Genre Tips: How to Write Historical Fiction

All fiction is a contemplation of human existence. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the historical genre, which purposefully looks back in time and seeks to create context for and find meaning in the events that have already happened to the human race. Learning how to write historical fiction requires all the usual techniques of good storytelling combined with excellent research skills. Good historical writers must also prove empathetic enough to understand and dramatize characters whose lives were often very different from our own, while still evoking the humanity they share in common with us.

Historical fiction was my first love. Counting unpublished books, I’ve gleefully explored historical settings in seven out of my eleven completed novels. Although I consider myself primarily a speculative novelist at this point, the main reason I hopped from historical fiction to fantasy was, as I mentioned in the previous post How to Write Fantasy, was simply because I wanted to grant myself a little more leeway from “the facts” while keeping the historical settings. Even now, there is no fictional element that draws me in more surely than that of historical settings, people, and crises.

In response to the post on fantasy, reader Sylvia commented, “I suppose part of me thinks that any fiction is fantasy in a way because we make up the characters….” I couldn’t agree more. To me, historical fiction has always seemed fantastical—whether it’s set in medieval times or in the 1980s. Even when exploring the darkest epochs in human history, there is a certain magic to seeing a world filled with strange clothing, vocabulary, and culture—and then to see the people in this world brought to life just as vividly as if they lived right next door to you or me.

Like fantasy, historical fiction is something of a milieu genre. It is defined primarily by its setting and can provide the background for many different types stories. Historical romance (such as the Bridgerton series) and historical mystery (such as Father Brown) are two popular examples.

The BBC series Father Brown offers an example of how to write historical fiction plotted as a mystery. (Father Brown (2013-), BBC One.)

You can even—as I did in my novels Storming (set in 1920s Nebraska) and Wayfarer (set in 1820s London)—throw in a few fantasy elements on occasion.


But what I’m going to call “true historical fiction” takes this all a bit further and focuses on faithfully recreating actual historical events. Sometimes this might focus on the lives of real people (such as in Band of BrothersThe Tudors, or Hidden Figures).

The movie Hidden Figures is an example of historical fiction that faithfully recreates the actual historical events, in this case the involvement of three African-American women working at NASA during the space race. (Hidden Figures (2016), 20th Century Fox.)

Or it might create fictional characters who are nonetheless portrayed as realistic proxies for the real-life experiences of certain groups (such as pioneers in 1883, soldiers in Vietnam in Platoon, or freed slaves in Beloved).

The main characters in 1883 aren’t real-life historical personages, but the story attempts to recreate the experiences of historical pioneers in the American West. (1883 (2021-22), Paramont+.)

5 Tips for How to Write Historical Fiction

Historical fiction requires the same basic skills used to create any type of well-drawn story, but with the added responsibility of authentically evoking times gone by—some of which are now beyond the memory of any living person. Just as with any genre, historical fiction entertains, but it is also a magic window into our own pasts, offering us the opportunity to better understand ourselves and each other.

Today, in the third installment in our Genre Tips series, I am sharing five tips for how to write historical fiction, gleaned from my own long experience with and love for the genre.

Story Structure in Historical Fiction: Understand How to Line Up History With Plot Beats

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

Historical writers often ask me, “How can I accurately line up the events of a real-life story with the timing of story structure beats?”

Obviously, historical writers using a historical setting as the backdrop for a plot of their own making will not face the same constraints as someone attempting to faithfully recreate a real-life event. In the former instance, writers can follow the dictates of their own creativity, which often simplifies the pacing challenges of good story structure. In the latter instance, writers must understand several important points.

1. This Is Historical Fiction

As I like to remind myself in my historical research, authenticity is more important than accuracy. This means you do, in fact, have the leeway to massage story events until you find the most powerful narrative experience. What’s important is staying true to the heart of the story. It’s about valuing what previous guest poster Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., recently mentioned to me as valuing what’s “emotionally true” over what’s “factually true.”

