Friday, January 16, 2015

4 Keys to Great Historical Fiction

My good friend Kyla requested an article on a balanced mix of history and fiction in stories, and today I'm happy to address the topic! It's an interesting thing to think about--history implies that a book is faithful to a particular time period, while fiction implies that some of it is simply not true. Does that mean that everything must be accurate down to the stickler details? Or that a little free reign is permissible?

I think both, and here are four points I like to see in good historical fiction. :)

1. The Plotline Cannot Be Divorced From the Time Period. 
Number one test of the quality of any historical fiction is to ask if the exact same characters and plot work in a different time period. If a few small details could be changed for the story to take place in the 1950s instead of AD 500, then it's probably not the best historical fiction ever. While themes are universal, the time and setting are just as much characters as the people in a story. You can't put Harry and Jean from In the Reign of Terror in a 1776 setting. The French Revolution is essential to their plot. The M'Keithe family belongs in the Scottish Highlands; they'd never work the same in the Civil War. Rachel Coker's Scarlett and Frank belong in the hippie '60s; they wouldn't work elsewhere. Each era has certain themes and facts that are unique to it alone. Historical fiction worth its salt wraps those facts into the plot so tightly that the whole thing would unravel if those facts were removed.

2. The Character Mindset Matches the Era.
There is nothing more annoying than reading a Victorian-era tale with a woman who has to prove her capabilities, or a medieval story with a girl who wants to follow her dreams to travel the world. I'll give authors a point for unwanted marriages and elopements. Those have existed since before Shakespeare. But if the story is set in medieval times, then the men led in society, both in conversation, church, and work. Some authors choose to update the character mindsets for a modern audience. But the classic books--the books I most love--are ones where the author is faithful to what people would have believed and known at that time. It is possible to engage modern readers in that reality.

As I'm writing my own historical fiction, I'm having my doctors use several medicines that are neither ethical nor safe by today's standards. Since they live in WW1, I can only allow them to know what doctors would have known then. For instance, heroin was often used for different means than it would be used for today. They'd be very bad doctors by 21st century standards; but by 19th century standards they're using the latest and greatest. I'm as yet unpublished, so I don't know if I'll be allowed to keep that through the final draft, but I'm going to try.

3. The Important Details are Accurate. 
Douglas Bond seems to have a great handle on his history, and I love the way he incorporates the facts of the battles into his stories. All characterization quibbles aside, I think he's a great historian, and when he writes historical fiction, you know you're going to learn some things. The same goes for Ellis Peter's Cadfael novels; while I'm sure most visitors to Shrewsbury don't die of violence, the conflict of which monarch to side with rings true to English history. Percy Blakeney didn't rescue all those aristocrats for real, but I've learned more about Robespierre and Marat and the sans-culottes than I ever did in social studies.

I like historical fiction that gets births, deaths, marriages and battles in their correct location. You could insert a slight fiction here and there--but if it's a key event in real history, then it's key for the story as well.

4. The Unimportant Details are Fudged for the Magic of the Story.
Some novels are so accurate you can tell the author was paranoid about a reader finding they made up something. ;) I love fiction that reads like fiction, not a memoir/biography. For instance, K.M. Weiland's Behold the Dawn shifted some of the timing of the Crusades by a few weeks. That was one of her earlier works, but she did what was best for her character arc and plot journey, and I loved it. G.A. Henty, too, while keeping the details of the culture and the battles, kept his own fingerprint of British stoicism and had every main character the son of a high lord or king. That's fiction. It's good. While I'm against modernizing historical characters to advance a politically correct belief, I am all for inserting a relatable character that readers can use to live in the time period.

One of the most magical, perfect historical novels I've ever read is Jean Lee Latham's Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. It's written for children, but all ages relate--because it has the themes of hard work and suffering, loss and redemption. Jean distills the essence of fact--Bowditch's siblings and studies and indentureship--into the conversations he has with his masters and friends and fellow sailors. She shows Nat's knowledge through him gathering a group of sailors on deck to teach them about the stars. She takes what she knows, and projects that into what she doesn't know--so that, whether or not it's all true, it is plausible. Well done.

A historical novel doesn't need to be perfect; after all, the author wasn't there, and they're doing the best they can with the facts they have. As long as they have a love and passion for the time and setting as well as the characters and plot, and a judicious mix of fact and fiction, it's sure to make for an enjoyable read.



  1. What a great post! I think it's really important for the plot to be incorporated with the history, or else you feel like the author is trying to put it in as just extra facts. H. Rider Haggard did a good job with incorporating fact and fiction (although he did take a few liberties with the timing of things). You couldn't move Miriam or Godwin and Wulf to any other time period. :)
    I also thought your point of the character mindset matching the time period was really good. That's where you really need to know the worldview of your sources, as historians can subtlety change the worldview of the time period to what it wasn't.

    Thanks for writing this! I really enjoyed it...

    1. Allan French had problems. He mentioned Prince John once and that was IT. I was thinking of someone else I really loved today, but it slipped my mind. Oh well.

      Queen Sheba's Ring is also excellent historical fiction. :)

      Yup--if you're teaching history to the next generation, especially through fiction, then it is vital that you teach it as it is, not as you want it to be.

      I'm glad you enjoyed it. ;)


  2. Heroin!!! Schuyler! You're bad to the bone, you are ;)

    Love this post. It's definitely making me more excited about my day's work :D.

