OPINION PIECE: Writing Historical Fiction


In addition to being a museum curator, I'm also a budding novelist. Budding novelist sounds better than wannabe writer. It all boils down to writing novels in my spare time, just for fun. You can probably guess what genre they usually are. Yeah, historical fiction or historical fantasy. If I do write pure fantasy, it's got a heavy basis in real history. (Currently I'm trying to branch out and tackle the exact opposite genre: Science Fiction. I can't even decide on the main character's name.) 

Why am I babbling about this? Because once every couple of months, I get to write a post on whatever I like. (Every month that we have a fifth Thursday). And I want to talk about my other great passion. 

Although I'm more curator than author, I do have some tips on writing any fiction with a strong historical base. 


1. Set the mood

One difficult with writing historical fiction is getting tone mixed. History is jumbled together as a monolith in our minds and it can actually affect the mood of your book. Music and sound (even without words) can affect your verbiage and the way you tackle the scene. If I want two characters to have a discussion about the meaning of life on a bench in a park, I could get two very different things depending on if I listened to Medieval festival music or Soviet propaganda anthems. 

My favorite website is tabletopaudio.com for atmosphere, ambience, and music. Try out 1920s Speakeasy. It's one of my favorites. This site can also be used for just about any genre. If you want something specific, you're likely going to have to go digging. You don't need to be specific down to the very minute in history. This is one thing you can brush with broad strokes because it serves as inspiration for tone. 


2. Move from the library to the typewriter

At least under-researchers get something written. Many a writer spends more time researching than writing. I won't give you an arbitrary length of time that you should research, since everyone absorbs information at varying degrees. But no wishy-washy nonsense. You want to have a solid foundation to stand on. Read a full Wikipedia page's worth of research for every priority topic you want to tackle. For example, if you want to write a fantasy based on Aztec gods, make sure you research the Aztec mythology and the general overview of Aztec history and culture. You don't need to read all the codices and learn the exact hairstyle a lowerclass woman would wear. 

Build the solid foundation for a house, but you don't need to worry about the style of the faucets just yet. 


3. Anachronism? Is that like an aneurism? 

Sit down to write and don't let anything but fundamental historical accuracies get in your way. Yes, you likely need to know the basic tenets of Islam if you're writing a novel set in Ottoman Turkey. But, no, you don't need to know on what day the garbage truck came through in 1947 in Chicago. If you don't know how your main character would have worn their hair or what food they would eat, mark it to research it later and keep going. Put a placeholder if need be. This is all about putting up the frame of your house. Take liberties. Mark anything you're not sure of. 


4. The Antikythera Method

History itself has its own anachronisms, like the above Antikythera mechanism. We're continuously discovering new things that reshape our theories of the past. When examining your story afterwards, handle the historical accuracy. Do your tedious research now that you know exactly what you need to discover. Pick and choose where you want to be accurate. And keep the cool anachronisms. Leave out the too-weird accuracies. The most important rule: don't break your story. If making something historically accurate will harm your story, don't do it. Unless... Rule two: don't write something that will take 90% of readers out of the story. Whether its an accuracy or an anachronism, eliminate anything that distracts too much from the story. There will be a small percentage of the population who know far too much about history and will be taken out of a story by an inaccuracy. And then there will be a part of the population so fascinated by an accuracy, they'll stop reading to research. Don't worry about either of those guys. 

If you don't have anything else to do tonight, look up these out of place artifacts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Out-of-place_artifacts (I plan on doing an artifact about these seeming anachronisms in the future.)