Authors’ advice on writing good historical fiction


How many times have you eagerly picked up a historical novel, only to feel like you’d grabbed a textbook by mistake?

Writing accurate yet compelling novel set in a different time period, obviously, isn’t easy. (Heck, it’s a challenge even when you don’t have to research battle formations or pre-electricity chores.)

So two authors who’ve demonstrated a clear knack for the art have offered up their expertise with anyone looking to write or revise historical fiction.

How do you start? It seems that moderation can be beneficial when it comes to research.

C.C. Humphreys found early in his career that researching could be a form of procrastination for him.

Sure, the author of The French Executioner and seven other historical novels set throughout history needed to have a basic understanding.

But that said, he spent six years reading about the man charged with putting Anne Boleyn to death … only to sit down at his desk and discover he’d learned almost nothing of use.

“Now I read for a couple of months, make sure I know some aspects of ‘the journey,’ then I set out,” he says. “The characters will tell me what I need to research further as I write them.”

J.R. Tomlin’s process is somewhat similar. The author of ten historical novels — some following established figures, others starring wholly invented ones — has two history degrees, but of course, that’s the only the tip of the iceberg.

She says she researches “extensively” before starting but, like Humphreys, checks on details while she writes.

In particular, she recommends relying more heavily on primary sources, such books, articles, journals, and other records that were written during the period you’re writing about.

“Of course, those often had their own biases, but the biases are ones you might want to make use of in your novel,” Tomlin says.

“While it is helpful to read modern books on your period, you may want to take revisionist theories with some moderate skepticism.”

Wikipedia can serve as a great starting point for which other sources to check, but unsurprisingly, it’s questionable when it comes to facts.

“I occasionally go to Wikipedia to double-check something and end up spending most of my time there correcting facts, sometimes facts that I corrected the last time I was there,” Tomlin says.

No matter how many months you spend boning up on facts, though, once you start writing, it’s important to keep your focus on the characters, so you have a plot and not just a historical timeline.

“For me, a novel is a story about a person, not events,” Tomlin says. “How they react to those events or what their reaction causes to happen, of course, impact the story, but that is peripheral.”

Humphreys finds his balance by ensuring that any events or descriptions of the setting provide context for the character’s dilemma or motivations.

Examples from his own writing include the weight of the sword in a person’s hands as he attacks, what it is like to do a barrel roll in a 1930s biplane, or how the willow leaves along the Thames remind a character of her lover’s hair.

“People often comment that my books are quite ‘smelly,’” he says. “I like to use all the senses, give someone a sensual feel for the world they are visiting.”

Tomlin also uses the senses to help make readers feel they’ve traveled back in time rather than set against a blank landscape.

“Smells, tastes, and sounds that the character experiences can give a good feel for the time and place without describing everything,” she says.

With all that said, Humphreys wants to emphasize that you’re not writing for the pre-eminent scholar on your particular time period —  you’re writing for readers.

“When I began, I believed there was this panel of critics waiting to pounce on all my inaccuracies and anachronisms, and it held me back,” he says.

“There are a very few people out there like that, but most people just want a convincing world and a story that sweeps them along. They are who you write for.”

PS: Enjoyed what C.C. Humphreys had to say? We did an author Q&A with him recently — check it out here!