I’m the editor of a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, and I’ve taught classes about how to write historical fiction. I’ve also written an historical novel or two (or six). As a result, I’m often asked to share my best tips for writing in that genre. I recently searched my bag of tricks and found this article that was published a few years ago. I’ve added tidbits here and there to the original version.
1. Write about an era that fascinates you.
This is similar to one of my tips for writing a first draft: write what you must write. An historical novel is a project that could require months or even years of research, so you need to write about a period that can hold your interest for that long. Most writers of historical fiction choose their historical period based on a long-time interest in the period and that is a good way to start. Writers who are fascinated by Victoria’s England feel compelled to write about ladies in corsets and men in waistcoats and find great joy in describing those details to others.
It’s usually best not to pick a time period for your novel out of a passing fancy. If you’re writing a novel set around the French Revolution but don’t find the details or the people of the French Revolution particularly interesting, then your project is in trouble because you’re going to avoid the research with every Excuse you can name. No one wants to spend their time reading about something that bores them. But if you’re fascinated by the French Revolution and the events of that time, then you’ll look forward to digging through the archives, flipping through the index, and skimming for important details as you search for the next big clue that will help you fit the pieces of your story puzzle together.
On the other hand, it might happen that you develop an interest in the era you have chosen to write about. I came up with an idea for a story set during the Salem Witch Trials, which oddly enough happened to be a time I knew little about. Though I had never had much interest in that era prior to my crazy story idea (my only experience with the 17th century witch hunts was reading The Crucible in college and watching the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis about ten years ago), I did become fascinated by the frightening happenings of the time through my research.
Whether you’ve chosen your era from a life-long interest, or you develop a fascination out of your research, you need to enjoy the time spent in your chosen era. You’re going to be there awhile.