Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood. Today, she is an author, speaker, online marketing specialist and freelance web site designer who lives with her husband and fellow author in Colorado. They have one daughter for now and a border collie. She has sold over 100,000 copies of her eight historical fiction books with more on the horizon. Her articles and short stories have appeared in national and international publications since she was in high school. Read more about her at her web site: http://www.amberstockton.com. You can also visit Eagle Designs, her design company, by clicking the banner above, http://www.eagle-designs.com.
The Wagon Wheel of Writing Historical Fiction
How many times have you heard the phrase Those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it? And how often did you suffer through history class after history class, only to be inundated with a laundry list of names, dates, and places that meant absolutely nothing to you?
What was the problem?
Connection. You didn’t feel connected to the people about which you were learning. As a result, the names and dates were nothing more than dry facts. And that’s why so many people grow up hating history or not appreciating it for the rich tapestries that exist within the stories woven from the dawn of time.
What is the solution?
Share history in a way that allows those listening or reading to connect with the people involved, and to understand why and how the past affects what we do today. And how do you do that? You tell their stories.
Now, let’s take a look at historical fiction.
Historical fiction has always been popular, with people gravitating toward novels set in time periods that interest them. But writing historical fiction is a lot more work than writing contemporary fiction. Authors must learn to live and breathe the lives of the characters about which they’re writing. To do that requires a lot of research, decision making, time, and purpose.
There are many spokes in the wagon wheel of historical fiction. If you envision the center of the wheel as your story, the spokes would be the parts that make up your story. Here are some of them.
Spoke #1: Time Period
Choosing this might sound simple, but it’s not. The time period should be very specific, not a vague decade within a century. Clothing styles, customs, and social mores change from decade to decade, and sometimes more frequently. So, choose the exact years in which your book will take place.
Popular broad time periods in
historical fiction include:
These historical periods have many devoted readers, but any time period and any place can be the setting for your work. When attempting to sell my first novel, I was told it wouldn’t sell, that no one was interested in the Colonial era. Today, that trilogy alone has sold nearly 100,000 copies. It was just released in March as a 3-in-1 from Barbour and has been continuing to get great reviews.
So, don’t let others tell you a certain period won’t sell. And if you can’t think of a time period with which you’re familiar, consider a historical person or character that appeals to you and see if that time period will work.
Spoke #2: Research
This spoke might look a lot bigger than the other spokes by the time you’re done with your novel. That’s only because you do a lot of research. By the time you have finished your research—even if you knew next to nothing about it when you began—you should be thoroughly familiar with that moment in history you chose.
For my second series, my editor gave me a handful of locales from which to choose. I didn’t know a thing about any one of them. So, I did a little digging and proposed a few stories. She selected the series I proposed set in Detroit, Michigan, during the Industrial Revolution era. Talk about an unknown setting. But I began with the broad topic of the era and narrowed it down until I reached specific characters, stories, and areas of town, right down to the street names and shops or homes on those streets.
That brings up another point. You should know the common customs, class system, monetary system, common living arrangements, and anything else that might come up in your work. One or two wrong details will cause you to lose your credibility fast. If there are obvious anachronistic errors in your historical fiction, be prepared for bagfuls of letters admonishing you for those errors.
So, do as much research as possible before you begin to write. Writing a story and then trying to adapt it to a certain time period will come out sounding artificial and forced. The more you know beforehand, the more easily the story will flow, and the easier those little details will be to intertwine with the pages of your story.
Spoke #3: Perspective
The best part of writing a novel is the characters and making them come to life. The characters of a historical fiction novel should have the mindset of people from that time period. Characters are shaped by their experiences, family life, and culture, which includes the time and place in which they are born.
A character’s general perspective on the world will be obvious. The values defined by the time period can be demonstrated through dialogue and actions, or through the narrative voice recounting the thoughts and feelings of the character.
However the character’s viewpoint is demonstrated, it should never be a modern person dropped into a different time period. Be authentic and study the speech patterns, colloquialisms, behaviors, attitudes, and perhaps a diary or journal from the time period. Immerse yourself in everything you can find so that your characters behave, speak, and act the way a real person would have during that time.
Spoke #4: Plot
Developing a plot will have a lot to do with the historical period you choose. Regardless of your primary topic, it will be shaped by the time period. In fact, the period might actually suggest a plot to you during your research.
And from there, create the layers of the plot, the unexpected events, and the steps that will take your characters from beginning to end in a satisfying conclusion that won’t leave your readers throwing the book across the room, vowing never to pick up another novel of yours again.
Make a basic outline of the plot before writing, then fill in any holes as you go.
Spoke #5: Characters
Choose your characters wisely. Your characters are why people read. The time period and plot are guidelines for your characters to follow, but your characters are the real story. Create them wisely and with care.
Every character should have flaws to be believable and help the reader relate to them. Creating back stories for each character will give you a consistent guide to follow when deciding a character’s actions and reactions. Even if the back story is not present in the work, it will show in the character’s consistency and breathe life into them.
A character can be a real figure from history or completely original. When using an actual historical figure, some aspects can be fictionalized, but be careful. Those alive in recent times will have more about them in print, making errors or changes more easily recognized. However you depict a historical figure in fiction, make sure your vision of the person is consistent with scholarly knowledge of the figure. And make their interactions with the truly fictional characters flow seamlessly throughout the story so the reader can’t tell the difference between the real person and the fictional character.
Historical fiction isn’t the easiest genre to write, but it is a timeless art form that remains a popular avenue of escapism. If your work is realistic and believable, it should provide your readers with a wonderful escape from the contemporary world.
I hope these spokes contained within this article will set you on your way toward writing a compelling story and perhaps one day finding your book on the best-seller list. If you have a passion for history and writing historical fiction, pursue it.