2. Look for the Existing Story Structure

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Why were you drawn to write about this particular historical event or personage? Probably, the answer is that you recognized its inherent dramatic potential. In other words, you recognized its already existing story arc. Where there’s a story arc, there’s probably a character arc of some sort (whether Positive, Flat or Negative), and where there’s a character arc, there is inherent structure.

Dig in to what’s already there and start looking for the moments in this story that naturally emerge as obvious  structural waypoints:

3. It’s Okay to Massage the Timeline and/or to Occasionally Make Something Up

Timing in story structure is really about nothing more or less than pacing. For example, if you feel that the natural Midpoint in the story takes place much later in the real-life timeline than is ideal for your narrative pacing, you can either make the decision to shorten the real-life timeline for the sake of the story or simply create the illusion of snappier pacing by summarizing or skipping over segments of your protagonist’s life in which nothing of dramatic interest happened.

It’s also acceptable to combine events where necessary. If your protagonist gets married in one scene and has a falling out with her father about it many months later, you may find your story is served best by combining the two events into one scene. As long as you’re preserving the spirit of what really happened, you won’t always need to feel constrained to portray the letter of what happened.

When writing historical fiction, you will inevitably find yourself confronted with instances in which you simply don’t know what your characters thought, said, or did. You will have to dramatize. Sometimes you’ll even find you need to create a big event in order for the character’s progression through the arc to make sense. Again, as long as you’re doing your best to responsibly represent reality, this is fine.

For Example: In the Roger Maris/Mickey Mantle baseball biopic 61*, a key moment in the story happens when a fan misunderstands Maris’s joke in “autographing” a baseball with just the letter X. In real life, this didn’t happen until 1962, after the homerun race of 1961 was already over. However, because the event did happen and because it so nicely helped dramatize Maris’s estrangement from Yankee fans, it works well even out of its own timeline.

61* (2001), HBO.

Characters in Historical Fiction: Hone Motive With Historical Mindset

Whether you’re trying to accurately portray real-life personalities on the page or simply portray a made-up person who could have realistically lived in your chosen time period, you will need to dig deep into the historical mindset of your character. The best historical authors leave their own modern mindsets and mores at the office door. Through research, imagination, and empathy, they seek not to force their own contemporary views onto historical characters, but rather to so deeply inhabit the mindsets of previous eras that they can fully represent those mindsets through their characters.

This is nowhere more important than with motive. Although primal motives remain pretty much the same throughout the ages, the perspectives and paradigms that drive us are almost shockingly different as we roam through the ages. Things that seem abhorrent to us  now may have seemed holy to our ancestors, and things that would have shocked or shamed our ancestors may have now become some of our most treasured ideals. For example, how women were viewed (and viewed themselves) in society even just a hundred years past has altered radically.

Although the occasional satirical or fantastical romp designed to subvert tropes can be fun and even cathartic, most serious historical fiction will have shirked its duty if it fails to properly represent what reality used to be like, from the inside out. Rewriting history to how we wish it could have been robs our modern struggles of context and moves the genre into something more akin to fantasy than history.

The western genre is a good example of this. The westerns of mid-20th-Century film and literature take place mostly in a fantasy-scape that, however gloriously archetypal in some ways, is hardly historical and often glosses over harsh and even cruel realities. In more recent decades, this historical subgenre has often further specified some of its entries as “historical westerns”—which are less about the pop-culture tropes and more about trying to evoke the true reality of the people who lived during this time. Both subgenres—popcorn westerns and historical westerns—are great, but it’s important to recognize the differences.

For Example: The musical West Side Story, set in 1950s New York, explores uncomfortable viewpoints of its time and place—racism, gang warfare, etc.—from the inside out, fully fleshing out and inhabiting diverse characters who often believe in things and make choices that, however uncomfortable they may sometime seem to audiences, always feel authentic.

