Writing Historical Fiction
If you've thought about writing and publishing your own book,
you should also consider making a ebook
for easier distribution.
Financial Survival and Thrival
Many authors whose books never hit the bestseller lists still find their work deeply satisfying because they love researching and writing about the past. A few authors even make a good living writing historical fiction.
What skills and knowledge do you need to succeed?
Surprisingly few historical novelists have university degrees in history. Among those who do are some excellent writers. They include Steven Saylor, who writes a mystery series set in ancient Rome; Charmaine Craig, whose literary novel The Good Men won critical acclaim; and Harry Turtledove, who writes in a variety of genres from science fiction and alternative history to straight historical novels.
Some highly successful historical novelists have backgrounds in journalism. Geraldine Brooks worked as a newspaper reporter and authored contemporary nonfiction books based on her international reportage before writing Year of Wonders, March and People of the Book. Anita Diamant was a freelance journalist, contributing articles to newspapers and magazines, before she wrote her bestselling historical novel The Red Tent. Journalists know how to dig deep when researching and generally have people skills that help them write well about the feelings and aspirations of fictional characters.
Most authors of historical fiction, though, are novelists first and foremost. Today, with an extraordinary range of historical resources available through interlibrary loan programs and the internet, those who devote the time and effort necessary to thoroughly research particular historical periods or events can find the information they need to bring history alive. Knowing how to write a good story, one that hooks readers from the start and keeps them turning the pages to find out what happens next, is as crucial as getting the historical details right.
Resources to help you write better fiction:
Historical novelists must master all the basics of good fiction that successful contemporary novelists employ.
My favorite article on getting over the chorus of voices in our heads telling us we can't write (I know you've heard them) is a 2011 article in the New Yorker: Therapist for Blocked Writers. If your historical novel will include sex scenes, The Do's And Dont's of Writing Erotic Fiction is a short but exceptionally useful article about how to write them well.
A few general writing books I've found especially useful are:
Plot by Ansen Dibell (first published in 1988). There's a good reason why this oldie but goodie is still on the market after 20 years. I didn't feel I really had a grip on plot structure until I worked my way through it. More info from Powell's Books
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (2000). Lukeman is a New York literary agent, and this book is probably the best guide to basic manuscript revision for fiction I have ever worked with. Most of the self-published novels I have critiqued could, I believe, have developed into solid, interesting novels attractive to major publishers if the authors had studied this book thoroughly and applied Lukeman's suggestions. More info from Powell's Books
The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman (2002). After discussing the basics of good writing in The First Five Pages, Lukeman wrote this guide to more advanced techniques. More info from Powell's Books
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Maass is the New York agent who represents historical mystery author Anne Perry. Although his book is not targeted specifically to writers of historical fiction, he does use examples from historical novels. This book is for writers who want their books to sell well enough to allow them to pursue full-time careers as novelists. More info from Powell's Books
Resources specifically for writing historical fiction:
There are important differences between contemporary and historical fiction that aspiring historical novelists ignore at their peril. Among the most important: People who lived in the past had very different attitudes about many aspects of life than we do today. Historical fiction falls flat when the characters seem like modern men and women dressed up in fancy costumes.
Some writers worry that readers might not like characters who exhibit typical prejudices of their time. But flawed characters who gain the readers' sympathy and understanding despite their flaws are a key element of good fiction set in any time period. Novels like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, about a boy in Afghanistan; Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin, about a seventeenth century prostitute; and Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt, about an angry young man during the English Civil War, are just three of many about deeply flawed characters readers love. These authors balance their characters' flaws with qualities we can respect and admire, gaining sympathy for them without excusing prejudice, prostitution, cruelty and the like. Studying novels like this to see how the authors achieve this can increase your chances of writing historical fiction with characters who are true to their time and win readers' hearts.
You do have to get the customs and technological details right. Did people use forks yet while dining? What type of head covering would your heroine have worn? Details like this can be maddening to research, because most historians focus on political structures and evolving religious and philosophical beliefs. Wikipedia can often be a useful guide to fussy details of this sort (see, for example, the Wikipedia article on the fork). A useful aid to researching historical details and eliminating anachronisms from your story is historical novelist Susanne Alleyn's book Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths.
Historical novelist Elizabeth Crook includes an excellent article on her website about the "Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction". John Crowley writes about the research process unique to historical novelists in his insightful and very funny article, "The Accu-Thump of Googletarity". Finally, Linda Proud, who has taught a summer course at Oxford University on writing historical fiction, began an excellent blog in Spring 2010 which offers her thoughts on how to write well-researched, well-written historical fiction and includes fun exercises to try your hand at in the "comments" section. Don't miss it!
