Writing Historical Fiction: Balancing Historical Accuracy with a Compelling Story

04b6989eb2113beb1449373af2a2f16bby E. E. Duncan

Many years ago, I began my first novel about a medieval stonemason. I planned to send this fervent, soulful youth on a long journey to Paris to help build Notre Dame Cathedral.

In the first paragraph, Christophe picked up his… thing that cut stone… and climbed aboard his… wagon or whatever they called it… and said goodbye… au revoir or did they say something else so long ago… to his mother…Mama?  Mere? Maman?… and headed toward… the hills or mountains or fields or maybe vineyards… toward Paris.

Poor Christophe never got to Paris or even out of the first paragraph. I, on the other hand, spent the next year researching. The next iteration of my first paragraph read like a Wikipedia article on medieval France. Christophe didn’t even make an appearance. Whatever story I had imagined was buried by an avalanche of highly accurate information at the expense of any characterization or plot.

This, I realized, was harder than I thought it would be.

To tell any story requires a strong sense of time and place. In historical fiction for young readers, accurate details about the time period paint the backdrop for the story to unfold. We are exposing our readers to a narrative through the lens of history and creating a vivid sense of the unique circumstances that surround our characters. It is important the character is a product of the historical setting and that the characters interact with historical details.

But, the story itself must shine through. We are not writing a textbook, we are writing fiction. Readers love historical fiction because it makes history interesting and personal. The best part of writing historical fiction is taking your readers on a trip back in time. Readers need to feel they have been entertained with a compelling story and that they have learned something as well.

How does an author balance historical accuracy with a compelling story?

  • Writers must feel comfortable with the time period through reading and research. The author must have an inexhaustible curiosity about the time period and a mission to get the facts right.
  • The story needs to provide ways for the character to struggle with both the historical circumstances that the setting provides, as well as internal issues that constitute characterization.
  • Because we are writing historical fiction, we have the freedom to stray beyond what is known. It takes a leap of imagination to recreate the past, as well as poetic license to keep our readers interest in the past alive.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes. The author cannot know everything and will inevitably make errors. We should strive for accuracy, but sometimes we need to make our best-informed guess and move on.
  • We don’t have to include everything we know in the book. Some fascinating details or related events may need to be left in your notes, because they are important to the time, but not to your story.

I have read that the historical fiction writer needs to find the “story” in history. We are called to transform information into an exciting true-to-period story. We want the people, places and events of the part to fascinate our young readers and we owe it to our readers to get the story right.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Writing Historical Fiction: Balancing Historical Accuracy with a Compelling Story

  1. Martha McCannon

    Great blog, Beth!! Funny and educational–I love it!!

  2. Writing historical fiction should come with a sense of responsibility to those who lived then. I feel it most keenly, especially when writing for young readers. For readers who haven’t had the chance to study past decades/centuries, the fiction we write may become definitive.

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