West Side Story (2021), 20th Century Fox.

Voice in Historical Fiction: Create an Authentic Vocabulary for Your Narrative

One of the great pleasures of historical fiction is getting to experience the feel and sound of words from a bygone era. Nothing brings past years to life more vividly than highlighting the evolution (and sometimes devolution) of language. By implementing a rich historical vocabulary and an understanding of cadence and sentence structure, writers can transport readers through language alone.

This is, however, a fine line to walk. Depending on your era, your characters’ accurate speech might be unintelligible to your readers. For example, when writing Wayfarer, which is set in early Georgian England, I knew that words that meant certain things to my historical characters would, in fact, have entirely different meanings for my modern readers. (For example, back then, “blink” didn’t mean close your eyelids; it meant “twinkle.”) In these cases, the goal is, once again, to evoke authenticity even at the expense of accuracy. The author must choose how to convey the effect of a historical voice to readers without unnecessarily inhibiting the reading experience.

One of the best ways to do this is simply to read widely about your chosen historical era—both journals, literature, and letters of the actual time (if available) and historical fiction about the period. Examine how other authors chose to evoke the sound of the period’s language. What particularly strikes you—and what throws you?

For Example: The novel True Grit by Charles Portis does an incredible job evoking the period and mindsets of its characters—especially its steely young protagonist Mattie Ross, who is on the hunt for her father’s killer in the wilds of Oklahoma. Mattie is a difficult character whose views are not always attractive to modern readers, but the cadence and vocabulary of her late 19th-century Arkansas voice is brought to life so vividly by Portis that the whole story sings with authenticity.

True Grit (2010), Paramount Pictures.

Theme in Historical Fiction: Find Your Timeline’s Organic Theme

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Even apart from more specific subgenres (such as romance or mystery), historical fiction will often offer at least a hint of an integral theme. When you combine your own story’s specific plot conflict with its historical time period and setting, certain thematic premises often arise obviously.

For example, if you are writing a more general historical story about, say, Vikings at war, then this culture, its survival needs, and its moral attitudes will immediately offer ideas about how to deepen or subvert concepts that might either have been taken for granted by your historical characters or have been on the brink of social evolution.

On the other hand, if you are writing about a specific historical event or personage, then the heart of the story will be even more specific. It is impossible to write a story about, say, Abraham Lincoln without exploring certain innate themes within his life, times, and personality. Indeed, the entire point of your story might be unearthing those themes.

For Example: When Markus Zuzak set his novel The Book Thief in World War II Nazi Germany, themes of oppression and war were immediately obvious, which he masterfully underlined by deciding the entire book should be narrated by that most obvious theme of all—Death.

The Book Thief uses its World War II setting to appropriately set up its plot and themes.

The Book Thief (2013), 20th Century Fox.

Research for Historical Fiction: Create a System to Organize Your Notes

Stories in any genre will almost always require a certain amount of research—but no genre requires more careful attention to research than historical fiction. The good news is that most historical writers are also keen readers of both history and historical fiction.

I have written extensively about my own research process in previous posts, but I will sum it up here:

1. Always Be Researching!

If you’re reading history and historical fiction anyway, make it a point to take notes as you go. Whenever you struck by a particular discovery—whether it is a historical event you’re just learning about or a simple but evocative detail of historical life—categorize it for later.

2. Outline First
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

If you’re an outliner and if you feel you already have a basic understanding of your time period, I recommend writing the outline first. This way you can get a sense of exactly what questions you will need to answer when researching. This approach is best for more general historical fiction that is able to create its own timeline and story structure. If you are trying to recreate a real-life event or timeline, you will obviously need to reference that when outlining; indeed, it will be your outline.

3. Create a Research To-Be-Read Pile Based on Your Questions

Write a list of all questions you know you need answered before you can begin writing the story. Your questions might be about little things like style of clothing, or they might be more important questions of the why and how behind certain real-life events. Use your list to guide your reading choices. Be thorough, but don’t go overboard: read until you feel you’ve answered your own questions and have enough material to draw on. More questions will inevitably come up during and after the writing, but they can be answered in the future.

