A Disclaimer before you start: This might a slightly controversial blog post. These are 100% my opinions and I’m not trying to shove them down anyone’s throat or say that you are wholly mistaken for taking the opposite view. I’m just offering my perspective on a subject that I have thought deeply about. I’m also not bashing anyone or trying to make anyone sound/feel bad, or say that anyone’s a bad writer for not doing this. It’s just my thoughts. 🙂
Historical Fiction is my favourite genre. I love Historical Fiction. I read a lot of it, both old and modern. 90% of my favourite books are Historical Fiction. It makes up a huge portion of what I read.
But although I’ve read a TON of really good Historical Fictions, I’ve also read some that were really not that great. And often, what makes or breaks a Historical Fiction book for me are these two things disregarded.
#1: Improper Language.
There is nothing so irritating as picking up a medieval story and finding the characters talk like 21th Century teenagers! I can’t repeat too often that to write believable historical fiction you must read old books. Are you writing a story set in 1400s England? “The Prince & the Pauper” by Mark Twain. Are your characters Scottish? “Rob Roy” and “Kidnapped” are indispensable. Are you writing about a knight and his fair lady? “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott can be a big help. I could go on and on but I think I’ll save that for another blog post. But you get the point. To write believable historical fiction, your characters must talk like the people of that era! That doesn’t mean you need to drag up exact replicas of their language! But using older, more formal words mixed with their archaic or obsolete language will boost your historical fiction. Don’t go overboard, but better more than not enough, in my opinion. Add a glossary, if you have to! I strongly recommend reading Henty’s medieval stories if you’re writing anything set during the Middle Ages.
Consider also where your story is set. Dutch sailors don’t act or talk like English ones. Frenchmen aren’t Americans. Their language will depend on their roots. It’s extremely annoying to read about Englishmen who sound like Americans living casually in London, or Americans who sound like they were exported from England! This is a very important topic which I may discuss in another blog post as well.
And the language of the narrator should be dignified. By which I mean, don’t have the narrating voice full of “‘twas” and “nay” and such unless you’re paraphrasing the thoughts of a character. But don’t go along with too many modern expressions and words. The narrator should straddle the middle. I think being formal and dignified is really the key. Study the old books and pattern your writing after theirs. It will make it feel more authentic.
There are some geniuses who can pull off modern language in an old setting, like Esther Forbes in Johnny Tremain. But unless you known you’re a genius, I don’t recommend believing you can pull it off.
#2 Improper Feelings.
The other most annoying thing in historical fiction is improper feelings. Middle Ages people saw nothing shocking in 13-year-olds getting married. Everyone in the 1700s saw nothing wrong with hard drinking. Smoking was everywhere in the 1930s. And so on. What happened in the era was commonplace to them. If it’s a wrong thing (drinking, for example), by every means have your character refuse to do it! But he shouldn’t be shocked. It was normality. For example, I don’t agree with speeding, but it’s not shocking to me to see people doing it. It’s normality in our world, sadly. And so forth. You can doubtless thing of more examples for this one.
And consider the historical prejudices. In 1770s England, there was nothing unusual with having a higher class and a lower class. No one thought anything of it, or of changing it. It was life. Again, your character can disagree with prejudices & common ideas, but don’t make him too avant-garde.
It all boils down to one word:
Read about the culture of the place. Read about the happenings of the time. Read about the history around the time. Read about the language of the time.
Read the old books. Read the research.
I promise that it’s worth it. Even if for some reason your historical fiction story isn’t liked (although it would be hard for that to happen, in my opinion), you will have grown and learned yourself in your studying. You get much food for thought as you study history.
And finally, yes, it is possible to write a book that is very un-historical and have people love it. But it’s also a sort of cheating. If I pick up a book about 1830 Australia, I expect a book that will make 1830 Australia live for me. A honest, true book, with accurate information. Historical fiction is just teaching history under the guise of a story. Make it true. This is your chance to make an impact. To change history. To remind people of what mistakes or great things were done. It’s a chance to make a difference.
So be worthy of the charge upon you.
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So there are my thoughts on it. What are yours? I’d love to hear your opinion.