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Slipping into the Past: A Guide to Master Historical Fiction

Historical fiction teleports readers into the world of the past that is at least fifty years older than when the author writes it. It deals with the accurate description of history with either real or imaginary characters. You can take the creative liberty and tweak the real characters a little to fit your story, but the socio-political and cultural background needs to be as accurate as possible to the past. Historical fiction emerged in the early 19 century with sir Walter Scott, Balzac, and Leo Tolstoy as the pioneers of the genre. By the 20 century, it boomed in the United States of America with authors writing about the American Revolution and the American Civil War.

Historical fiction portrays the exotic blend of historical facts and the creative lives of characters with the setting of the story given the utmost importance as it acts as the deciding factor for the socio-political balance in the life of characters. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the setting is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the delicate decisions taken by both emperors’ to get the upper hand in terms of the power dynamics. Writing historical fiction is a strenuous task but not an impossible one. Following are the necessary steps required to master the skill of writing historical fiction.

  • Explore the Past: Research

Make sure you get the correct historical facts, after all, you are writing historical fiction, there can be creative liberties allowed, but the history part needs to remain accurate. Adding small details about the times, i.e, what people used to wear, what was the favourite hairstyle, what style of cutlery was commonly used, helps in making your story more accurate and intriguing. By adding small details, you add more flavour to your story. To make sure that your story is precise enough, you must research the history conscientiously. Hilary Mantel, winner of two Booker Prizes for her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, suggests meticulous research of the past so much that, “At first you are a stranger in your chosen era. But a time comes when you can walk around in a room and touch the objects.

When you not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back: that rasp of homespun wool: that whisper of linen and weight of brocade: the way your riding coat settles when you mount your horse: the sway and chink of the items at your girdle or belt, the scissors and keys and rosary beads. You listen: what sound do your feet make, on this floor of beaten earth? Or on these terracotta tiles? How do your boots feel as you pull your feet out of the mud? How old are your boots? What colour is the mud?.”

  • Time period: Find the perfect viewpoint

Consider how you want to approach the period used in your story. Do you want to use it as the backdrop while characters live through the times, or do you want to take on a crucial period such as a time of turmoil (i.e., World Wars) which the fictional characters experience through and survive? Whatever approach you end up choosing will determine how the story will unfold and what role history will play in the story. Make sure you select an exact period to engage the story with. It cannot be as vague as mid 19 century. It needs to be meticulous.

  • Focus on Characters

Even though history is vital for the story, it is the characters that drive the story forward. Create complex characters with motivations and ambitions. Make sure the characters undergo numerous trials and tribulations throughout the story. External conflicts in stories move the plot forward, but the internal conflicts faced by the characters gives the story its emotive power. Another important thing to keep in mind while writing down the characters is to give each character a distinct personality which might reflect the times they live in. It could their particular way of dressing or the views they might have. Another way to leave traces of history is to use a particular phrase or word in characters' dialogue that reflects the vocabulary of that particular era.

  • Opinions and Ideologies

The world is in a constant state of flux. Opinions, beliefs, ideologies tend to change with each decade. While writing the story, the writer needs to keep these views in mind. A story set in the early 20 century where society accepts homosexuality would be a blatant anachronism. Understanding the nuances of culture as well as the political scenario at that time in history is vital to understand how certain characters would react and how society would counteract them. Certain words and phrases would have many connotations depending on the time people lived in. For example, during the holocaust, jews were brutally executed and hunted down. They were considered less than human and were called rats by Nazis. Calling someone a rat would drastically change the connotation in a historical fiction discussing the holocaust.

  • Be Accurate

Historical fiction is a beautiful swirl of fiction with the actual world of the past. Your characters need to live and breathe in the historical world. Everything from their clothes, food, the way they talk to how they sleep, the sewage system, and the pets they have, should give a glimpse of the actual people who lived during that era. There can be space for few creative liberties in the story as long as there is justification for it. But overdoing it can easily wreck the carefully constructed balance of history and fiction.

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