up the romance between Laura and Almanzo, though. The way it's written, it's completely sweet. The way it is in the show, it's hard to believe that he would ever really fall in love with her. I guess it's just more proof that books are better than TV. :)

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