Thursday, June 19, 2014

5 Steps to Nail Historical Fiction—Faking it Right

In my last post I talked about why I love Historical Fiction—a great novel in the genre can teach us not only who we are, but also who we were. I love the brackish headwaters where history and fiction collide and transform into something magical. But there’s an art to the genre, the art of faking it so no one realizes!

That’s right, you’ve got to sell it as good, or better, than Meg Ryan as she embarrasses the hell out of Billy Crystal. Just like the old lady at the end of that scene, you want your readers to raise their hands and say: “I’ll have what she’s having!”

But how do we get there?

To me, there are 5 critical elements to writing a great historical. Whenever I pick up a novel in the genre and something doesn’t feel right, I can almost always trace it back to one of these few issues.

1. A Captivating Story and Good (if not Great) Writing

I know what you’re thinking right now, “What a load of crap! Every great work of fiction needs a great story and great writing.” And you’re right! Historical fiction is no different than any other work of fiction, that’s the point. The story needs to rock and it needs to keep rocking. All too often I’ll pick up an example where the author thinks their unique setting, or something quirky about the time period can carry the story. IT CAN’T! Those things are important, but from page one you’ve got to be hooked. Take Charles Portis’s amazing novel True Grit. That has one of the best opening paragraphs of any novel anywhere.

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

BAM! I’m hooked. Mattie Ross is going to go an-ass kicking, and I can’t wait to be there with her!

So how about great writing? There’s the cliché of our writing generation, as if anyone strives for bad writing. But it happens…and it gets published. Here’s the secret: You don’t need great writing as long as you don’t have bad writing. Great writing—you notice. Bad writing—you notice. But if you thread the needle and write an awesome story, you can get away with plain old good writing. As Tom Pitts said in his recent post (NeverJoin a Club That Would Have You As A Member):

“The idiosyncrasies of word choice and the distraction of paragraph placement ultimately goes unnoticed by most readers. They just want the damn thing to move.”

Of course we all want to be Hemmingway and write beautiful literature, but in truth, as long as we stay away from bad writing your readers will love it IF the story works. So what is bad writing? When you read it to yourself out loud, and you NOTICE the writing, it’s either good or bad. And from there it's easy to tell. The best example of good writing I can give, try out Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—there are pages I just re-read again and again…that’s how I know it’s good.

2. Setting

Finally! This is what makes a historical novel, well, a historical novel. It takes place in yester-year! I’m sure we could be picky about the definition, as in how many years had to have passed before the author first picks up his/her pen…but honestly, who cares. Some things we consider historical today (or at least some things that I consider historical fiction) were actually written long ago and were contemporary fiction at the time. Take Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I call it historical fiction, and you can find it on Amazon in the historical category. (It’s also in the Classics section, but I’m claiming it for all of us Historical Fiction junkies!) But the point is that the novel is set at some point in the past. A unique device that many historicals then utilize is turning the setting into character. While this isn’t a device only used in historical fiction, I think it comes about more often in historicals because authors are already so invested in describing the setting to build authenticity, that the natural extension is for setting to take on a life of its own. And it’s a great way to get all that good research onto the page without the reader noticing (i.e. without bad writing!).

So where do we start on setting? There are so many places to choose from! I like to set my stories in Americana—somewhere, sometime. Think of all the crazy time periods we have had: the Revolution, the Wild West, the Civil War, the list just goes on an on. And it doesn't have to be set around a war, although those periods do come equipped with plenty of drama and tension. But your reader needs something to keep them motivated, to keep them loving the setting as much as the story. They're there to learn as well as to be entertained—even if they don't know it!

A great example is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, writing about the South in 1962. Amazing setting, right? Plenty of drama to be had in a time where the nation is divided on race and other social issues. Stockett chose a setting that remains relevant today, is educational as you read, and is damn entertaining.

