Historical fiction can be among the most rewarding things to write, and the most challenging. The wealth of material available means that you can immerse yourself and your readers in another time and place, evoking a life quite unlike our own.
But those readers have expectations. It’s important that you make the history convincing.
Read in Breadth
To write convincingly about the past you have to understand it. That means research.
The vast quantity of writing on history means that you can never read everything of relevance, so you need to be structured in your approach. Start by reading books that give you a broad understanding of your era. For this, focus on books that have been published relatively recently – as a rough guideline, sometime in the past ten years. These are more likely to incorporate the latest research and insights.
Read in Depth
Once you’ve done that, get specific. Hunt out books and articles that focus on specific areas of interest to you. For example, if you were writing a story set on a Napoleonic warship you might read books about specific battles, descriptions of the lives of sailors at the time, or biographies of famous captains. If one character is intensely religious then read something on that brand of faith at that time. You can often identify these sources from the bibliographies of other books, and if not then try an academic library catalogue.
While the initial reading gave you breadth of knowledge, focused reading will give you depth and rich details to include. More recent books are still likely to be better than older ones, but don’t worry so much about if they’re recent – the more specific a topic, the more likely that you’ll have to go a long way back to find a book about it.
Try to get books from libraries if you can. It may be worth arranging access to a local university library specifically for this purpose. Save yourself money by only buying the books you know you’ll want to refer to all the time, or that are so obscure you can’t get them elsewhere.
Understand Your Sources
All sources, historical and modern, have biases. If you let these take over your work then it may spoil the story for readers. So take the time to understand those biases.
For example, England’s move towards Protestantism has been interpreted as both a top-down change made by leading figures and a bottom-up one fuelled by popular faith. Views on this are hotly debated, and a study guide aimed at students in the last years of high school, such as Keith Randell’s Henry VIII and the Reformation in England, can provide a useful introduction to the debates.
It’s up to you which side of a historical debate, if any, you use in crafting your story. The important thing is to know about different perspectives, and not to take any perspective as gospel.
Accurate Isn’t the Same as Convincing
Now comes the sneakiest trick in historical fiction, and the one that makes many historians squirm.
Writing convincingly isn’t the same as writing accurately.
For the most part, you want to be accurate. Few authors can get away with taking as many liberties with history as the film Braveheart did. But there are times when you have to let the details slip.
For example, some names that have become very fashionable in recent years were also popular in past centuries. Because they were out of fashion for most of the 20th century, to us they sound very modern. Using them in a novel set in the renaissance would be accurate, but would also seem out of place to readers. It would make your historical fiction less convincing.
Be accurate when you can, but be aware of when accuracy may become incomprehensible or unconvincing.
Don’t Show Off
You’ve done your research, you’ve understood the debates, you’ve cut out the jarring parts. Now you want to put in everything else you’ve learnt, right?
Too much detail can be as damaging as too little. Readers are coming to you for entertainment, not a history lesson. If the flow of your story is interrupted by a historical knowledge-dump then you’ll lose their attention. Very few people can get away with the heavy-handed exposition of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – maybe only Stephenson himself. So include the details that are relevant and evocative, but leave out the rest.
Convincingly evoking the past is about understanding history and understanding when to leave it behind. Get that balance right, and readers will return again and again to travel with you into the past.