Writing Historical Fiction Based on True Stories – How to Get Started on Your Journey into the Past
Historical novels based on true events need to be researched, and like any other writing project, the novel needs to be structured with a good premise, plot and characters. However, there are particular challenges in the writing process for a historical novel.
Here, I offer a few tips to get started based on my own journey of writing novels about the past.
What Period of History Do You Want to Write About?
This is where a writer can get stuck; at the very beginning, not even on the first page. We all have different reasons for choosing the historical period and settings for our novels, and there’s truth in the old adage: ‘write what you know.’
Some authors have naturally found their genre based on their previous knowledge or professions:
Clive Cussler’s time in the military and his work in underwater exploration certainly contributed to his historical novels set in the early 1900s, such as The Spy, a naval adventure involving the detective Isaac Bell.
Bernard Cornwell studied history at University College London and afterwards wrote his fabulous novels about the escapades of a rifleman, Richard Sharpe, during the Napoleonic Wars. Also made into a TV series.
Simon Scarrow was a history teacher, and his novels about the Roman Empire are a huge success.
But what if you don’t have a previous professional life that naturally leads you into a period or setting for your novel?
Well, it might just be a personal interest. If you like reading medieval stories, then why not write one? You could write about yourself, or a current situation, and just translate that into a historical setting. Or you can write about your past. The latter might be more interesting.
I am sure we’ve all thought about our ancestors; who they were, what they did, and how they lived. That was where my writing journey started for my latest novel, Loyalty and Lunacy. It is a work of historical fiction based on real people and how the fabric of society began to change during the onset of the Great War.
But you can’t just take a piece of research into your family history and write it up as a novel. No! The basic rules of writing historical fiction still apply – do some research on the period, build the premise, plot and characters. Let’s discuss those aspects.
Doing Some Historical Research
The essence of historical fiction is to take historical facts and situations, then turn them into a plausible story that is deeply engaging. You want your readers to keep reading, so a boring monologue of some distant relative’s uneventful life is not going to cut the mustard. Your relatives might be of interest to you, but it will not be interesting for your readers. That is the first pitfall to avoid. Something extraordinary or unexpected has to happen to drive the story along.
It might be that you’ve chosen a period so far back in history that there isn’t a family story to get the creative juices going. Say, you decide to write a novel about the Roman Empire. Well, a good first step is to choose a very turbulent point in that history (e.g. a war), or a notable individual (e.g. Emperor Nero). Then build your research around those events or person(s).
You don’t need to be an academic to source your research material. Yes, there are non-fiction books you can read about the period, but you can watch TV documentaries, find information on the internet, and even be inspired by places you have visited on holiday. So, when in Rome, take in the ancient architecture, the heat and feel of the place, the old markets, traditional foods, imagine the smells and tastes, the clothing, etc.
Choosing a Good Premise
This is the usual idea, or moral dilemma, that is the foundation stone of the novel. It also drives the plot along. A good premise is short and easily understood.
Imagine you are making an elevator pitch to an agent or publisher. Can you sum up the story in a sentence? It could even be used to craft the jacket blurb on the back cover of your novel. This is what I wrote:
It’s 1913. Gertrude is a young scullery maid on the country estate of Sir Cuthbert Ackroyd and she dreams of a better life with her love, John Anderson. But she owes a debt of honour – no thanks to Master Davy Christian, a drunken aristocrat and malcontent.
This immediately tells the reader the time period and setting. I expect you’re already thinking of a love story, and the TV series, Downton Abbey. But it also introduces a hero (John), the heroine in great peril (Gertrude) and the villain (Davy Christian). Of course, the villain has the upper hand because he’s a well-to-do aristocrat. So, we have our ‘premise’: a young woman in love, but destined to never rise above her station because of a brutal aristocrat. Or does love conquer all?
I was able to work real historical settings into my story, including the country estate. But to bring peril and tension to the story, the villain is necessarily a fictional character. However, it is historically plausible – drunken aristocrat beats lowly servant girl.
Deciding on the Plot
Alright, so the idea of a hero, a villain, a damsel in distress, and love possibly conquering all, is not new. But it is a well-established formula in commercial fiction. The trick is to bring a new angle to the plot, the setting, or to the characters, so that the story is different.
It could be a ‘little known’ historical fact that is an interesting prompt for the story, or you could play with history by taking the fiction forward in time from a particular true event (i.e. an alternative history, ‘what if …’). The point is, you don’t have to be a slave to historical facts.
For me, the threads for the plot in Loyalty and Lunacy came from a few historical facts. Just little bits of information that began to build the plot and the actions of the characters. For example, during my research, I stumbled on some records about the horrendous treatment of patients in the lunatic asylum, and this becomes a driving force for the one of the characters.
The plot may necessarily have boundaries associated with the historical setting. For example, you wouldn’t introduce a car prior to the 1900s, when transport was mainly by horse and cart. Or there might to societal constraints on behaviour. We all know how rigid Victorian Society was. The class divide features in my novel. But don’t let historical facts be a limit on your creativity.
Creating your Characters
You do need to fictionalise them. It is rare for a real person to have character traits larger than life. But if you want to use a real person as a basis for a character in your historical novel, was there an aspect of their character that you could enhance or embellish for storytelling? If you did not know them personally, are there letters or other documents that reveal their traits? How would you imagine them to be?
Also, think about some of the writer’s rules for building a character. What do they look like? What are they really like underneath, what drives them? Do they have a secret to keep?
Appearance is simply a matter of research on how people dressed, spoke and conducted themselves at the time (movement, posture, body size and shape). You might even have old photographs. I like to give my characters a little signature aspect to their appearance – it might be a favourite dress, a hat, or a weapon in the case of the villain.
You need to have an underlying facet that drives each character, so that they are moving the relevant plot strand along. Try to keep the characters' words and actions consistent with the time period of your story.
The reader also needs to feel a connection with the main characters – be it empathy or disgust – and the characters need to grow during the storytelling. You could do that entirely in a fictitious way, but perhaps there is an aspect of the real historical figures in your research that could be evolved in your retelling. For example, in my story, Gertrude is tenacious (as was the real person) and becomes more resilient as the story unfolds, but not without consequences.
To Sum Up
Use your historical research as a basis for the premise, plot and characters in your novel. The historical facts are just a starting point to bring plausibility to good storytelling. Use them to create a believable atmosphere for your book.
Don’t worry if your story evolves far from the factual elements that you first started with. It is inevitable that your manuscript will change, especially in the first few drafts.
The premise can be a tried and tested formula, or something very new. But like all fiction, the plot needs ‘hooks’ that will draw the reader in. Make sure there is a steady sequence of hooks throughout the plot, and of course, make them unexpected. You want to keep your reader guessing to the very end!
Finally, if you use real historical characters, exaggerate their traits and fictionalise their behaviours to make them more interesting. But equally, don’t be afraid to have a main character that is entirely from your imagination.
I hope these tips have been useful. Perhaps next time we can drill down into the different types of historical fiction: historical thrillers, alternative histories, historical romance, historical crime, and so on.
Please comment below to let us know if this post resonated with you and with suggestions for further genre fiction posts. We'd love to hear from you!
Richard Handy is an experienced writer and editor, and one of the world’s leading scientific experts on the dangers of new technologies. His work inspired his WWII spy thriller series, and his skill for meticulous research has been a powerful tool in his writing of historical fiction. To find out more about Richard's novel's visit his website.