Get The Romance Writer's Handbook -
Rules for Writing Historical Fiction
By Elizabeth Crook
We grow up being told to write
what we know, but history is the unknown. You
have to learn almost everything about a period and the
social customs just to get your characters out of their
beds, (or off of their skins,) and feed them breakfast.
#1: Sweat the Small Stuff.
The authenticity of historical fiction depends on your
knowledge and use of historical detail. It is not enough
to say a character walked down the street. The reader has
to be able to see the street, see the conveyances; he has
to smell the smoke from the factories or the sewage in
the gutter. If there are street vendors, he has to know
what theyre selling. This is a new world: the
reader cant fathom it unless you give him images.
These should be accurate and not recycled from old
Here are two suggestions apart from the usual methods of
1. Find experts on
the topics you need to learn about. Its easier to
track down someone who knows about sheep ranching in the
1890s or the origins of the New York subway system,
and to call them up when you need to know about scabies
or the early methods of blasting tunnels, than it is to
find, in documents or on the internet, the exact answer
to every question that comes up in the course of writing
a book. If you're going to write a scene involving a
train wreck in 1891, get some books on train wrecks, read
enough to know what youre talking about, google the
authors and find out where they work. Call them up and
see if theyll talk to you. Latch on to the friendly
ones. What about the couplers? you can ask
them, having read enough to know that faulty couplers
were a major factor in train wrecks. If this is
1891, what kind of couplers would we have? I once
needed to know about Mormons in Mexico. I googled
Mormons in Mexico, found a woman who had
written a dissertation on a Mormon settlement near Juarez
and tracked her down through the school. She spent two
hours on the phone with me describing vividly the Mormon
settlement that my characters needed to visit. Dozens of
experts on a wide range of topics have generously helped
me in similar ways.
If your story takes place after catalogs
were in use, get hold of reprints of old catalogs. I have
an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog that has descriptions of,
and prices for, almost every personal item used by people
of that time: hardware, books, stationery, toys, guns,
toiletries, wallpaper, stoves, laundry equipment,
harnesses and saddlery -- the list goes on and on. It
represents the lifestyle of that decade.
#2: Dump the Ballast.
In order to write authentic historical fiction you must
know a period of time well enough to disappear daily
through a wormhole to the past and arrive at the location
of your story. There you must understand the customs and
use the manners perfectly enough to be accepted by people
walking the streets (if there are streets) and to dress
yourself, and make a living. This said, the major trick
of writing good historical fiction is not in compiling
research or knowing the details, but in knowing the
details to leave out. Try to avoid overwriting. Keep
perspective on what will interest the reader. Historical
fiction writers tend to be overly conscientious and
excited by minutia: if you succumb to excess, and put in
too much detail, then go back later and take some of it
out. Think of your novel as a boat that is about to sink
from having too much weight on board: some of the loved
items will have to go. Toss them over with impunity!
Throw them out! If a rare, surprising statistic, or a
moving anecdote, or an obscure reference you saw to an
interesting thing that happened in the county adjacent to
the one where your story takes place, does not advance
your plot or provide your reader with important
information about your characters, then it is irrelevant
to your story and must go overboard.
Keep in mind that the care, and time, it took to assemble
all that you have just thrown out has not been wasted. It
was necessary to gather these facts and assess their
worth in order to know which ones to save.
# 3: Keep Your Conscience Clean.
If your characters are based on real people and you are
using the names, be reasonably responsible to the
originals. You are probably going to have to fill in a
lot of gaps in the historical record: you may know from
the record what a person did and when he did it, but not
why. Its the why that defines his
character. Ask yourself: Am I getting this right? Am I
getting it close to right? Am I doing this person a
#4: Resist Judging Your Characters.
We live in the 21st century with certain shared values:
our society disapproves of prejudice and chauvinism and
provincialism. But your characters are people of their
own times; allow them to be bigoted or politically
backwards. Dont pass judgment on them, dont
apologize for their mistakes, and dont attempt to
make them all into free thinkers who are ahead of their
times. You have to be able to see the story from their
perspective, even if it offends you. If you judge your
characters, you will date your book. Years from now when
your own moral sensibilities are antiquated, your book
will be too.