4. Organize Your Notes

Type up your notes and organize them by category, so you can easily find what you need on the go. When writing a historical novel, I will take a moment before each day’s writing session to review one section of my review notes, just to keep it all fresh. If you’re writing in a word processor such as Scrivener, you can also copy/paste pertinent research notes into your chapter outline, so you can immediately see what you need to remember when you reach pertinent sections in your story.

>Click here to read about “How I Use Scrivener to Outline My Novels


Sooner or later, all novels become historical fiction, simply by dint of slipping far away from our ever advancing modernity. But there is a special gift in learning how to write historical fiction that thoughtfully explores the triumphs and failures of our shared pasts. It is one genre that will never go out fashion!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Mystery!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written historical fiction? What are your thoughts on how to write historical fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. That was the mistake I made with my first novel, I was so engrossed in getting my historical facts right that the story suffered. The obsession came as a result of being an American living in Great Britain. Many Brits bash Hollywood over the lack of historical accuracy in films and I was afraid of falling into that trap.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I was quite worried about that in writing my 1820s London-based novel Wayfarer. In addition to thorough research, I was fortunate enough to get a couple locals to read it through for me and give it a thumbs up.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    I love reading historical fiction, but I haven’t written it for quite a while. If I ever come back to it, I know where to look for help. Thank you for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a genre that requires a lot of work, comparatively, due to the research. I’ve tended to gravitate away from writing strictly historical fiction myself in recent years, partly for that reason, but it’s so rewarding in its own right as well.

  3. History and News are oftentimes almost as much a work of the imagination as is fiction. Views into the past are often convoluted by delusions, false memories and manipulations of real events… More commonly called History. That’s why I love to write Historical Fiction.

    • Colleen F Janik says

      Ken, so true. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. It’s fascinating to go back and read novels that were contemporary at the time and see how our differently we often view the times and events than did the people portraying it in real-time.

  4. Many thanks for your tips. I’m working on my first historical novel, and I’m learning about some of the tips you discussed. Currently, I’m working on my character arcs. One thing I’ve found is that using fictional characters for my protagonist and antagonist gives me a lot more flexibility in the timeline than using real historical characters. Just curious if anyone else has had the same experience?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. The more strictly factual elements you’re working with, the more discipline historical fiction requires.


    One historical fiction book I read pushed too much history into the story. It began to read like a history textbook instead of an adventure for the characters. I forced myself to finish the book, but I also noted that I don’t want to make the same mistake and prove to the reader that I know every tiny detail about the time period. It’s a STORY after all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. One author I do enjoy, whose stories are very heavy on the history but still entertaining, is John Rutherfurd, who writes what are essentially compendiums of interrelated short stories, looking at the big picture of history in a particular place, such as London or Ireland.

    • Victoria C Leo says

      OMG, YES! Those stories where the writer did a lot of research and is now going to regurgitate all of it onto a page somewhere cuz dag-nabbit, I did all this work and y’all have to be impressed! Impressed by your inability to write fiction, yes.

      If we do tons of research, knowing these facts influence what we compose, even if the fact itself never gets into a scene.
      Thanks for mentioning this. Jean Auel is the poster child for this mind-numbing ‘be impressed with me’ (she was a technical writer and boy does it show) but it’s really common.

  6. Thanks for this wonderful article. It’s a sort of pep talk for me to begin. I have some notes already for a historical novel but didn’t know where to start. I’ll be reading more of your blogs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! Historical fiction can certainly be overwhelming, but it is so much fun and so rewarding.

