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Advice on writing historical fiction

How to write about the past 

I have tremendous respect for anyone who writes historical fiction. Not only are you tied to reality in terms of character, setting and plot – but often in your use of language too. This being said, when historical fiction is done right, it can transport a reader back in time better than any flux capacitor. 

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5 mistakes writers make when writing historical fiction 

One of the highlights of my job is reading members’ work. Mainly because I’m nosey, but also I love spotting patterns in what we’re all writing. Here are the mistakes I often see new historical fiction writers make (so you can ensure you’re not one of them!) 

1: Not enough research. I can’t say I’m much of a historian, but I’ve read stories based in Roman Italy with character names that won’t have been invented for another few hundred years. Read widely, and base your story in reality.  

2: Too much research! More often than not writers go the other way, and the drive of a story can be bogged down with facts, complex/outdated vocabulary and backstory. Keep your characters central to your action.  

3: Too much exposition. Good historical fiction will hint at a time and place subtly, using well-known flags such as horse and carriages. You could also try titling your chapter with a date and location to help.  

4: Unrelatable journeys. The best stories have universal themes that transcend time and place. Keep these themes central to your story, be that romance, friendship, jealousy – or something else.  

5: Rewriting before finishing. I’ve noticed that a higher proportion of historical fiction writers go back and revise chapters before they’ve finished their draft more than any other. Fine if you need to work this way to keep moving, but don’t let it make finishing a first draft unmanageable. Remember – you’ll probably find you’ll have to delete chunks later anyway.  

Do you write historical fiction? What tips do you have for avoiding these pitfalls? Sign up for free and share in the Townhouse here.  

Sarah J x 

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Comments (2)
  • I love the old historical fiction those were my very first books at school. Henry and his wives. Which l even took time to go and visit the Tower of London just to get the feel. Mostly because of the fashion and the things back then when he was courting women. A famous woman who changed history due to the work of the church of England and her daughter the great Queen Elizabeth 1 "No my Lord" as the saying goes.

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    • Without a doubt, point five - Rewriting before finishing is my single biggest failure. 100% guilty, and this is probably why I'm having such a problem finishing this story. 25 attempts so far. Thank's for pointing it out. So obvious I didnt even see it, but things are changing. I'm going to finish it, and then I'm going to edit it instead of trying to edit chapter by chapter as I go. 

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