Writing Tips at GarySpeer.com

Tips for writers and musing about writing and life

Writing Historical Fiction Part 1: How much research is enough?


If you’ve written a novel or ever studied novel writing, you know the term “back story” and how important that is to the development of the novel. The “back story” is the background information about characters, events, and locations which rarely makes it directly into your novel, but which you and your reader need to know to make the novel work.

When you’re writing historical fiction, history is the back story that becomes crucial to the novel. Your characters, your plot, your physical and cultural setting all rest on some version of history in which you are setting the whole shebang. (“Whole shebang” — look it up if you need. I’ll wait.) So the research you do on the historical setting for your novel can never be too much.

BUT …

I said the historical setting still is part of the back story. So obviously you must limit the historical research, or you’ll never get the novel written. If you’re like me, you enjoy the history part and researching it that you are easily be distracted from the task at hand — which is actually WRITING the novel. (Look at the shiny pretty thing, Gary … ooooooh.)

At any rate, make the historical setting, from clothing to events to character attitudes and thoughts to, well, the whole shebang, true to life. You don’t need to get every tiny detail exactly right to make a historical novel work. But you do need to get enough right, and use enough detail, that the reader feels like they’re at home in your novel’s world — and that world is like the real world was at the time and place you’ve chosen.

It’s important to add: Many lovers of historical fiction obsess on a particular period of history or particular events in history and they probably know far more about it than you. Don’t try to “one up” your readers. But never mess up on details that will insult their intelligence.

I’m doing this as a multi-part series on writing historical fiction, because it’s something I’ve put a hand to personally and historical fiction is something I love to read.

NEXT UP IN THIS SERIES ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION: How to find ideas and how to do historical research for your writing.
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