The Setting in Your Historical Novel Should Be More Than JUST a Setting

Today, I want to take a minute away from talking about general fiction techniques and focus on a specific genre—that of historical fiction. This is a hugely popular milieu that, in a sense, is really more of a setting or backdrop than it is an actual genre.

Here’s what I mean: you can write a book of practically any genre (mystery, romance, thriller) and put it in a historical setting. The only thing that truly defines a historical novel is its presence in a historical period. For example, we could conceivably take Inception or The Bourne Identity, re-stage them during the American Revolution or the Great Depression, and boom! suddenly they’re historicals.

But, somewhat contradictionally, simply moving a story to a historical period isn’t enough to make it a good historical novel. The bottom line is this: the historical period must be integral to the story. 

For example, if you write a story set during the Alaskan gold rush, but the gold rush itself and/or the Alaskan setting isn’t really that important to your story, then that setting is extraneous. Worse, if your characters’ actions in this story would make just as much sense in modern-day Manhattan, then you’re failing to take advantage of your historical era.

The point of all this is two-fold:

1. For all that a historical setting is just a setting, it’s really much more than that. Don’t disappoint readers who are looking for an immersive historical experience if your story could just as easily take place in the modern day.

2. Do your research. Make your historical setting pop off the page. You want readers to feel as if they’re living in this foreign time and place. Most of the time, the little details much more than the big ones are what bring historical novels to life and anchor their characters and plots within the setting.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Is your setting integral to your historical novel? 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.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    oh yes, this! it’s not just getting the historical props right (especially firearms, tall ships, and clothing, you will get hauled out for screwing up those so fast)

    my guideline is, if you can describe your book as “a (genre) set in (time period)” (romance/Civil War, comedy/Ancient Greece) it’s probably not a historical novel. If you describe it as “(time period) as experienced by characters in (genre)” (Russian Revolution/tragedy, Meiji Period/adventure” then it probably is

  2. Good rule of thumb. The former type of books will still get classed as historicals (and they can still *be* good historical experiences), but they’re really more of a mash-up.

  3. I try hard to write it as tight as I can to keep it true to the era. My new release has been a challenge, as I have taken book two into America. As a Brit, I had a lot of work ensuring it stayed true to place and time. A lot of fun, too! 🙂

  4. One of the books I’m currently working on is about British colonists in Kenya, so that one was doubly for challenging for me, as an American!

  5. In my westerns, the time and place is integral to the way the characters are and act. However, most of the places and people are fictional, so I don’t really consider my stories to be historical fiction.
    I had been writing a historical fiction novel about the Battle of Britain, but got lost in all the accounts of the different Royal Air Squadrons, and never managed to finish the book. Partly because it was merely days later when I learned about a few scientific discoveries that propelled my imagination about 500 years into the future. 😉

    Good post, by the way. I think it’ll help me a lot in the future, should i ever decide to try writing any more historical fiction. 😀

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. So long as your people and places are accurately representative of the period (in contrast to, say, a fantasy setting in a historical period), it definitely still counts as historical fiction. The point is to evoke the period, but that doesn’t always mean you have to be delving into a particular place, person, or event.

  8. Love this post! I write almost exclusively historical (with a paranormal twist) and I research like crazy before I even start writing. More often than not, the research helps me define the plot in a way that makes the setting and period integral to the story.

    Thanks for sharing your pov!

  9. I almost always have a general idea of a period I’m writing in, but I don’t do my heavy-duty research until I’ve written my outline and have a better idea of what questions I need to answer. Finding those little details that just make the setting pop is always one of most exciting parts of the process.

  10. I’m definitely in historical fiction. My characters are caught up in and dealing with the aftermath of the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia. I tried to get all the research done beforehand to get the events, characters, settings etc. in place. It’s a good way to start and a spark for creativity. But when you get down to writing the story, that’s not the end of the research! Each scene raises questions I hadn’t thought of before. Have you found that to be true?

  11. Oh, definitely. I complete the bulk of my research before I start the first draft, so I usually have a good basis of understanding for my period. But there are endless little details I have to go hunting for as I’m writing.

  12. I’m working on an historical novel set just before, during and after the Texas Revolution. The historical research is enlightening but attention to detail, historical accuracy and timelines is making it a slow process. None-the-less, I find it compelling.

  13. I love historical novels – as you’ve probably guessed. History is both fascinating in its exoticism and enlightening in its commentary on our own lives. The Texas Revolution is an endlessly intriguing period.

  14. Interesting post! I think that anyone writing historical fiction must approach the historical setting as a sci-fi writer approaches world building. You have to get the history right to have the world work as a setting. You have to get the story right to get it to work as fiction. Sometimes authors of historical fiction get too caught up in getting the historical details right and forget to tell a compelling story. Sometimes you have to bend the details for the good of the story.

  15. Totally agree. I write both historical and speculative fiction, and I’ve found the approaches very similar. The only real differences is that historical fiction brings its own built-in framework, while speculative fiction gives you a little more freedom to deviate from the facts.

  16. I agree with you. There are no shortcuts to excellent research. Why not immerse a reader in full technicolor, rather than black and white only?

  17. I really appreciate this post, since my current project is historical fiction, and I’ve been struggling with the enormous amount of research required to do a believable setting. I’ve been SOOO tempted to say “okay, enough with the research – let’s WRITE already!” I hate research….yet I hate to write without it. I feel like I’m writing blindfolded; and I know it would be even worse for my readers. I was going to just “wing it” for my book, since I dread research so much, and I do have a basic understanding of the time period, but the turning point for me was when I asked a friend who loves to read what she thinks makes a good historical fiction GOOD, and she said that it’s when she learns something about history while she’s reading it, when she feels like she was THERE.