  7. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I had planned to leave a comment anyway because this whole series has been brilliant but since I was name checked I decided i absolutely must.
    People are extremely complex and tightening their otherwise messy lives to ensure that the themes are clear is a necessity.
    On the point of respecting people’s motives and actions and portraying them accurately, I recall a shocking moment in Faulkner’s Sanctuary, where a character takes an action that made no sense to me until I put on my “1925” thinking cap; then it became terribly clear.
    Thanks for the shout out and the wise words!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “People are extremely complex and tightening their otherwise messy lives to ensure that the themes are clear is a necessity.”

      Agree. Historical fiction can get in its own way sometimes if it tries to be *too* faithful to the facts. But it’s a fine line, since too much error (deliberate or otherwise) can destroy suspension of disbelief.

      • I started a new story which covers 1935-1945 so this is quite helpful. It is based on a true story I discovered doing genealogy which I’ve summarized as “Victimized at an early age, a young woman struggles to find her way in a man’s world” I challenged myself to imagine the story in between all the facts I knew with changing any of them After I started I found some new facts that contradicted my plot line but by then I was (bleep) it, I’m not changing it now! It is the story of a girl and her family but in the time period there were several historical events that I used as background that guided their paths. In a town where the only jobs were in the mines, on the railroad or on the highway crew, would her 8th grade educated husband continue working in the mines after a nearby explosion killed over 60 miners? The foreboding war in Europe from 1939-1941, then after the American entry how long until he’d be drafted – then returning home with a crippling injury.

  8. Thanks very much for this column. I started outlining a historical novel and then was interrupted by a solid year of medical problems. I am now emerging and hope to get back to it in April.

    I have years’ worth of research about specific historical people in my former hometown. I have realized that while I may use their stories and adventures for ancillary characters (my main characters are entirely fictional), I HAVE to change all their names, even though they’ve all been dead for about 200 years. My historical scrupulosity is such that I would otherwise feel the dead hanging over my shoulder, fact-checking me. The only exceptions are the half dozen that became famous, even merely locally famous. Those will have to be pleased or displeased with their portraits under their real names. Perhaps they’ll let me know in the afterlife.

    The issue of arcs and beats and fitting them to the real timeline is also one I’ve struggled with. Though it sounds strange, I’ve reread GONE WITH THE WIND for help with this. Mitchell was married to her (very talented) editor, John Marsh, and GWTW is a masterful example of pacing. She can cover three days and all backstory in 120 pages and then compress two years in 3 pages, and somehow you are never aware of the push and pull. I obviously don’t think I can pull off anything like this, but it’s instructive to me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad to hear you’re feeling better. And, yes, pacing is so key. The art of summary is, IMO, more difficult than that of dramatization.

  9. Colleen F Janik says

    I love, love, love this subject. Historical fiction has the magic of transporting me back in time, back in place, to the world I tell myself I wish I was born into. It is absolute magic.
    One of my current projects features someone who was born nearly one hundred years ago, so would be considered ‘historical’ I suppose. My question is, how much freedom am I allowed as far as placing this person into a fictional situation with fictional characters to create a theme that I believe she would relish? It would give her the opportunity to show a side of herself that most of us never were allowed to see, to say something she would have wanted to say if her life had not ended so abruptly and tragically.
    Do I have permission to do this???

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Well, let me put it this way: ever heard of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? 😉

      The longer answer, from my perspective, is that if you are creating an obviously false narrative (such as the above), then you can play pretty much as fast and loose as you want. If you’re otherwise trying to faithfully recreate the person’s life, then you’ll still need to fill in blanks with imagined scenes, motives, dialogue, etc., that *attempt* to reproduce what *would* have been accurate had these details been known. Ultimately, all historical fiction is the author’s imagining of what this person or time would have been like.

  10. I love historical fiction for one of the same reasons I love speculative fiction: being able to immerse myself in another ‘world.’

    A good example of needing to alter/fill in real events is the novel Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. It features a murder which happened in real life, but the historical murder was never solved. In order to make the plot work, Donoghue need to reveal the ‘whodunit’ so she had to invent a murderer with a plausible motive (on the other hand, since we don’t know who the real historical murderer was, she was free to create a murderer which fit her story).