African American Children in the South Looking in at an All-White Playground 
3. Interesting POV Character

Again, another cop-out! Of course you need interesting characters. This is true for all fiction. But in historical fiction, your characters need to sell their setting for you. I guess the same could be said of every other genre, but when I pick up an unconvincing historical, sometimes it boils down to the fact that the character seems out of place, not in the right time period even. They are the actors, and they have to interact correctly with their environment in order to sell the story. Mattie Ross from True Grit, or Inman in Charles Frazier's monumental Cold Mountain are excellent examples. They know how to live in their world, how to act, what to wear, how to speak the lingo. Sometimes where the character leaves off and the setting takes over is a blurry line, and the character can teach the reader as much about the world they are immersed in as any other element of the story. They need to be rich, emotionally complex, and hopefully a few are even at odds with one another to ratchet up the tension. But above all they need to be REAL! Mattie Ross pushes the boundary of this in True Grit, as a girl who tracks down her father's killer. But Charles Portis sells it through the setting, and the great story, and of course, through an obstinate and intelligent 14-year old full of sass and hell bent on revenge. Or how about Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains trilogy (Chains, Forge, and TBD), where we see the Revolution through the eyes of two slaves, 13-year old Isabel and the slightly older Curzon. Interesting setting, and then Anderson piles it on with amazing characters. No wonder she was a National Book Award Finalist!

4. Research

That's a terrible word, isn't it? It strikes fear into the hearts of high-school students everywhere. Why would you have to do research if you're writing fiction? It's all made up, right?

WRONG! Sure, the story, the characters, the plot, even parts of the setting can all be the creative genius of the author, but in a historical it has to fit on the scaffolding of History. It has to make sense with the time. That's the big picture. As you narrow in, there are all sorts of details you have to get right. Let's say you write a western thriller—as in a thriller set in the Old West. What kinds of guns did they carry? Do they have five or six shells in the cylinders? How long does it take to ride a train from Atlanta to Chattanooga? If they go by horse, how long can a horse go for without food and water? You just can't have a good believable historical if your main character is Bruce Willis from Die Hard who never runs out of bullets. I mean, come on, he’s shooting a Beretta 92 for like 20 minutes without a single mag change.

There are plenty of places to do research, and it's easier than ever with the trusty Interweb thingy. Just fire up Google, and the resources are almost limitless. But nothing beats a boots on the ground approach. If you're going to write about the foothills of Tennessee, then go get out there! See them for yourself. Visit the battlefields, the old houses, or if you're Arthur Kerns, (author of The African Contract) travel to Africa to do your research! From One of Arthur's latest posts (Africa Can Be A Dangerous Place):

While doing research for my latest novel, The African Contract, I ran across an entry in one of my travel journals. It recorded a visit to a friend’s village miles away from the nearest African city. Strolling among the homes, Dingane introduced me to his relatives and friends, while giving me a history of the region.

Okay, you don't HAVE to travel to Africa, but think of the adventures you can go get into all in the excuse that you're doing research for your great American novel.

5. The Lens of History

Finally, this one of the unique elements to Historical Fiction. It all has to do with how the present world, the modern world, views the past. If I truly wrote a story exactly like it would have occurred, chances are no one would like it. Pick up the Red Badge of Courage. It was penned (literally) in 1893, and the writing is so very different. Even though it’s an amazing piece of literature, it might not have enjoyed the same success if it were published today—if it could even get published (that’s a whole other conversation). So there’s a trick to writing historical fiction. You don’t necessarily want to write in the style of days long ago, in fact, you can't! (I know, that kind of contradicts everything I said above). But what you really want to do is to convince all of us readers that we’re in that yesteryear time period, while still relating to the world of today. So the writer needs to take that lens of history, to warp the story enough that those of us reading it today find it believable, even though the very act of doing so distorts how the action would have played out if the story were real. Joe Clifford brings that point home in his latest post (Planting the Clues in Crime Fiction):

All art is contrived. We make it up. The trick is to keep those strings tugged safely behind the curtain, out of sight, and making the work seem effortless.

And while Joe is talking about writing mysteries, that is also the magic in writing Historical Fiction—the art of faking it just enough to be believable while still capturing the essence of the time, educating the reader, and at all times providing the entertainment.

Tj Turner is a scientist, a federal agent, a military officer, and a writer. His first novel, Lincoln's Bodyguard, is due out from Oceanview Publishing in April 2015. He can be reached at, or through his amazing Literary Agent, Elizabeth Kracht at Learn more at

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