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  • Historical Fiction 101

    2011 - 10.20

    Historical Fiction 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Historical Fiction

    Are you an author who has been toying with the idea of writing a historical fiction? Writing historical fiction can be both a challenging and a rewarding endeavor, and depending how you go about doing it, you can create a fascinating story that readers will remember and enjoy. However, many authors who write historical fiction or fan fiction often balk on their great story idea simply because they did not do the research it takes to compose the perfect historical fiction.

    Writing historical fiction takes a much different approach because the story takes place in a bygone era. People in certain eras had a much different way of life, speech, fashion, and ideals when compared to modern times. Read on for a comprehensive guide to getting your historical fiction off to a good start.

    Exposition

    Before you begin to write your story, you probably have some idea in your head as far as what you want your story to be about and what you want to happen in your plot. But before we get to put those ideas down on paper (or in your favorite word processing program), you need to ask yourself some important questions: What do you want to write about? What is the setting of the story, as in, where and when does it take place? Who do you want to write about? What will be the conflict of the story? Figuring out these things and making note of them will not only help you organize your ideas, but it will help you develop a sound foundation for the rest of the story. If you have trouble organizing your thoughts in your head, try using a graphic organizer.

    Characters

    Now that you are thinking about your setting, conflict and plot, you probably need to focus on your characters. I happen to be the kind of person who develops the main character(s) and then I write my story around the character while changing or adding things about that character as I go. This method may not work for you, but you should at least be thinking about what kind of character you want and how he or she fits into the time period of your story. Things that should strongly be taken into consideration are gender roles, ideals and everyday life pertaining to your specific time period. For example, I happen to write Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction, so most of my stories take place in the mid 18th century. Because my heroine was female, I had to research gender roles of women and what a typical, middle class 18th century woman would do with her time and what she and others would consider acceptable and unacceptable. For example, a woman wearing pants was completely taboo as it was considered improper for a woman to show her ankles. Of course, I came across the pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny who disguised themselves as men and were a part of Calico Jack’s crew who completely rejected those ideals. I also had to research eighteenth century men and women’s clothing so that I could write historically accurate descriptions for my characters’ appearance. It would not suffice to say, ‘she wore a blue dress’ because dresses were not called dresses; they were called gowns and therefore has a much different meaning than the modern meaning of gown. Women also did not wear corsets; they wore stays, and both men and women had a specific order in which they put on their clothing.

    Research

    Once you figure out the main aspects of setting, what and who you want to write about, you are now ready to begin researching the time period in which the story takes place. The research is probably the most time consuming part because there is so much information to gather that is crucial to making your story work. For example, when writing a story that takes place during the Civil War, it would be wise to research the war itself, such as the main political issues surrounding the war, major battles and how it ended. It is also important to research notable people in this time period, though often not necessary (though you should at least know who Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were). The most important part, however, is not researching the facts around the time of the Civil War but rather the ways of life during that time. In other words, how did people feel about the Civil War? How did people go about their everyday lives during the Civil War? You also might want to ask yourself how your character felt about the Civil War. Is he or she a free African American living in the north, or is your character a southern abolitionist helping slaves escape to freedom?

    One way to go about researching is simply by using good old Google. There are plenty of academic sites and blogs that often have very valuable and interesting information that can be useful for your story. For example, my Pirates of the Caribbean fan fictions take place at sea during the golden age of sail where tall ships were the most prominent form of transportation and trade between continents. I used the key words ‘age of sail’ and ‘18th century sailing’ and I managed to find many internet sources on the age of sail as well as some nautical terms for my story.

    Another way to research your time period of choice is to read literature from that time period. Literature is often a glimpse into the everyday lives of people during a certain time period (i.e. Charles Dickens’s Victorian England), and it can also be helpful when deciding how to write your dialogue (covered below). Historical literature tells more of how people felt about events rather than historical facts, and this is what you want for your historical fiction.

    And, of course, we have the library which contains a plethora of tomes dedicated to your chosen historical time period.

