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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: Decisions, Decisions

So I'm going to start a new blog series on historical fiction.  Why? you ask.  Because although The Chivalrous Welshman is contemporary, the rest of the series are not.  Owain's novel, Of Saints and Sinners is 99.999% historical.  The Hands of Time series will be majority historical.  Other future series and novels will be majority or entirely historical.  So I thought it important to impart some tidbits of knowledge and form on writing HF.

This installment is simply about preliminary decisions.  You've already made your first decision; you want to write historical fiction.  Chances are, this did not happen in a vacuum.  Maybe you saw a movie or a documentary, maybe read a book, but something inspired you to write historical fiction.  If this novel idea did spark in a vacuum, however, well, you have a lot more decisions to make.  Let's go through them.

When and where?

In school, this was called the "setting" of a story.  When and where is your story going to take place?  For historical fiction, we should add another interrogative and ask "how long?"  What time span is your story going to cover?

Of Saints and Sinners covers from about 1820 to 2006-ish, with a significant jump in between, from 1855 to 1923.  The Hands of Time is going to range far more significantly, from about 1715 to 2013, again with a significant jump from 1970-ish to 2013.  Those jumps are significant, and they are a huge factor in the story.  Maybe yours won't have magic Time Portals, but you should consider the span of your timeline.

Typically, HF falls into two categories for timelines: a character's lifespan, or a significant event.  We'll cover those in the next installment.

Who?

Once you figure out when and where your story takes place, you need to populate your world with people.  Chances are, unless you're writing historical NON-fiction, your main character is going to be a fictional person, a skin that readers can slip into and experience the things going on around them.  Probably they have a fictional family, too.

But they are not the only people in the whole world, right?  You need neighbors, friends, townspeople, and a governing body of some form.  It's a safe bet that common people, especially the further back you go, don't have a lot of information to their name.  They might appear only on a census record, a marriage certificate, a tax record, even a jail record.  So while these people may have existed, they can still be used fictionally.

The higher up the food chain you go, the more information is available.  Governors, presidents, kings and queens, these people may have one or more biographies written about them.  It would do you well to read some of these if they play any decent part in your story, or even if they don't.  We'll go over this in greater detail in a future installment.

What?

This question asks what the focus of your story is.  This is not necessarily about your character, but it is the guiding principle of your plot.  Is your story a historical romance (very popular in war novels)?  Is it about a political struggle, certain people trying to keep power amid troubled times, or other people trying to gain power by overthrowing the regime?  Is your story about exploration of the human condition via a series of events?  Is it about exploration and survival, Lewis and Clark perhaps, or some poor soul exiled to Siberia?

Many times, there will be several plots intermingling--a king trying to keep his power while trying to woo his frustrated wife and worried about his son who is fighting in the war--but the focus should be the one to tie them all together.

While some of these things should be decided before you start writing (such as the when and where), others will typically unfold in the process of writing and editing.  This is not an excuse not to do some planning, but being too rigid can be just as detrimental as too open and unprepared.

World and Current Events

While your story may not have anything to really do with war or politics, they are still very present in everyday conversation.  Having a general idea of what is going on in the world can bring some livelihood to your conversations.  Plus everyone always has an opinion on current events, which can actually help in character development, as long as it's real conversation or arguing, and not manufactured tension.

Essential Elements

For any story, you need to consider small elements.  These are things like clothes, housing, and inventions.  While you can sometimes be forgiven for slip-ups (bringing in inventions a year or two early, etc.), sometimes the inclusion of these details can make a story feel more real, more alive.

***

Each of these things, and other elements as I think of them, will be covered in more detail in future posts.

-Brooke Shaffer

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