Right now, I’m writing a piece which blends historical fiction and fantasy fiction in a historical setting. I’m hoping you might find some of the advice below useful, whether you’re hoping to write literary-fiction or genre-fiction in a historical setting.
Today, I’ll give you four easy steps I used to make my historical settings richer, deeper and more true-to-life. It’s those little details that you use in world-building which can make a big difference and can really wrap your readers up in the world you’ve created.
(SIDE NOTE: Oddly enough, your humble blogger here, has a college degree in…History! Cue: Gasps by my followers. So, I like to think the following is (semi)-expert advice.)
Here are my Four Steps to Writing Better Historical Fiction…
1. Pick a Date and Place
This is the easy part. Or should be. Once you have a character in mind. You need to set about finding a time for them to live in. Now, this all kind of coalesces at the same time usually, I get that. But once you have someone in mind you have to start really focusing in on specific dates and places.
For example, in my latest story, “The Number Thief,” I chose my character Yusuf and I knew he lived in 13th century Muslim Spain. Then, I focused on the date 1236 and specifically Cordoba. Bam! I had a date and a place.
2. Gather and Read Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are books looking back at a time period. That is, history not written during the time period itself. They are great for giving you an overview, the total landscape of the time. They’re an essential first step to getting your bearings and starting to understand what actually happened. But they shouldn’t be your final step.
So, getting back to my example of Spain in 1236…Some of the good examples of secondary sources for the period are:
In each one of these books a modern scholar looks back and gives their take on a certain time and place. But one of the big drawbacks is that they’re including their own interpretation and point of view, which leads us to…
3. Gather and Read Primary Sources
Now that you have the lay of the land, it’s time to dive into what the people of the time actually thought and experienced. You need to read primary sources, those things written at that time by the actual players in history.
And this is where, I find, you get the real insights. Historians really do a good job of bringing things together and explaining larger trends, but you need the actual players in these historical dramas to explain their inner motivations and desires. And to us, as writers, that’s what is really important! That’s what gives these characters the breath of life—the yearnings and fears which animate and drive them.
What really makes someone want to go on a Crusade? Or join a jihad in opposition to a Crusade? Or embark on a risky commercial venture trading goods across a dangerous piratical-infested sea? Or give everything up to join a convent or become a wandering mystic? Well, thankfully, we have written records from people who did just that.
So again, Spain in 1236…Here are some of the primary sources I’ve used to get me into the mentality of that time:
- The Song of the Cid by anonymous (Great for getting the mentality of a Spanish crusader and freebooter of the Reconquista!)
- The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (Great insights into the luxurious court life of Muslim Spain)
- The Proofs of Prophecy by Abu Hatim al-Razi (A debate between two Muslim philosophers of the time is priceless for what I’m writing! I could almost cut-and-paste the dialogue here—but did not!).
There you go! Your primary sources should give you great insights into your time period from the people who lived it.
4. Capture Your Notes
As you’re going, you should be marking up passages, highlighting things and making mental notes. (I do!). But then, you have to collect all these notes together and drop them into your piece somehow.
Essentially, there are two ways to do this. First, you can create a separate physical notebook or a Word document. Or you can do what I do, which is simply pepper some of these details into your working outline, as appropriate. And then recall and remember useful bits as you write. The bottom line is that you have to become a student of that time period. If you’re reading all the right materials, certain important points will stick out and seem to raise their hands (“Pick me! Pick me!”) at just the right point in your narrative. Then, you just have to put them in.
For example, through my readings, I learned that the Republic of Pisa had a governing council. This council had the power to vote and approve certain measures. As I looked for a way to wrap up “The Number Thief,” I knew having the last scene where they passed judgment would be perfect. So, I wrote the last scene to incorporate them. It turned out great!
I have also found creating a simple chronology of the time period helps you to not get lost. You can also combine fictional elements into this chronology, if that helps.
That’s it for today! Four easy steps to help you improve your stories which use an historical setting. I know this one is a bit esoteric, but I hope someone out there finds it useful!
That’s all for now. Until next time…
Keep reading, keep writing,