This is what sets apart the best historical fiction novels from the rest of them. Readers who know their history are going to quickly see if you’re narrative is accurate in historical detail or if you’re just trying to wing it as a writer. The first rule in knowing how to write a historical fiction novel is to make sure the era you’ve set your story is authentic.
Without this authenticity, readers may very well put down your book and never pick it up again.
Here are some of the other rules you may wish to follow if your goal is to write a historical fiction novel.
#1. Choose one time in history and stick with it. There must be some consistency when it comes to the setting of a historical novel. If you’re jumping around all over the place, then it becomes difficult for the reader to follow the narrative.
#2. Be consistent with your verbiage. One of the easiest ways to ruin the authenticity of a historical novel is for your characters to use slang terms that are inappropriate for the era you’ve chosen. If you’re not sure about the origin of a word, then don’t use it in your book until you’ve verified its initial use. Someone in the 1920s isn’t going to say, “It’s off the hizzle for shizzle.”
#3. Accuracy within your descriptions matters more than writers realize. Writers tend to use a lot of similes in their writing, often without realizing it. Similes are an easy way to get readers to picture an event that is happening, but historical fiction requires an accurate simile for authenticity. If you’re writing about life in the Egyptian empire, it would not be appropriate to say that the “crowd roared louder than 100,000 people at a NASCAR event.”
#4. Public cursing wasn’t something that was historically accepted. When Clark Gable said the famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” critics blasted the cursing. Many curse words were even forced to be edited out of movies or bleeped out of TV shows. You still won’t hear the “F” word on public TV very often. The acceptance of public cursing is a rather recent phenomenon. Having historical characters constantly cursing will cause people to think twice about reading your historical fiction.
#5. Create a rhythm that is accurate for your selected time period. A great place to establish an authentic rhythm to your writing for historical fiction is to visit your local library. There are numerous letters, newspapers, and other media that can be accessed to show you what it was like to be a writer in previous generations. If you can incorporate those older rhythms into your novel, then you’ll add a depth of authenticity that will draw the reader in and not let them go.
#6. Understand the changes in societal acceptance that have happened. The attitudes people have today toward societal minorities is very different than what was generally accepted as “normal” in previous generations. Events like the Civil Rights Movement, the fight for women’s suffrage, and even the recent struggle for marriage equality aren’t going to be something that historical characters before these times are going to consider. It is necessary to choose an appropriate background for all of your characters to discuss the topics you plan on questioning within your novel.
#7. Sometimes the finest details can be your undoing. Did you know that there are certain animals, plants, and trees that have only been with us for a few decades at most? You might not think much of having your characters owning a German Shepherd to help around the farm, the breed wasn’t officially present until 1899. German Shepherds weren’t exhibited in the United States until 1907. If you have an 18th century historical novel that you’re working on, you’ll ruin the authenticity of your story with this one small detail.
Knowing how to write a historical fiction novel means taking time to care for the smallest details in your story. Every element, from the dialogue to the rhythm of the narrative to the descriptions, must be authentic for the story to feel real to the reader. Take your time, do some research if necessary, and pay attention to these details. When you do, you’ll be able to write a novel that you’ll be proud to have others read.