I just got two more books in the mail today. That makes six books on various aspects of a murky time in Ireland’s history, the subject of a book I’m just starting. I love writing historical fiction because I love to read it. Getting totally immersed in a rollicking good story, then discovering you’re a quasi-expert on a particular era in history? What could be more fun!
But the only way historical novels work is if the story is rollicking good, and the history is accurate. These 7 steps will get you off to a good start:
- Read the kind of books you’d like to write. Historical romance? Historical mystery? Historical adventure? Each is different in pace and approach. Also read about the period of history that interests you. A book on the crusades will much different than one set during the Roaring 20s.
- Consult many different sources. Authors make mistakes. They also tend to tweak facts to fit their stories. But readers of historical fiction expect you to know what you’re talking about, and to get your facts right. If you don’t, you will hear about it.
- Know your setting. I personally make it a rule not to write about places I haven’t been. True, Ireland has changed since the seventeenth century. But it is still Ireland. I can describe the green hills in spring, and the baby lambs gamboling through it, far better for having spent time there. And since I’ve pretty much traveled the entire island, I have an idea of the difference between the east and west coast, between the north and south.
- Lay out your story. Your story doesn’t really have to be rollicking, but it must be compelling. All your research will mean nothing if you fail to build a good story.
- Gather reference pictures. What do your characters look like? What makes a ship of the era unique? If you refer to something in particular—a locket, say, or weapon or a unique toy—have a picture of it before you.
- Decide on the manner of dialogue. It’s important to establish and hold onto the flavor of your characters, but I can tell you from experience, it is really hard to tell a story in dialect. Telling your story from third person will help. Also, decide on a few patterns of speech you can use consistently, then let go of the rest.
- Keep your story moving. I know, I know, the history tempts you to slow down and throw in a few more interesting tidbits. But your story must continue to be engaging. If you lose that, you’ll just be writing another history book.
“To see the years touch ye gives me joy,” he whispered, “for it means that ye live.”
Author Diana Gabaldon, Outlander