September 26, 2013

6 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction - Bonnie Way

I've always enjoyed reading historical fiction.  As my mom says, that's the best way to get history—as a story.  I've learned about life in Biblical times and both World Wars and even early Canadian fiction through novels that take me into the places and people of those times.  During university, I pursued that interest further by completing a minor in history.  I thoroughly enjoyed my Canadian history courses and told myself one day, I'd turn some of the lesser-known stories into a novel.

Today is that day, as I'm attempting to write a historical Canadian novel I'm developing a huge appreciation for all my favourite historical writers as I begin to realize just how hard it is to write historical fiction.  Perhaps that is, in part, because I seem to have a knack for choosing topics that are hard to write about (e.g., in university I decided to write a paper on a Scottish king about whom nobody else had written, and ended up researching him by reading about his wife—a Catholic saint—and the English kings of the day).

If you are also attempting to write historical fiction, here are some tips I've learned as I start this process...

1.  Create a timeline.  On one line, write the significant dates and events in your main character's life.  This will help you with the plot, as you'll want to "connect the dots" of these events as you are writing.  On a paralell line, write significant dates and events of that time—things your main character would have been aware of and might have talked about, or things that would have influenced his or her life.

2.  Keep a bibliography.  Write down every book you read with complete bibliographical details, including a small note about what information the book contained.  You never know what facts you might need to double-check.

3.  Ask yourself, "Why does this story matter today?"  What makes this moment in history or this historical person still relevant to readers today?  This will give you your "elevator pitch" or theme and may also help you develop your plot (as you include events in your character's life that will show why this story matters today).

4.  Read children's books.   Jane Kirkpatrick says the authors of grade-level novels and biographies often capture the issues of the time.  Then you can go to adult histories to get more in-depth information.

5.  Be creative in your research.  Are there movies about the topic?  Places you can visit?  Traveling exhibits?  Descendants you can interview?  Check the bibliographies of the books you read for ideas for your own research.  Make notes as you research about questions you have and other things you want to find more information about.  And don't be afraid to ask experts or others for help as you work—many people are happy to talk about something they are interested in.  You may be able to get a guest pass at your local university library to access scholarly databases or more resource.

6.  Start writing.  There will always be questions, more research you can do—just start writing.  Jane told me, " I have to start writing before I think I should because otherwise I never will! I'd be too intimidated by all that I don't know."  Make notes as you write about questions you have or facts you need to check, but don't fall into the trap of dealing with writer's block by doing more research.

Some of my favourite historical novels include The Orphan King by Sigmund Brouwer (medieval England), The Order of Good Cheer by Bill Gaston (early Canadian history), Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth (set in 19th century Texas).  For more suggestions, check out my other book reviews

Have you tried to write historical fiction?  What tips or advice would you share?


  1. Wonderful advice, Bonnie! As someone who has written one biblical fiction and is contemplating another, some of your points are things I've grappled with. Others, like #3 is a point I haven't thought about as such. but it's a very good idea. All the best in your project!

  2. I am looking forward to the day I can read it. I love Canadian history. Many people think its boring or not as exciting as US history but there are tons of great stories just waiting to be written


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