    Dialogue

    I mentioned above that reading historical literature is often helpful when writing dialogue. People from bygone eras used much different speech patterns and used much different vocabulary than we do in modern times. For example, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the 14th century, is a collection of tales in which a group of pilgrims travelling together from Southwark to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral decide to hold a story telling contest to pass the time on their long journey. The Canterbury Tales is written in the Middle English dialect which later gave birth to the Early Modern English used during Shakespeare’s time. During the 14th century, pronunciations of words were somewhat different. For example, the ‘e’ on the end of words was pronounced, like the word ‘care’ would be pronounced [ˈkaːrə] rather than /ˈkɛər/. If you were composing a historical fiction taking place during that particular time period, The Canterbury Tales would probably be the most accurate piece of literature to read if you wanted to gain some idea of dialect back in those days.

    When writing your dialogue, be wary of modern terms such as ‘okay’, curse words, and other jargon. People many years ago did not curse or insult in the same way we do. For example, your character might call an incredibly stupid person a ‘dunderwhelp’ in the dialect of their period. Additionally, if you are writing phrases in a foreign language, refrain from using an online translator. The grammar and words can come out wonky in the other language, so your best bet is to ask someone who speaks that particular language to translate it for you or use an English to [insert other language here] dictionary to help you.

    Romance

    Does your story have an element of romance? Most of my stories, modern or not, have romance in them to go along with the other plot points. If you are writing romance in your historical fiction, it is important to keep in mind that dating centuries ago was much different than it is in modern times. In modern times, a man and a woman usually go out to dinner and engage in some type of social activity such as a movie or dancing, and they do this without the interference of family. We have much more sexual freedom in modern times thanks to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s as opposed to past time periods where a woman having sexual relations before marriage was considered so taboo that men often did not even consider her for marriage, although it would be wrong to say that premarital hanky panky did not happen.

    In the past, dating was called courting, and it was often a ritual by which a man would choose a woman as his potential wife. The average age coming of age was often as young as thirteen years old due to the high mortality rate of bearing children. After choosing a potential mate, the young man and his parents would arrange a meeting with the object of his interest and her family and set up a meeting where the young couple to be could get to know one another better (with the parents having tea in another room). A ‘date’ between potential couples often involved attending dances at the local church in the company of family and friends.

    Marriage in upper social circles was more often an arrangement of convenience with little thought to love because most marriages were arranged for mutual benefit of the families. The son and his family would have to sit at a negotiating table and convince the family of his bride that he had the means to support his new wife in the manner to which she was accustomed. The father of the bride was expected to provide a dowry, usually in the form of land or money that would set the contract for the union between the son and daughter. In these higher social circles, the social status of the potential husband or wife was paramount, and could be the deal maker or breaker. In other words, the Governor’s daughter would realistically not be allowed to wed the blacksmith.

    In lower social circles, it was not as imperative to wed for property since people were generally poorer. It was much more feasible for a man and a woman to marry for love as well as mutual benefit, and they often did not need the approval of their parents, although obtaining the blessing was still an honorable thing to do. Once an engagement happened, the couple would take out the Banns, which was an announcement of engagement in their church and was much cheaper than purchasing a marriage license.

    A great resource for reading more about courtship and marriage can be found here.

    Planning and Writing Your Plot

    One thing that I often run into when planning a plot is how and when to introduce characters and make certain plot points happen. Personally, I am a chronological writer, so I tend to plan my chapters in the order in which I want things to happen. Therefore, you may want to consider the use of a chapter outline in which you summarize each chapter and make notes about where plot points happen. It is also a useful tool when you need to go back and look at something in a previous chapter to avoid plot holes later on.

    Of course, this method may not work with everyone as I know writers who write the ending of their story and flesh the rest of the plot using the ending as their guide. I also know people who simply prefer to plan the beginning and ending and just fill in the details along the way. No matter what method you use, go with whatever makes you feel comfortable.

