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Before You Start Writing that Historical Novel…

When I snagged an advanced review copy of a novel someone had written about one of my favorite historical people, I was really excited. Then I read a review made by someone I know who is very knowledgeable about this person’s life and the historical era she lived in, and I was surprised to discover that the novel is full of errors. I’m not going to say what the novel is — though I promise my review of it will show up here  — but it got me thinking about how much goes into writing a historical novel. I’ve learned a lot of things on my own, but I’ve also received a lot of tips on writing that historical novel. For the sake of all of you who are aspiring writers, I am more than willing to share so you don’t end up with a scathing review listing the errors in your novel.

A picture of ayoung woman writing.
Young woman writing, by unknown Roman artist. Image via quizlet.com.

1. Know your historical period. What historical period are you writing about? What was going on around the world at the time your novel takes place, and how — if at all — would it affect the lives of the characters and those around them? For example, if you were writing a Regency romance novel that took place in England in 1812, there was a lot going on at the time: England was involved on both the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars, and that would no doubt affect pretty much everyone’s lives in some way.

2. Know about your historical characters. Are you going to incorporate actual historical characters in your novel? Guess what — you’re going to have to do research on them, too. You’ll need to find out quite a lot of information about them depending on what role they’ll be playing in your novel. You’ll need to find out where they were during the time the novel takes place. You’ll need to read about their characteristics and traits so you can portray them well as characters, and you’ll need to take into account how their personalities may have changed as they got older. Marie Antoinette as a queen and mother would have been a completely different person from Marie Antoinette the young dauphine. People grow up and learn a lot from the ages of fifteen to thirty.

3. Anachonisms much? No, potatoes weren’t grown in post-Roman Britain. Lamé didn’t come into existence until the 1920s, so no, it wasn’t a material used in court dresses of the French Empire or in Roman togas (forget what John Hurt wore in I, Claudius). If you’re not sure of something, make note of it in your manuscript and look it up later. I have a few things marked with “needs more research” or “find out x.”

4. But where do I look? Wikipedia isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it’s a good place to start if you need information on something simple. But in cases like this, Google is your best friend. There are a lot of bloggers who are history enthusiasts and historians who blog, and many times they can point you in the right direction with some tiny detail they might know or a promising resource. Looking for primary sources? There are loads of online archives, and if you’re looking for an account of a specific event by someone whose letters or memoirs have been published, you can usually find them on Archive.org or Project Gutenberg. If another author has previously written a book pertaining to the same subject matter as yours, and many times they list the sources they used for further reading. Many museums have digital collections of art, textiles, and crafts from the time, and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has a plethora of ebooks available for free download.

Painting: Young Woman Writing, by Giovanni Boldini
Young Woman Writing, by Giovanni Boldini (via WikiPaintings)

5. Timelines help. While writing her book, Mistress of the Sun, about the love affair of Louis XIV and Louise de la Vallière, author Sandra Gulland made a timeline detailing the events of the book, using different colors for each of her principal characters. What she ended up with was an outline for her plot, and it closely followed the actual historical events. So, in this case, being a plotter paid off.

Do any of you writerly Persephoneers have anything to add?

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2 thoughts on “Before You Start Writing that Historical Novel…”

  1. I’m currently writing a historical fanfiction. It’s not the same as writing a historical novel, but I’ve run into a lot of the same issues. Luckily for me, I have some experience with historical research and enjoy doing it. But, it’s very clear when other writers in my fandom have not done their research. I don’t mind people taking liberties where needed, but I agree that at least basic knowledge of the time period (or periods) makes for a better reading experience. Personally, I have found timelines to be indispensable when writing historical fiction.

    Great advice.

    1. Thanks! I’m working on one, too, that I’d eventually like to put up through Kindle Worlds, and it’s requiring more work than I thought, but that’s mostly because I am so anal. There is such a thing as taking liberties, but then there is plain inaccuracy. There’s nothing wrong with taking liberties so long as you say, “Hey, I’m taking liberties here, and here are the sources I used so you can find out what really occurred.” But some historical fiction authors–whose names will not be mention here, though one in particular had a hit miniseries based on her books–don’t admit they’re taking liberties and like to say their fiction is close to what happened, which LOLNOPE.

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