Are you considering writing a book set in the past?
Maybe you’re already writing one and looking for a few tips.
Choosing to write a book within a historical period of time can feel daunting and is definitely not an easy task. There will be a lot of research to get through, and knowing how to correctly balance accuracy with your own fictional tale can be confusing.
But keeping details realistic in your historical novel is absolutely essential. Accuracy is vital.
For instance, if you want to write a scene set in an 1840’s kitchen you might not know that women generally cooked on a stove by the hearth rather than on a counter surface, and no such thing as a microwave or many of the modern gadgets we take for granted ever existed then.
Slipping up on details like this can make or break your story, so it is important to research your chosen period extensively. Having published three novels that are set in the past, I have compiled a few tips to help you on your way.
1. Known Facts Should Stay Factual.
If you are writing a fictional story where a scene happens to take place on or near a known landmark, you should always remember to make sure that your descriptions of the landmark and surrounding area are accurate.
If you are not building a completely fictional world you should aim as a close to the actual description of the place as possible.
Readers can become easily miffed by inaccuracies because normally creative tolerance from readers only reaches a certain point.
If you aren’t writing fantasy fiction where worlds are inventive and make-believe, then you should keep to the facts when it comes to historical details and events.
Even though you are writing a fictional story, if you are setting it within a real place, then that has to be true to form to make it work.
An example is when I penned a book on the theme of Jack The Ripper. Even though my story was fictional I was careful to include the correct street names in Whitechapel where he lived, and I made sure that the names and dates of the murdered victims were factual too.
Had I changed these well-known details and made them completely unbelievable, Ripper fans (or die-hard Ripperologists as I came to know them, plus general readers well versed in these facts,) would likely feel aggravated.
My actual character ‘Jack the Ripper’ could be fictional because his true identity was never actually discovered in reality.
But at the same point, had my ‘fictional’ Jack been a female dressmaker or a person with whom readers could not in any way associate to the famous male killer portrayed in the media, I remain unconvinced that this would be a popular character choice, even within a fictional realm.
2. Don’t Use Difficult Colloquial Dialogue.
It’s always a nice idea to include dialogue that is true to the period you have set your story in, but do you really want your readers to struggle to read what your characters are saying?
Many successful authors know how to drop in a just few accented words that are readable but steer clear from the dialect that is hard to comprehend. In my cockney based novel, my characters might say… ‘Get over ‘ere,’ which would sound a little more authentic and not be difficult to understand. But writing, ‘What a load of ole pony.’ may leave your readers stumped. Anyone familiar with London cockney slang will know this term means ‘what a load of rubbish’ but just as many English readers don’t, so best just to keep it simple.
3. Deliver Evocative Details.
By using ‘evocative’ details I mean using details which not only bring images but also ‘feelings’ to a reader. It’s okay to say, ‘Margaret walked down the street,’ but is this showing the reader what surrounds her?
Adding essential details to your narrative is vitally important. In my Victorian novels, I make a point of visualising the scenes.
I look for old photographs and write down descriptive paragraphs as well as notes such as, room size and furniture layout, a person’s clothes, the colours and texture, hairstyles, posture, anything that will give me a broader view of who and what they are.
I recall wondering what it might have felt like to be corseted? Would I suffer from heartburn or a persistent back ache? Could my character reveal an interesting detail about herself that way?
It’s also important not to bog down the story with too many details. Always offer some balance with plot progression/dialogue and description.
4. Mind Their Manners.
Just as our culture today differs vastly from the past, it’s a good idea to be sure you know the rules of etiquette (or lack thereof) amongst our predecessors. Etiquette was extremely important in the Victorian era.
Look up the certain prejudices of the time period, the different social classes and their roles in society. A couple of centuries ago a man would be expected to tip his hat whenever a woman approached him. Today men barely wear hats!
A woman would give a small courtesy to one above her status, such as her employer. The higher the status, the deeper she might courtesy.
Widows were required to wear black for two years, so if your female character is strutting about in various garments right after her husband has just kicked the bucket, you’ll be unintentionally aggravating those readers who know the right social conduct.