    In Mandarin (and I believe other Chinese dialects as well) there was a major shift in speech about a hundred years ago. Previously, there was an elaborate system for speaking more politely or more rudely depending on the context and the relative status of the people involved, much like Japanese and Thai languages today. Most of that is gone now (of course it’s still possible to express politeness and rudeness in Mandarin, just as in English).

    For example, the plainest way to say ‘your son’ in Mandarin is ‘nǐ ​ér​zi’ and that’s what people will say in most contexts nowadays, but in the past that would’ve been rude, instead people would’ve said ‘lìng​láng’ which literally means ‘esteemed youth.’

    Thus, it’s easy to tell whether something in Chinese is historical fiction set at least a hundred years ago just by the words people use to address each other. I learned the old-fashioned terms of address mainly through historical novels and TV dramas. Reading historical fiction set in China in English sometimes is a bit weird because it’s hard to convey the flavor of those registers of speech in English. Some novelists manage to make it work, but other novelists in English seem oblivious to that aspect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, even in English, it becomes almost impossible to even *evoke* certain archaic modes of speech without either becoming incomprehensible to modern audiences and/or skewing the intended tone (e.g., trying to achieve too formal a narrative prose effect can often seem stilted or even comical).

  11. Someone told me I was writing historical fiction because my series takes place in 1964 to 1970. I don’t have much history in it. Although in one book there’s mention of Canada’s new flag on the 15th of February 1965. I also mention rock’n’roll music, some popular songs of the times and the bands and singers of those times. All the novels are written first-person by my protagonist. Would you consider them to be historical fiction? Thanks in advance, Jim.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If a book takes place in the past, it’s technically historical fiction. If the past is only a few years ago (say, within a decade), then it probably won’t be marketed as such, but anything beyond that turns into historical fiction. Think of Stranger Things, set in the 1980s; that would be considered historical fiction.

  12. Thanks very much. And your newsletter/emails are much appreciated. Take care, Jim

  13. To: K.M Weiland. I use an excel file to calculate a character’s date of birth death, date of specific events.
    I found it free online and it is called “Wendy’s Age Calculator.V3.xls”
    I found it invaluable for historical fiction or sagas. I also have one which is called “Story Timeline V1.xls” , as well as others to help you outline etc.
    If you can’t find them online, email me and I can send them to you.
    PS I REALLY enjoyed your series of Archetypal Character Arcs. Wondering if you’re thinking of making them into a book or ebook

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I admit Excel has always stymied me.

      And, yes, a book version of Writing Archetypal Character Arcs will be out March 30th! I hope to have it up for pre-order soon, but stay tuned, because I have a really fun launch giveaway in mind!

    • Grant Archer says

      One of the nice things that Excel will let you do with timelines is to build separate columns for historical events, story events and individual character life events. Then you can slide columns up and down until you find the event alignment that works. (I’m working in late 1600s New England / England)

  14. Here again – thanks for the mention glad to be of use.
    My current WIP is set pre and during WWII 1939 to 1944 a period which I find fascinating and has some political bombshells, though I won’t be be including those so much as pointing out working conditions and the subtle subjugation of women etc. Set in the North of England I draw a lot on personal knowledge, experience of living there etc., but even so I do a great deal of research. My characters are fictional, but include lots of observational information gained by living in the area up to my late 30’s – none are easily recogniseable being a mixture of several ‘characters traits’.
    I am pretty sure I couldn’t write an up-to-date novel i.e. set in the present, because my knowledge of ‘in language’ is abysmal and I now live in France so my physical contact with everyday spoken English is non existant and as we know language is fluid and changes all the time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s amazing how much research is still necessary even with places you’re intimately familiar with. I learned so much about the town I grew up when writing a 1920s novel set there.

