Tips for a Well-Written Historical Fiction

historical men with pipes fullHistorical fiction is one of the largest genres out there. Book topics span from scarcely heard about events to World War Two and Civil war-era fiction. In such a big market, it’s hard to really set yourself apart. What do some of the most successful historical fiction books have in common?

The first thing that comes to mind is research. In any novel, research is important, yet it’s even more so in historical fiction. While the reader will never physically see the long hours, books read and pages upon pages of notes, they’ll very easily be able to tell if you know what you’re writing about. Make sure you’ve got your major facts correct, then dig deeper. Figure out how people lived, what the economy was like and things like that. More research and hard work on your part will only make the quality of your book better.

If you’re not the type to sit and pour through text books for hours on end, find some good historical fiction written in the time period you’re wanting to write about. I’m not saying to forego the textbooks entirely, because that’s important too. Read how other successful authors have done it and learn from them. Keep a huge notebook (if it doesn’t start out huge, it will end that way) of all the random tidbits you’ve learned.

This brings me to my second point and that’s characterization. For me at least, I’ll push through a lacking plot line and less than descriptive settings if the characters are strong enough. Take out the good characters and replace them with dull, unrelatable ones—you’ll have a hard time getting me past the first chapter. Another thing that makes characters feel off is when they speak or act out of character. Back to the research, make sure that you know how people back then would act. Just as someone from the middle ages wouldn’t say, “What’s up, dude?”, someone from our time wouldn’t speak in Shakespearian English. Know the vocabulary and mannerisms of the time you’re writing in.

However, just knowing how a person would talk or act isn’t enough to make them a dynamic and interesting character. Don’t be afraid to mess your characters up. At a writing conference I attended this year, one of the speakers put it this way, “When you’re a writer, you get to play at being God. You create these characters. There is a difference though. We give our characters the sins and then punish them for having them!” In order for your characters to feel relatable, they’ve got to be messed up. Everyone has something—multiple things—that they struggle with. Make your characters sinful and then put them through the process to fix that. You don’t want to make them so terrible that no one will like them, but they can’t be perfect either.

With all the historical fiction out there, you need to find a way to make your story unique. This is also where reading already published and well-known novels will come in handy. In most cases, you’ll find the author has done something just a little different than someone else, making the story that much better. I described my last historical fiction novel to people as a “historical fiction with a little bit of sci-fi”. My main character could time travel, but it wasn’t in the same way it usually happens. A pocket watch was tied to times written in his ancestor’s journal. Whenever it struck that time, the character traveled back and stayed—sometimes for days, sometimes hours, sometimes nearly a month. It was something different and it had time travel—something I find interesting.

Brainstorm a list of ideas to make the story different. Start small and then go crazy with it. My idea came from a very late night of writing any random thing that came to mind. Even if it seems weird and totally out of place, put it down. Sometimes the strangest ideas end up being the ones that work best.

A lot of what makes or breaks a good historical fiction boils down to research. It’s not only the characters, dialogue and actual events you’ll want to learn about though. Learn about the area where they take place. If possible, visit those places. Things will have changed over the years, but it’s still helpful and inspiring to stand on the place you’d be using in your story. That’s one of the amazing things about historical fiction. In a way, it feels as though it was real. You can go to places used in your novel, take pictures of them and really be there.

I’ve said it several times, but I’ll say it again: research, research, research. See, your mom was always right! History really can help you in real life. It will only make your novel better.

The Finish Line

 Do you know what you’re aiming for?

 

By Kathryn Comstock

The End’ is one of the most exciting sentences for an author to pen. All the work and planning is over and you’ve finished. You’re at the finish line. But if you think about it, there are steps to getting to that point. In the same way a runner trains for a marathon, a writer has to something similar: planning, outlining and brainstorming. How do you get to those two wonderful words, ‘The End’?

All writers have problems coming up with story goals at some point in their career. I’ve experienced it, my friends have experienced it and I’m sure those reading this have as well. This isn’t entirely possible to avoid, but I have found two major things that help me get out of the “no story goal” rut quicker.

First, write out everything that couldn’t possibly happen. That’s right, the way’s your story won’t end. May seem silly, but it does work. It helps you to figure out what direction you shouldn’t be taking your story.

Second, list everything you think may be a viable option for your ending. The things on the list don’t have to be long, or even that extreme. It can be something really little or something big. I’ve had times where I even write down something cliché, because it is an ending that might possibly happen.

When doing both those things, talk to someone about your ideas. I know it’s scary to share your ideas from fear of rejection, and I totally understand that. Having someone else look at it can give you a helpful and different perspective. I’ve had the experience where I’ll just take one item from my list of possible story goals and start talking about it. It may not seem that great to me, but the other person is able to think more outside the box than I am and give me some helpful tips. Usually, that turns into my story goal.

Whatever you do, make sure you actually have a story goal. You need something to work towards, just like anything else in life. When I had just started writing, I didn’t think I needed a story goal. I thought I could just write and eventually, one would magically appear, work amazingly and my characters would ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Oh, was I wrong.

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Meaning And Balloons

Does your novel have a point? We live in a world starving for meaning and purpose. People look for it in all the wrong places, but God is the only purpose, and the only One who can bring meaning. Does your novel point back to God? Does your novel have meaning?

 

 By Kathryn Comstock

It is happening in everything: school work, literature and even writing. Meaning is being systematically removed and instead, we’re told that “it’s all relative”. There’s no real meaning in anything. This is called deconstructionism.

I heard an analogy that meaning—what deconstructionism does to meaning—is like a red balloon. One person can come up and say it’s a blue balloon. Another can say it’s a green and pink balloon. Yet another person could say that it isn’t a balloon at all; in reality, it’s a pen. I could go on with examples forever, but you get the picture

Now, according to what the American education system teaches, (because it’s really they who are furthering this kind of thinking), everyone would be right. Meaning is considered to be relative. Because of this, the balloon can be anything or any color people want it to be, based on their thoughts and their desires. This probably sounds crazy, but it is what many people say they believe these days.

So, how does this apply to writing? I’m glad you asked.

As any writer knows, there’s something specific you’re trying to get across when telling a story. If you’re like me, the character may actually be an exaggerated reflection of one aspect of yourself, a person you admire or someone you’re close to. The scenes and situations you put in mean something, and it’s something very specific.

I’ll use an example from my own writing. Currently, I’m working on a story about a girl who escapes from a Nazi death camp like situation. She runs away and ends up, unknowingly, in the governor’s house. The butler agrees to let her spend the night (he isn’t aware she’s a prisoner) in exchange for her working an international dinner that his boss is putting on. Now, because of the fact that the governor has kept Kiah (my main character) and her family imprisoned for so many years, she has developed a deep and intense hatred for the man.

Her first errand at the party is to serve drinks, and she meets the governor. At first, she doesn’t know it’s him. He strikes up a conversation with her and, having no preconceived notions herself, starts to think that he’s a nice guy and all that. This is when it’s discovered he’s the governor. She gets super embarrassed and ends up dropping her tray, shattering and spilling everything she was carrying.

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