#5: Watch Out for First Person.
I put down three books recently because I was annoyed
with the first person viewpoint, which came across as
self-absorbed. Unless youre writing in the form of
letters or journals, make sure any first-person character
has a good reason to be telling his story. People tend
not to like people who notice themselves too much or
describe themselves or seem overly aware of how others
perceive them. Anyone relating a story about himself --
what he said, what he was wearing, what inflection he had
in his voice or what gesture he made as he spoke some
pronouncement -- we dismiss as annoying and
self-important. We feel the same about characters. There
are many beautiful books written in first person, but
know the challenge of this before you start out, and be
sure to give a credible reason why your character needs
to tell his story and why he deserves an audience.
#6: Dont Get Bogged Down by Back-story.
It is easy to be overly dutiful and bore your readers
with too much background information delivered too soon.
There is no surer way to lose your reader than to answer
every question before he wonders about it. Dont
explain everything up front or set things up too
thoroughly. Instead, let your story unfold dramatically.
Clarity will emerge eventually. The trick is to delay
telling back-story for as long as possible. You will find
that most of it is never needed. It percolates up through
the real story when the real story gets going.
#7: Anticipate a Long Process.
Historical novels usually take several years to write, as
they require research at every turn. You wont
always be able to anticipate what youll need to
know for a scene, and will constantly have to be
returning to your references. This is entirely different
from writing contemporary fiction.
Take, for example, in my part of the world, a trip from
Austin, Texas to the nearby town of San Marcos. If you
are going to write a present-day scene in which your
character makes this trip, you will simply need to put
him into a vehicle -- a pickup, or a Volvo -- and head
him south for forty minutes on the flat terrain of
interstate 35, passing strip malls and fields and the
town of Buda. He will then take the exit marked
Wonder World, named for a local cave and
visitors center, and arrive in San Marcos. The only
research needed to write this scene will be to drive the
But if your character takes this journey in 1906, you
will have to learn a few things before starting him out,
and learn more things along the way. First of all, you
need to know where the road is, and whats on either
side of it, and what kind of conveyance your character is
driving. If its a flatbed wagon, whats
pulling it -- a horse, a half-lame mule, two mules? How
often do mules need water? How much traffic will there
be? Any cars? What kind of food or luggage do you have
along? And what if a wheel breaks, and you have to fix
it, and you cut yourself with a rusty tool -- how do you
disinfect the cut? Do you even know about disinfection?
When did people figure out where tetanus came from? And
-- assuming that you eventually make it to San Marcos,
whats in San Marcos, anyway? As for the Wonder
World exit -- when was the cave called Wonder
Cave actually discovered?
But here is where the magic comes in: you begin to think,
Wow. The discovery of Wonder Cave. Now that would
make a scene . . . And then suddenly you have a
story, and a book to write. The only problem, of course,
is that you will soon find out that Wonder Cave was
discovered in 1898 instead of 1906, so you will have to
move your story back eight years and find out what sort
of vehicles they drove in 1898 and along what road, and
the rest of it, or else joggle the facts and sacrifice
credibility in the name of literary license. Or ditch
Writing historical fiction is like trying to get to San
Marcos when you have no car, you dont know where
the road is, and you have never in your life harnessed a
half-lame mule to a flatbed wagon.
Assume it is going to be a while before you arrive.
None of these rules, obviously, is iron-clad. Im
sure there is a brilliant counter-example somewhere for
each and every one of them. I hope you find them useful.
Good luck! Happy Travels! Gods speed.
© Copyright Elizabeth Crook. All Rights Reserved
About the Author:
Elizabeth Crook is the author of three novels The Night
Journal (Viking; February 2006; 0-670-03477-0), Promised
Lands (Doubleday 1994) and The Ravens Bride
(Doubleday, 1991), and has been published in anthologies
and in periodicals such as Texas Monthly,
Publishers Weekly, and the Southwestern Historical
Quarterly. Born in Houston, she has lived in Texas,
Australia, and Washington, D.C, and currently lives in
Austin with her husband and two children.
For more information, please visit www.elizabethcrookbooks.com