    That’s when I decided that some honest research was in order, and would pay off eventually. But I’ve gotten discouraged lately. This post has inspired me once again! Back to the library books I go!

    I do have a question, though; do you ever start writing even when you know you don’t have enough research done to make your setting convincing? I know I’m not anywhere near knowledgeable enough about my setting to talk about everyday objects, foods, “current” events, etc., without making it sound forced, but….I really want to write! Do you think it’d be worth it, just to help me flesh out my characters and plot, or should I wait and let the story marinade as I research? I don’t even know if I can write anything withOUT using all those things that I’m researching, because my setting really is tied very tightly to the plot. Should I try anyway, or will I just end up rewriting it all? Have you ever had a similar problem?

  18. I tend to read a lot of journals and other original source documents when researching my historical fiction projects. Beyond familiarity with the time, place, events, customs, foods, etc., people spoke and thought differently. They had different motivations and goals and expectations about life.

    Nothing is more irritating to me than a heroine with motivations and morals that are clearly 21st century, but some author has plopped a bonnet on her head and set her in a buggy and voila! Historical fiction! Not…

  19. @RJ: Absolutely. The brighter a story’s colors, the more likely it is to stick with readers long after they’ve finished it.

    @Amber: My system usually goes something like this: I start out with a basic interest/knowledge in the period I’m going to be writing about. Based simply on that, I go ahead and write my outline – which for me is a very detailed undertaking (sort of like a first draft but without the dialogue and narrative). Once I finish the outline, I know exactly what needs to happen in my story and exactly what questions I need to answer in my research. So then I dive into the books. I generally spend three months on research for a historical project. But no matter how thorough I am, I never learn *everything* I need to. Once I start in on the first draft, there are always little details I have to stop and find. I would encourage you to research for several months, at least. For me, there just comes a point when I can tell I’m as ready as I’m going to get.

    @Lynn: I agree. I recently read a historical novel whose heroine acted completely out of period. Erg!

  20. Parker Rose says

    I find myself having difficulty finding information about Australia’s near past.Like what slang they already used, things to make the setting more realistic. Any ideas where I could look?

  21. My setting came just out of the blue, but it feels right with my current WIP: Manhattan

  22. Abigail Abraham says

    I’m writing a historical fiction novel that takes place in 1970’s Britain. It’s been difficult to write about the setting because it is a very recent time period and there is not much information about that specific time period. Any tips on how to properly research this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Lots of first-hand research available for “nearby” historical eras. Lots and lots of people can tell you what it was like to live then. You can also experience pretty much all the media from the decade.

  23. Hiya, thank you so much for this post!
    I was wondering how you would qualify a fiction novel that is set in present days but “relies” and is supported by non-fictional historical facts? (Facts that will be refered to throughout the novel)

    I wonder if you knew of books with that format/genre?

    Many thanks,

    Jen

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm, I’m envisioning something in the vein of National Treasure. If that’s right, then it’s *not* historical, and the genre would ultimately depend on other qualifying factors in the story (for example, National Treasure is an adventure/caper story).

  24. Peter Rendell says

    I started “Merlin Parnassus” in 2010 as historical fiction. It was intended to be alternative history, or maybe the truth instead of the recorded history. It is all real people, real places and Merlin’s biography. The first harsh criiticism was that I had presented it as Chronicles, … well so be it. Presenting a life story is a problem in itself, especially as Merlin has been blessed with ‘long life’, two and a half millennia to date (edition 5 can be found on Amazon – look for author name ‘Peter Rendell Author’).
    Each jump in time introduces a new information dump for the environment, the character and the story. I am finding it necessary to leave out a lot of history to maintain the pace of the story.
    This was my first novel and could be the worst novel type, i.e. biography, for a beginner writer to tackle. Each step forward in Merlin’s logs causes a hiccup in the story.
    Is this what you mean by historical fiction?
    Is my story in the wrong genre?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As mentioned in the post, historical fiction is something of a catch-all term for any story that is set, in whole or part, in a historical period. However, a story that involves a magical being such as Merlin is likely to fall more properly into a fantasy subgenre, even if it relies heavily on historical details.

      • “,,,historical fiction is something of a catch-all term for any story that is set, in whole or part, in a historical period.”
        Picking up on this comment what are your thoughts on dual timeline novels that seem to be so popular these days. Do you think that they should be considered a different genre? Especially when one of the timelines takes place in present day? Just curious to hear your take on that.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          There’s a genre for everything these days, so no doubt they do have their own special categorization. 😉 However, from a technical standpoint, whichever timeline is the “main” structural throughline (aka, the one that frames the other and decides the story’s conflict in the Climactic Moment) will be the one that primarily defines the genre. Usually, this will be the modern-day timeline, making it a modern genre (drama, mystery, whatever) with a historical subplot.

  25. Effective insight. One of my readers commented that my story was also like a travel log or vacation. He enthused me.

    It is a help if the author is deeply interested in history. I do my best to research the details and minutia of the time period including speech, products and inventions available, prevailing culture and attitudes, and personal journals from the period. My current set of novels are set in the 1850s during the California gold rush, growth of San Francisco, the destruction of the Ohlone Indians who lived in the rich area, the Barbary coast, immense amounts of gold in a few isolated pockets, and the terrible times in China that led to many immigrating to the United States.

    This period is graced with photographs, journals, good and bad guys, and all in all a rich location.

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