How to Write Historical Fiction

Writing about historical figures presents questions of authenticity and accuracy, as well as artistic licence.

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Writing historical fiction is more than just writing history. Merely regurgitating facts to form a fixed plot, then adding in some colourful ‘of the time’ dialogue, is neither writing fiction nor fact. Historical fiction, instead, is dancing along the line between the two, using real people who once existed (and, perhaps, some invented characters as well) and having them undertake actions which they are recorded to have done, but then examining who they are and why they did those things.

The first item to address is the legal basis for writing real people into fiction. Simply put, if you write something about a living person that causes them or their reputation any damage, you could be liable to prosecution under the Defamation Act 2013 in the UK. If the person you are writing about is no longer living, however, then the law does not apply. You can say whatever you like.

The next item to address is the ethical basis for writing real people into fiction. If these people still have living relatives, or are well-known enough to be widely recognised and there to be a fair amount of public knowledge of who they were and what they were like, then you need to consider how your interpretation of them will be received. The ideally moral thing to do would be to only state the truth, but then how can you write fiction?

Hilary Mantel recognises that even relaying facts contains an element of bias, as the writer who collates the facts does so in a particular order, preferring some sources over others, and ultimately presents their own view of what happened, as opposed to a definitive version. “As soon as we die,” Mantel says, “we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone, and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted. When we remember—as psychologists so often tell us—we don’t reproduce the past, we create it.” This is reinforced by historian Patrick Collinson, who wrote: “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”

If that is the case, then everything about the character will be your interpretation as a writer. You need to present more than the commonly-recited stories of what these people actually did, but also get inside their heads and figure out who they are. You are as much creating their character as you are when inventing a new, fictional entity, yet you have more constrictions as you know their actions. This means you need to know them better than just reading about them in textbooks.

Alison Weir stresses the importance of taking notes, even if you don’t use all of them, as doing so gives the writer a level of authority on the details of everyday life within the time period. This allows the writer to fully understand the rules of the time and setting, and therefore get into the mind-set of the characters more effectively. This is of particular importance when there are gaps in historical records. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people did the things they did,” Weir says, “and that’s tricky as a novelist because you’ve got to come down on one side or another and it’s got to be credible.” By intimately knowing not just the characters but also the world they live in and were brought up in, understanding motivations becomes more intuitive.

Once you know the characters, and you have researched the time period and the historical records, you will have a selection of points that may make up a story. It is your job to connect those dots into a story arc. In this respect, Philippa Gregory compares writing historical fiction to writing historical fact, and identifies—amongst other things—a clear difference in structure. “A biography has to do that to be a full biography,” Gregory says, “but a novel [should end] at the end of the arc of a narrative.” In other words, you don’t need to start at the beginning and end at the end, but instead tell the part of history that is the story.

There may come a time where you are faced with the choice of sticking to the truth, or changing facts to suit the tale you are writing. Perhaps a lesser-recognised theory feels more appropriate than a widely-accepted report. John Thorndike points out that historical fiction is still fiction, and so things need to be invented. That being said, the fiction should still feel like the truth to the reader. “A novel must ring true,” Thorndike says, “and this sometimes takes precedence over a slavish obedience to what actually happened.” The job of the historian is to find the truth and the truth alone, the role of the fiction writer is to find the truth within the story; the difference is that the fiction writer asks: What if?

Deciding on a specific direction or controversial character trait can further be reinforced by what was happening at the time. Whilst contemporary fiction usually presents characters acting as per modern standards no matter the time period, for historical fiction this will simply not ring true. Societal morals have changed every few decades and to write an authentic piece of historical fiction, characters need to reflect these as the norm. To discover the correct attitudes of your chosen period, Jake Arnott suggests writers should “read the fiction of that period, not just the fact.” Doing so will allow you to further immerse yourself in the world, stories, styles, themes, and ideals that were important at the time.

Writing historical fiction requires another balancing act, and that is between the big picture and the small stuff. Margaret Atwood describes the role of the historical fiction writer as someone who attempts to combine large-scale events with the minutiae of daily existence. “History may intend to provide us with grand patterns and overall schemes,” Atwood says, “but without its brick-by-brick, life-by-life, day-by-day foundations, it would collapse.” As such, the writer needs to know the “geology, weather, economic forces, social classes, cultural references, and wars and plagues and such big public events.” Atwood also says the writer must use this to understand and interpret the place where “individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together.”

The best way to begin writing historical fiction is to choose a time period, a story, and the characters within it, and then begin researching. The homework is completed first, and pen cannot touch paper or fingertips make contact with keys until you know the world, the characters, the society, the background, the key events, the daily routines, and the microscopic details of every aspect of the period and place. Only then are you ready to write, and even then you will return to fact-check again and again and again. Historical fiction requires more research than any other genre or type or writing outside of non-fiction and true crime, and as such needs to be weighed heavily. Readers expect authenticity, so make sure it is not just skin-deep.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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  • I just finished the manuscript for an Historical Fiction. It is based loosely on my father’s WWII diary. And yes, I had to research WWII on my web sites and read many books about that period, and look at many photos that were disturbing. Then I began writing, creating stories and characters before during and after his experiences in WWII. April will be my third year working on this book almost every day. It is now in the hands of an online editor. My hope is that the book will be available for November 11, 2019.

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