  15. Hey is there any chance you can make a post about tips for writing a superhero story? Since you’ve written Wayfarer and made a whole series dedicated to examining Marvel heroes’ stories, I was wondering if you had any tips you could give to aspiring superhero creators.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These days, superhero stories are really milieu as much as anything. They can be caper, love story, mystery, etc. I’m not sure if have enough to add to make a whole post out of the subject, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind!

  16. Victoria C Leo says

    Really, really love that you mentioned the question of radically-different worldview. Pet peeve of mine is authors who put all their research into clothing and the other aspects of the physical world and forget the more important social and psychological world. It’s critically important to get into people’s HEADS, and so few do it. Of course, it’s hard: you need to really get it, then you have to portray it so that readers can really get it, all while not losing the 21st century audience. Either you have a time-travel, so the protagonist is understandable and can be confused and help the reader adapt, or your protagonist is an outlier in their time (like the 5 people in North America who wanted emancipation and full political and social equality for all women, formerly enslaved, poor, etc. and were psychologically prepared to actually imagine it, for real). Or your protagonist is somehow so compelling that readers do the hard brain work of seeing a world through alien eyes.

    I write SciFi and it’s the same thing. You can’t have aliens who have weird bodies and planet – and think like 21st C Americans.

    The other point, about integrating some sound into your words, to help make the ancient world come alive, is also important. [In my case, I created an entire alien language which drove my readers absolutely nuts, even with a dictionary in the Appendix, and only a few alien words per page. Too much. I used less alien vocab and made it clear what the alien just said, without flipping to the dictionary, in the later books in the series. I learned!]

    THANK YOU for making that point about worldview.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I totally understand that it gets old to portray over and over again outdated viewpoints that were and are painful, but it also gets old when, as you say, main characters are always somehow miraculously the most enlightened minds of their era. There’s a time and a place for both perspectives, but I find tremendous value in stories that thoughtfully and honestly explore the pain points of previous eras as they would have been experienced by the people living through them.

      Good point about how sci-fi really faces the same challenge.

    • I tend to throw a lot of alien and foreign words into my manuscripts and later have to change most of them into English. Caroline Cherryh used to sprinkle way too many alien words in some of her earlier novels, but eventually toned it way down. If there’s an alien concept that doesn’t translate into a single English word, then one can use the alien term. This is also a problem for people translating from one Earth language to another. Sometimes, when I use a foreign word I’ll give the translation right there if a plan to have that word repeatedly pop up. The trick is to keep from hitting the reader with too many strange words.

  17. My current 2-novel project is set in an alternate universe circa AD1430. This not only requires vast amounts of research into medieval customs and languages of various countries and so on, but I have to pick the spots and provide explanations for the changes in the timeline (95% of which won’t even make it into the novels). Quite the learning experience. (Did you know that there is a “modern Gaulish dictionary” available online?)

  18. Thank you for this really useful article. Thanks, too, to the commenters for their insights. I got stuck with my current project because I was unable to get inside the head of the protagonist (a real person) and understand how he views the real events that take place around him, in what way he might have turned those events to his advantage or been thwarted in his ambitions by them. I believe I have finally cracked it but I definitely need to avoid paying too much attention to the underlying politics of the time and place (sixteenth century Ireland). I already have two historical fictions published but am aware that they share some of the tropes commenters here have found annoying. My next stop is your article (and then the book) about character arc.
    PS, thanks also to Christopher Graham, the story reading ape, for sharing this on his website, which is where I found it.

  19. I fell in love with Florence in Oct 2019, just before the pandemic hit, and spent the entire shut-down in the late 15th century, taking dictation from my characters, both historical ones and my own creations. What a joy! I probably researched at least 20 hours for each five minutes of writing because I didnt want my readers caught up on mistakes or anachronisms…but it is the emotions of the characters that carry the momentum through the historical events. “Caterina by Moonlight” now has an agent looking for the right publisher!

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