To my knowledge, four authors have written guides to writing historical fiction:
The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom (2010) is a long-overdue guide to researching and writing historical novels in the age of the internet. Thom cautions against believing everything you read on the net and encourages writers to think creatively about how to broaden their research and make it as thorough as possible. See Review or More info from Powell's Books
Writing Historical Fiction by Rhona Martin (1988). This slender, 91-page book contains a lot of good advice, although some of the specifics are out of date. More info from Amazon.com
How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction by Persia Woolley (1997). Woolley includes some useful tips that go beyond the actual writing process. For example, she includes a chapter on research travel and how to make a trip pay for itself. In today's economy, Woolley's practical advice is more important than ever.
More info from Amazon.com
Writing Historical Fiction by Marina Oliver (2005). Oliver is a British author of historical romance novels. Her writing guide has not been published in the U.S., but can be ordered from overseas. More info from Powell's Books
Online Research Sources:
The web is no substitute for in-depth research in specialized books on the history of the particular time and place you're writing about, and it's certainly no substitute for travel to a historic site, but it can be tremendously valuable. Are you stuck in the middle of a chapter because your character has to buy something, and you don't know what coins he has in his pocket? Check a website for coin collectors, such as Don's World Coin Gallery. Websites with bibliographies can help you find the books you need to research more deeply. The History of Christianity: 99 Essential Resources lists 99 websites, many of which include articles and/or bibliographies on specialized topics. For example, check out the review of Holy Sh*t, a directory of medieval curse words, at Medievalists.net.
Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels appearing on bestseller lists. Even so, many more contemporary novels appear every year than the relatively small number of historical novels published. Your historical novel must be well written and highly polished to interest a publisher.
This website includes novels published by POD ("print-on-demand" or "publish-on-demand") publishers. This process is essentially self-publishing, since the publishing house does only minimal screening, if any, before accepting a book for publication, and the author is 100% responsible for marketing and selling the books. POD publishers usually do not charge authors for printing costs, since the books are not printed until and unless they are sold, but they do take a percentage of the sale price of each book. It's a good idea to thoroughly understand the pros and cons of using this type of publisher before you sign a contract.
The Science Fiction Writers of America website includes an article about POD publishers. An article on the pros and cons of self-publishing is featured on the Writer's Helper website.
If you are lucky (and hard-working) enough to find a commercial publisher for your historical novel, your work is not over. The halcyon days of the 1920s, when a devoted editor saw promise in a rough draft of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel and helped him drastically revise it, are long over. Today, in addition to submitting an already highly polished manuscript, novelists are also expected to help market their books. Michelle Moran's two-part article telling what she learned about marketing when her historical novels were published is a superb resource for authors who want to give their novels the best chance of success.
Financial Survival and Thrival:
Published writers who make lots of money do exist, but they are not the norm. A typical advance for a first-time author is $5,000, paltry recompense for a manuscript that may have taken five or ten years to write. Even J.K. Rowling knows how to live on a pittance. Before her Harry Potter books became runaway bestsellers, she was a single mother living on welfare. The commencement address she delivered at Harvard in 2008, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination", is well worth reading, since anyone who writes is almost sure to experience failure of one kind or another on a regular basis. Learn to see your failures as stepping stones to success.
So, how to survive in the meantime? "Don't quit your day job" is hoary and good advice (which I, personally, did not follow, unless this website counts). But what if your day job doesn't pay very well? What if you've been laid off? - or fired for spending too much time staring into space thinking about the characters in your novel?
Here are some books recommended by Powell's for surviving and thriving on a budget:
The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen offers advice on growing and preserving your own food, becoming less dependent on electrical and petro-power, and using low-cost, natural cleaning supplies.
Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez is designed to help you organize your priorities so you can live well on less money, resolve conflicts between your personal values and the way you actually live, and get out of debt.
Don't Get Caught With Your Skirt Down: A Practical Girl's Recession Guide by Jill and Daniel Keto is, I daresay, useful to both genders, offering guidance on haggling for purchases, cutting food bills, and eliminating car payments, among other topics.
Finally, our attitudes and habits of thought about money can promote or hamper our ability to bring more of it into our lives. People who write often care deeply about values that have nothing to do with money, and our culture may have indoctrinated us to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can't live in harmony with our highest personal values if we have a lot of money. This can get in the way of one's earning power. My favorite book about how to shift these mental blocks is Mark Fisher's How to Think Like a Millionaire. Don't be put off by the title - it's a far more spiritual book than the title would suggest.
Back to Top