    1. Rofl, I didn't mean it was wicked for them to use it, just not wise. :P They used it as cough suppressant.

      I'm glad it gave you a boost!

  3. Excellent post! I've bookmarked it for future reference. ^.^ And I agree with Carrie-Grace, having a character's mindset match the time period is very important. :)

    Have you ever read "Johnny Tremain", Schuyler? You'd love it. :)

    1. Annie-dear! I have not read Johnny Tremain, though I know the story through the Disney film. I've added it to the list!

    2. You must, simply must, tell me what you think! Maybe over coffee? *grin* (do you even like coffee?)

    3. I've never had coffee, so I don't know. O.o Sent you an email with some possibilities! Let me know what you think. :)

  4. Schuyler, I love this post, and I totally agree with your points on what are keys of good historical fiction.

    The Plotline Cannot Be Divorced From the Time Period. That is definitely very important! I know personally what a hardship it is to do so, when for the sake of a story you wish you could squash this Emperor's persecution with this time of your story, etc. . . :D. Also, the measure of whether your novel is truly and properly a historical fiction is really framed in that question: "will it change too much, or even crumble if I change the setting/era/time? Will it be relatively the same?" Interestingly, my own novels are heavily involved in history - but while "The Crown of Life" has a lot of politics involved with the fictional plot-line being made up of several Ancient Roman historical events, "A Love that Never Fails" relies more on the characters' mindsets and the overall feel and details of the 1940s England and Australia, with only a few important dates/events to fit into the grand scale of the story. Both would not be the stories I am writing without the historical settings they're in, though; it is part of what makes the stories special to me, in a way! It isn't an easy thing to write, putting in all the details and working around facts/dates/authenticity of era setting, etc. but I've found having a historical guide - a timeline of history, if you will, as well as lots of historical tidbits and details about cultural life - aids me so much in writing out the plot and shades of my own story, fictionally. Do you find that too, Schuyler? It is a lot of fun!

    The two hardest parts are firstly finding the research material to base your historical writing on, and secondly, for me, being authentic in the dialogue and in the mindset of the characters. . . that can definitely be a challenge; but it is one that I enjoy! Yesterday at the bookfest (it was AMAZING by the way :)), I found a table of out-of-print/hard-to-find books which were wonderful . . . among the different vintage books, I found a Queenslander School Reader from the class of 1951 which I thought would be something really useful for my writing research, and I also found a set of three crumbly old-textbooks on medical surgery from 1909! I quite quickly thought of you, and was tempted to buy them just for fun ;). The definitions were very archaic and fascinating!

    I had to smile at your mentioning that bit of detail about the use of Medicine in your novel, 'War of Loyalties'; that's wonderful that you incorporated that into your writing! Makes me so happy. I definitely need to go more in-depth, and above the surface level with my own novel. It does take a long time though, to come up with all those details. Do you have a specific way or method of finding the research material, and then keeping a record of them for when you're writing? I'd be interested to know more about that!

    1. I love little historical details that make the story come alive. Half of them are things the reader would never know I researched--but I know they are there. And the story is stronger and more vivid for it. As far as "A Love That Never Fails", I think historical fiction can be just as valid if it's about the lesser-known details of a particular time. After all, plenty of books have been written about the war front--but writing a story about normal people living and coping far away from earth-shattering events is just as legitimate. And in time, you will unearth those details that you need.

      I am drooling over those medical textbooks! I wish I could find something like that....

      As far as research methods, I primarily use internet--historical society websites, medical websites, war memorial websites are invaluable. Some people have scanned old clothing magazines, and I found a vintage WW1 recipe website. Our state library system has several books about Folkestone and its hospitals. I don't know why in the world they would have them, except that I think God knew I would need them, and orchestrated it all in his loving providence. Also, I found a free book about Folkestone during WW1 online. It was a gold mine. ^_^ Since ALTNF is WW2, I think you could find more information than I have been able to.

      As far as organizing, I am terrible. I have folders on the computer and a messy hodge-podge of internet favorites. But Scrivener has places you can insert research notes, so I will probably take advantage of that with my next novels.

      Thanks for commenting, dear Joy! It is always wonderful to discuss novelling with you, and I wish you many blessings on your research and writing!

      Much Love,

  5. Aww, thanks so much for this post, Schuyler! <3
    I really enjoyed it; I hadn't thought of some of your points. As you know, I love history, but put into good historical fiction it is, as you say, magical. We do remember the Scottish Covenanters and the French Revolution and the Fall of Jerusalem so much better through the stories, don't we?

    I really need to read the Crown & Covenant Trilogy again...I was hoping to do them all in January, but I haven't gotten started yet. :P It's been quite some time since I've read them--way too long--and I have such good memories of them.

    I like what you and Carrie-Grace said about avoiding the changing of worldviews in the time period to what we want them to have been rather than what they actually were. ;)

    I hope you are having a blessed Sunday!

    1. The most memorable bits of history, I have found, are always in story form and always provoke a feeling response on the part of the reader.

      Oh, you'll love them! There's nothing more delightful than re-visiting an old friend. I have a few books I've been putting off for years, promising myself I'll get back to them, and I'm hoping to read two old favorites this year, Lord-willing.

      Hoping to get in touch with you soon, either by email or phone, just to chat. :)

      Schuyler <3


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...