Margaret Brownley

Margaret Brownley is the author of more than twenty books, and has published nine historical novels. Her latest novel, A Lady Like Sarah, takes place in Texas in 1879 and is available now. A Suitor For Jenny is the second book in her Rocky Creek series and will be in bookstores September 2010. Visit her at

Writing the Historical Novel

Have the Right Attitude
I didn’t start out to write historical fiction (though one of my books took so long to sell, it became historical by default). The truth is I hated history in school. All those battles and dates—who cares?

It wasn’t until I read Gone With the Wind in my teens that I realized that history wasn’t about battles and dates; it was about people and how they lived and reacted to the world around them.

People are shaped by the times they live in and act accordingly. Take smoking for example: In the 1550s, doctors recommended smoking to combat cancer and bad breath. In the 1660s, the King of England called smoking vile. During the 1920s, smoking wasn’t just glamorous, it was a way for women to assert independence. In the 1950s, the Marlboro man stole the thunder from women and made smoking macho again.

Each era has its own prejudices, ignorance, and falsehoods. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is being true to the attitudes and beliefs of the times. You can’t dress modern sensibilities in a hoop skirt and call it a historical.

Talk the Talk
Nothing jars a reader out of the past and into the present quicker than a wrong word, or dialogue that sounds like a neighbor’s teen, you know?

I find it beneficial to read books, letters, diaries, and newspapers written during the same time period as my novel. This helps put me in the right mind-set. Dialects should be used sparingly. Words and phrases must be true to the times, but just because a word existed doesn’t mean it’s the right one to use. Consider the phrase fast lane. It’s first appeared in 1600, but you might want to think twice before using it. The word policewomen has been around since 1855 but has a modern ring. Squaw meant a young woman in the 1600s, but today’s readers would probably find it offensive.

Your goal is to capture the essence of the language without calling attention to it. The prose must flow, and dialogue must ring true even if it’s not accurate.

Know the Territory
Pick a year, any year, and something of major social, political, financial, or historical impact happened. Recessions and depressions come and go. Banks fail. Presidents are elected or shot. Kings die. Wars rage. These are all important things to know. I once read a book set in the United States in 1918 and the flu pandemic that gripped the country that year wasn’t even mentioned. Check five years before and five years after a major event. The effects of war are felt many years after it has ended. We are still feeling the aftermath of 9/11.

What’s in a Name?
Brittany and Bryanna are popular names today, but you won’t find them on the 1790s census. Bryanna, for example, didn’t show up until 1870. People in the past were more conservative in naming their children than we are today. They didn’t have the influence of television or movies, so family or biblical names were the norm. A sudden spike in name popularity can often be traced to a historical event. A lot of little Williams ran around England following William the Conqueror’s invasion. Again, read books written in your time period. Chaucer’s works, for example, are filled with the popular names of his day.

Research Till You Drop
I use the word historical loosely for this article. There’s a vast difference between writing the semi-biographical historical novel

and, say, a romance novel set back in time. Though they both require attention to details, the former will require much more in-depth research.

The historical novel’s prose must flow smoothly and give no hint that those two carefully chosen words describing a seventeenth century doorknob took two and a half days of research. Those little historical facts must be woven in so as not to slow the pace or weigh down the prose. Describing the sights, sounds, and color of an era with a few chosen words will bring the past alive far better than a mind-numbing information dump. What’s more, your readers will love you for it.

And Then There Was a Herd of Bulls, She Wrote
We’ve all seen them. Errors that stop us in our tracks: the adopted son who inherits a title, or the 10,000 cow cattle drive.

Nothing harms a writer’s credibility faster than historical inaccuracies, but checking facts is sometimes easier said than done. In 1991, a group of Texas citizens found 231 undetected factual errors in high school U.S. history books. Oxford University Press’s updated Dictionary of National Biography has glaring errors about well-known people. If you can’t trust Oxford University, who can you trust?

Many careful writers check at least three different sources, but even if the facts are right, some readers might object to the interpretation. Not to despair; at least you’re in good company. Pulitzer prize–winning books like Gone With the Wind and Lonesome Dove have been accused of romanticizing the past.

Google is not synonymous with research. It is, however, a good place to start. Avoid Websites that don’t provide documentation and treasure the ones that do. I’ve found online museums and libraries in different states especially helpful in providing information, and most will respond to e-mail. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be on a first-name basis with your local librarian.

As for romanticizing the past? I plead guilty. As the saying goes, we see the world not as it is but as we are. This is as true for readers as it is for writers.

I’m a fiction writer not a historian. I strive for accuracy, but I’m a firm believer that history should never take precedence over story. As fiction writers, we are first and foremost entertainers. Few women in the past were as strong and bold as the heroines in today’s historical novels—or heroes as heroic—but that’s the fun of it.

Some of My Favorite Resources:
For checking names as far back as 1790:

For explanations of words and how they sounded 600 to 2000 years ago:

No writer’s library should be without William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages.

Jo Beverley has a wonderful site on English titles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

Costumes through the ages: