Genre pass notes – five key points on writing historical fiction

Like any genre, historical fiction has expectations and pitfalls. How much detail should you include? If the characters talk and behave differently from the way we do, how will you make that relatable? I put these thorny questions to KM Weiland, author of the medieval novel Behold the Dawn and historical western A Man Called Outlaw.   

1. Obviously one of the attractions for readers of historical novels is immersing themselves in the details of that world. But clearly you can’t overload the text with too much detail. How much historical detail do you include, especially of world affairs?

 At its heart, historical fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. The rules of description and backstory that apply to contemporary fiction also apply to historical fic. Love of history or no, historical readers aren’t likely to have the patience to sit through pages upon pages of pontificating about Roman politics or Napoleonic battle tactics or Regency etiquette. They want what every reader wants: a ripping good yarn. The history is just icing on the cake.

 So you include only those details that are necessary. Unless your Roman character is interested in or affected by politics, you don’t need to explain Senate procedures. If the Senate procedures are important to the story, then by all means slap them in there. But never flaunt your research in your reader’s face. Give them only what they need to know and make it matter to the story.

 2.       How much explanation would you give for the small details of everyday life – eg if a character made a cup of tea or brushed their teeth?

The small details are actually some of the most interesting to include, both because they are often little-known factoids and because they contribute so beautifully to the verisimilitude of the story. Fiction is in the details. But, just as with sweeping historical context, you have to be careful to contain your details—your drinking of tea and your brushing of teeth—to what’s pertinent. If you can work in strange and interesting details, it’s often an excellent opportunity to add originality to your scenes. But if the cup of tea is in there merely to show readers how tea was brewed in the early 1700s, it’s extraneous and will only serve to bloat your story and slow it down.

 3. How do you find an appropriate idiom for the characters’ dialogue while still sounding natural?

This is a delicate balancing act, since the speech patterns that were acceptable in times past now sound stilted and even pedantic to modern readers. For instance, back in Charles Dickens’s day, contractions were used only by the lower classes. But to write dialogue sans contractions nowadays sticks out like Ebenezer Scrooge at the office Christmas party.

It’s important to develop a good ear for the rhythm and flow of period dialogue, by reading extensively in period literature. Some people have had excellent success mimicking period dialogue (Patrick O’Brian comes to mind), but usually it’s best to find a happy medium. Give your dialogue just enough of an “antique” flavor to keep the reader in the period without bogging him down in alien speech patterns. For example, in the time period in which my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn is set, modern-day English was almost entirely unknown, so I had to find a speech pattern that would be intelligible to readers while still grounding them within the setting.

4.       With characters’ behaviour and culture, how do you make characters who modern readers can relate to, but don’t behave anachronistically?

Social mores have a way of evolving and devolving in some pretty crazy ways. What used to be perfectly acceptable would now be considered barbaric. Much of Behold the Dawn centers around the tourney games. These gladiatorial mock battles, which were wildly popular at the turn of the 12th century, are shocking in their violence to us in the 21st century.

And yet the wonderful thing about history is that no matter how much the world changes, the basic elements are always the same. Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.” So human nature, in all its tragedy and triumph, remains essentially the same in every time period. We can still find depravity and integrity, guilt and redemption, disappointment and hope—and these elements can translate even the most foreign of situations into something we can all understand.

5.       You write fantasy as well. How has writing historical fiction helped?

 My first fantasy novel Dreamers Come (due out in 2012) featured a society with a medieval basis, so I got to use much of my historical research as a launch pad. Having taken meticulous notes during my research period for Behold the Dawn, I understand the power of precision in my descriptions of places and battles. But it was an interesting experience being freed of the strict timeline of a historical period. In fantasy, I’m free to create my own timeline, which was both liberating and a little bewildering. I have several ideas for future stories that incorporate fantasy elements into actual historical periods, so I look forward to the melding of the two worlds!

 Thanks Katie! As well as writing historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska, KH Weiland blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture. She also has an incredibly useful e-book, Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Guide to Bringing Your Characters to Life, available on her website totally free.

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  1. #1 by K.M. Weiland on February 17, 2010 - 4:50 pm

    Thanks so much for having me today, Roz!

  2. #2 by Roz Morris on February 17, 2010 - 4:52 pm

    My pleasure – and thank you for sharing your considerable expertise and experience.

  3. #3 by Jody Hedlund on February 17, 2010 - 5:01 pm

    Great thoughts, Katie. Since I write historical fiction, I especially enjoyed hearing your perspective. I think I’m handling much of the historical details the same way that you are. Thanks for a great interview!

  4. #4 by K.M. Weiland on February 17, 2010 - 5:57 pm

    @Jody: Thanks for popping by. I’m always fascinated by the processes of other writers, so it was fun to share mine.

  5. #5 by Cat Woods on February 17, 2010 - 9:03 pm

    Roz, I loved the interview. It is nice to hear from successful writers.

    My favorite commentary dealt with the details. In contemporary fiction, I get bored with descriptive passages, yet when I read historical fiction, I find myself loving the depth of “little known factoids” that make the story magical!

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. #6 by K.M. Weiland on February 17, 2010 - 9:54 pm

    It’s the little details in all of fiction, but particularly historical fiction, that makes the scene come to life, I think. I’m in the midst of researching a new story (set during World War I), and it’s the random little details that really set my imagination afire and make my fingers start itching to write it all down!

    • #7 by Roz Morris on February 17, 2010 - 11:33 pm

      @Cat @KMW – I find it’s the little details that get me too. They’re the nitty gritty of real life that tell me what people will be doing in a scene, what they find easy, what they find hard. That’s why I find research such a pleasure.

  7. #8 by Noelle D. on May 31, 2010 - 9:21 pm

    Thanks so much for this article, it really helped.

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