    Revision and Final Draft

    Now that you’ve written your story, it’s time to proofread and edit. Be aware that the built in spell check in your word processor of choice is not infallible. In fact, it often does not catch things like homophone usage, the dreaded floating letter, commonly misused words, and overused words. It also doesn’t pay attention to writing styles and often flags sentences as fragments when they were not meant to be fragments. Never assume that you are the best editor because even though you think you have fixed all your editing mistakes, be rest assured there are more that you probably didn’t catch. To help with this problem, find a beta reader and be sure it is someone who can give you constructive criticism and feedback. Try to avoid having your friends beta read because more often than not, friends are not forthcoming or objective in their reviews, and they may withhold criticism for the sake of sparing bruised feelings on your part. If you are publishing your story through a site, see if they offer a section for finding a beta reader much like fanfiction.net does (if it is a fan fiction). If this is not possible, look into some editing software such as Editor if you are able to purchase it or a free online alternative such as NovelStudio 2010.

    Be sure to format your story and do not put it in a huge block of words. Improper formatting can turn readers off to your story because they will find it too frustrating to read. Wait at least 24 hours before you submit your story. As someone who often stays up writing until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, I can tell you from personal experience that fatigue makes you write crazy things. I know how exciting it is to get your story out there for the world to read, but if your story is ‘hot off the press’ and still marred with errors, the world will not want to read it. You want your story to be perfect!

    Publishing

    Now that you’ve finished the revisions and final draft, you are now ready to publish. If you are submitting to a site such as fictionpress.com, which publishes original fiction online, be sure to check that your material uploaded properly to the site. Use the document preview to read everything in your chapter and even do a live preview of the chapter if the feature is offered to see how it looks on the site.

    Accept early on that not everyone is going to like your story. Even bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have harsh critics, so it’s okay if people don’t like your writing. It’s really all a matter of taste. If reviews are enabled on your site, be sure to acknowledge people who are reading your story and respond to them personally in some manner if you can. If you have someone who flames your story, do not give a response! I once had a person who flamed a fan fiction of mine, and I made the mistake of firing back because I just could not keep my mouth shut. Needless to say, I had a flame war going within my private messages. I also had a friend of mine who had a flame war going on in her reviews page because her friends started replying to the person that flamed her story, and she was caught in the middle of a flame war on her reviews page between the reviewer and her friends.

    If you happen to receive constructive criticism, bear in mind that it is not flaming. Even with all the best editing software and beta readers in the world, you may inevitably get constructive criticism. Good constructive criticism (and how I critique when I beta read or review) is when the reader brings up things they liked about your story but pointed out things they felt you could have improved. They often (and should) offer advice on how to improve the flaws they found within your story. You do not have to take every piece of advice, but do keep an open mind to what others have pointed out. Explore the suggestion at the very least and simply go with what works for you. A good writer is always improving.

    If you are met with harsh criticism, however, you need to learn to accept it and be mature about it. I admit, even I have difficulty with this. It is very difficult for a writer when her story isn’t loved by every person on the planet because this was something that you worked very hard on! Instead, try to learn from the comments, even though you want nothing more than to find that person and throttle them.

    If you are publishing on a website and you plan to update as you write, be sure to work at least three or four chapters ahead. Until recently, I was very bad about posting as I wrote the chapters, because life or writer’s block would sometimes get in the way, and I would wind up not updating for months. Therefore, I would wind up losing some or most of my audience, depending on the lapse between updates. If you have the extra chapters on hand and edited, you can put up those chapters and attend to other and more important needs.

    Last but not least, keep in mind that while writing historical fiction may be a challenge at first, it gets easier to write, as with any genre. Your current story may be your best one now, but this will not be the case the more you write and allow yourself to evolve and explore writing historical fiction or any type of genre for that matter.

    Now that I have given you some insight on writing a history-based story or novel, I wish you good luck with your endeavor and happy writing!

    *Originally published on DeviantArt

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