Monthly Archives: October 2015

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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Scrapbooking Your Novel

Hayley journal

By Carrie Seidel

While attempting to revamp a flat, secondary character, I had a conversation with him that went something like this:

Me:     “So, what do you look like?”

Secondary Character: “I have, uh, salt-and-pepper hair, and … um … gray eyes.”

Me:     “Really? That’s all you have to offer? Lame.”

SC:      “How about … oh, I don’t know … maybe a cool scar across my face?”

Me:     “I’m liking this. Keep going.”

SC:      “And it’s a sexy scar!”

Me:     “But you’re old!

SC:      “I’m changing my hair, too. Let’s go with sandy-brown. And scrap the gray eyes—too creepy. I’m young, hot, and dangerous! Google me under ‘sexy facial scars.’”

Me:     *eye roll*


SC:      “There. That’s me!”

Me:     “That’s Bradley Cooper.”

SC:      *relaxes against tree, hooks thumbs casually into belt-loops of tight-fitting jeans. Winks.*

“Not anymore, babe. Now it’s me.”

This revelation forever changed the dynamics of my novel, and more importantly, brought descriptive depth to my characters, settings, and all things visual—down to the most incidental props.

After discovering the true identity of SC, I unearthed photos for every character in my book, scouring internet sites, magazines … and photos from personal scrapbook albums. That’s when the “ah-ha” moment happened. Scrapbooking!

Novel scrapbooks come in handy from early beginnings to final revisions. By referencing full-color character pages, I’ve discovered deep wrinkles, droopy socks, and eyebrow shapes I wouldn’t have thought to describe. Not to mention background details. I’ve even scanned an exit sign and a bra. Plus, the characters’ unique voices stay on track with a page glance: spotting the gleam in their eye, the curve of their lips.

If you’re not into stickers, colored papers, and delightful trips to the craft store, collect pictures in computer folders—adequate, but not as accessible. For everyone else, break out the paper cutter!

Find a blank journal or photo album, perhaps one that suits the mood of the novel. Gather photos, memorabilia, clipart, stickers, craft paper, scissors, writing utensils, and tape. Next, utilize Google. Example: Type “middle school dance” in search bar. Click “images.” There’s the setting, dresses, and even awkward moments! Right click “save image as” and bingo! Instant scrapbook photos.

There’s no wrong way to organize your novel scrapbook. Mine starts with a decorated title page. A main character headshot fills page two. Page three displays her name, a head-to-toe photo, a slice of pizza, a soccer ball, and a ticket stub—stuff that’s important to her. But let’s say your setting is vitally important. Consider kicking off with pictures, drawings, or maps of your world.

Give all characters equal attention. Focus on detail! You may have to patchwork a character together for the desired result. Find close-ups of eyes and pictures of clothing. Leave blank pages between character profiles in case you need to add or change something. You can always rip them out later.

And what to do with the craft paper and stickers? Decorate! Frame photos. Add color to white spaces with paper scraps. Place kissy-lips stickers on a love interest, and “BFF” stickers on the friend’s page. Your character loves horses? There’s a sticker for that! Journaling and notes only enhance your project.

The end result is a tangible scrapbook to reference and admire, a window into what makes your novel tick.

SC:      “You know the photo you Googled for my page? That awesome leather jacket?”

*gazes expectantly with cerulean-blue eyes*

Me:     “What about it?”

SC:      *lifts an eyebrow—a thin scar that cuts into thick, sandy-brown hair nearly disappears*

“You want tangible? eBay has the real jacket for sale. Just one quick click …”




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