The way people acted during mealtimes is one area that really does need some thorough research, and it can be also be used to some good effect in a story. For a Catholic family there may be prayers before dining, there is also the case where the most important members of a household get to eat the most well prepared or most expensive dishes; and who served the dishes to them, the butler or the footmen? You may think details such as these are unimportant in a fiction novel, but every detail counts! Just a little more effort in research can add more authenticity to your story.
You needn’t include all the details in your novel but you do need to be aware of them, and whether or not they are essential to your scene. I always go by the rule, if it adds something; mention it, or simply use it to enhance a story.
For example, in one of my scenes a young servant, (ignorant in the ways of upper-class dining rituals,) is uncharacteristically invited to dine one evening with her employer and his wife. (In reality this would be unheard of, but this particular story lends itself to such a scene.)
To add a touch of authenticity and interest to the scene, I had the servant girl try in vain to emulate her mistress by picking up her cup and extending her little finger. Sadly the whole thing came off rather embarrassingly for her, and she was rewarded with only a fit of giggles from the young mistress in the family who had been watching all along. So you can use the various customs and manners to create some interesting scenes. Don’t be afraid to be creative about it.
5. Use History to Develop Your Characters.
One of the things I loved about writing historical fiction is the fact that I could enter the mind of my character and have him or her ask questions about life, their own past, their future, and what they thought about their surroundings; just as I think they really would do in reality.
In my novel which focused on prostitutes living in London’s inner city slums, my character tried hard to imagine a world far away from her own, where slop buckets, dirt and disease did not exist. She was inwardly hopeful for a better life, a life where women were not victims of their own gender.
She had hope, even when there was none.
Try to embed some true to life feelings or desires in your historical characters too. Make them ponder over their own existence, push them harder to analyse their surroundings, give them fears, flaws, and allow history not just to define them but to make them crave answers about their own lives. I guarantee it will bring your characters to life in your reader’s mind.
6. When In Doubt Leave it Out.
No matter how much effort you put into your writing there is going to be a point where you will slip up. That’s life. If it happens by adding some inconsequential erroneous detail, it won’t urge the reader to throw your book across the room. For instance, if your salt cellar is sitting at the wrong end of the dining table, don’t despair. Any reader who picks up a small detail like this and lambasts you for it really isn’t reading your book as a form of entertainment but rather trying hard to impress others with their knowledge. Fret not! A nitpick such as this will not make a negative impact. If your heroine whips out a smartphone from her Victorian ballgown, (again in the context of your story genre,) you can pretty much guarantee an inferior critique.
If you happen to be in writing mode, and cannot find anything related to a particular detail that you could rely on as a source of correct information, just leave it out. Even if you really wanted to use the detail in your book it is better to be left out if you cannot vouch for its accuracy. At the same point don’t strive to perfect every single detail at the cost of your story! Readers mostly read for story value, remember, but it is still good to be fairly prudent with your work.
7. Hit Fear With a Stick and Just Write it.
When I sat down to begin writing my very first draft of a historical novel I feared almost every sentence.
I feared that it would come out sounding wrong, daft, or just plain dull. In fact, I had so many fears about so many things that it was often difficult to get any words down at all.
Then I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough of these fears. I don’t know if I can write well, but I know that I can type. And nobody is reading this over my shoulder as I do it.’
That mindset was a sort of liberation, a ‘free licence’ to write rubbish or various inaccuracies. It wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for, but I would not worry if it happened.
I was prepared to learn along the way and I was surprised at the end of that draft that it wasn’t half bad once I had made the decision to just write it.
If you find that you are worried about taking the step forward, simply write your story first.
Later read it through and make a note within each chapter of the historical details that you need to check for accuracy. Separating these two will give you the freedom to concentrate on one element at a time and not feel bogged down by both at once.
I hope these tips find their way into your writing world and help you to improve your craft!
Carla is a successful historical fiction writer and workshop leader. When her fingers aren’t tapping on piano keys, she’s relentlessly guiding ambitious new writers to the finish line with heaps of inspiring advice and motivational techniques.