Have you always wanted to write a historical novel but wondered what that specific literary genre includes? Perhaps you’re looking for inspiration to create your historical characters?
In this guide to historical fiction, I will be discussing what the term means, the various sub-genres of historical fiction, plus top writing tips from successful historical fiction authors, and a summary of all the places you can find inspiration for your own novel.
First thing’s first…
What Is Historical Fiction?
The historical fiction genre is fiction set during a historical time period.
Although some of the events that take place in the book may be based on real events, with a story set against a historically accurate setting – the book is generally populated by fictional characters and is therefore categorised as a work of fiction.
Historical fiction includes any books set in the past. That means your book can take place during the ice age, the American Civil War, World War II, or even 1970. A rule of thumb is that if a novel is set more than 50 years in the past it’s classified as ‘historical’.
Although the setting and descriptions of that time should remain historically accurate, the fictional elements can include the events that take place and (most certainly) the characters.
Who Is Historical Fiction Written For?
Everyone and anyone!
Historical fiction caters for adults and children of every age and gender. Because it’s not pure fiction – elements of it must remain historically accurate – authors are able to adapt it for every age.
For instance, you can write a historical fiction book about World War II that caters to all types of audiences:
Children: The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
Young adults/teens: The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell and Once by Morris Gleitzman
Adults looking for historical satire: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Adults wanting poignancy: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
The beauty of historically fictional stories is that you can take any historical period and add your own concept, and depending on the audience and their needs, each book can be totally different.
What Historical Fiction Is Not
Just because historical fiction includes a historical era, do not get it confused with biographical novels, books that were contemporary in their time but are now classics, or non-fiction books written about a certain time in history.
When considering writing historical fiction, first ask yourself whether you will be adding fictional elements or keeping it all facts.
Why Write Historical Fiction?
When it comes to creative writing, and penning your own historical fiction novel, it’s important to understand exactly who you are writing for and what you want to say.
Some people choose to write historical novels because they are interested in specific historical events or eras and want to explore them further through their fiction. Others enjoy the challenge of combining the real past with fictional characters.
Alternatively, if you don’t wish to set your entire book in the past you can write a variety of speculative fiction and have books that time hop (ie time travel novels) or ones that include dual storylines or flashbacks.
Different Historical Fiction Genres
There are many different types of historical fiction books. Below is a list of some of the most popular along with examples of novels from that sub-genre.
As I mentioned above, you don’t have to stick to just one specific genre in order to inject a little history into your novel – mix them up! Why not write historical romantic adventures, or historical science fiction with LGBT themes?
It’s important that historical fiction is written by as many people from different backgrounds as possible. To understand our future we must understand our past, and to do so effectively we need to hear everyone’s voices and see the world through the eyes of everyone who came before us.
Let’s look at some sub-genres:
Example: The Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn
This is by far the most popular genre of all historical fiction. Whether your hero is falling in love with Regency aristocracy, or a Victorian orphan, many readers enjoy being transported to a time in history where lovers, and love, looked very different.
Biographical Historical Fiction
Example: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Not all biographies have to read like boring history textbooks. Many biographical authors take a real historical figure, or a time in their own life, and weave stories amongst the facts.
You have to be careful not to re-write someone’s history, but if you are basing your memoirs on your own life or real family members it’s okay (with their permission) to add a few fictional twists and turns to make the story more compelling.
Historical Fantasy/Science Fiction
Example: Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
Historical fantasy and science fiction is a genre that combines fantasy set against the backdrop of a real time, and/or place, in history. It’s a fun way to add a sprinkle of magic to real historical events and places of interest.
Perhaps you want to have dragons fighting alongside Romans in the arena; or write about Cleopatra having magical powers; or have a character who has the ability to jump from century to century.
Playing with history this way through fiction can be very rewarding and opens up countless possibilities.
Example: A Plague on Both Your Houses (Matthew Bartholomew series) by Susanna Gregory
Everyone loves a whodunit – but setting your mystery against the backdrop of a historical time or place adds an extra level of fun and intrigue.
Example: The Spirit Engineer by A J West
This genre is one of my favourites because there’s nothing creepier than adding an extra layer of dread to a time in history that was already difficult. In C J Cooke’s Gothic The Ghost Woods, the author tackles the difficult topic of mother and baby homes and adoption in 1950s and ’60s Britain – set in an eerie mansion beside a haunted forest.
Example: The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
When writing historical fiction there are so many events and settings that lend themselves well to action.
Whether you are writing about a battle, a quest, or an exploration, you can pick from real events that you embellish, or create your own adventure set in a time period that interests you.
LGBT And Diverse Historical Fiction
Example: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Diversity of every kind has always been part of history. Some readers are surprised when they come across a historical fiction novel where the hero isn’t white or the love isn’t heteronormative – but history proves that this was not rare and deserves to be seen and celebrated.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is the perfect example of a successful queer historical fiction debut. Set in England during the 1890s, it tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a male impersonator.
When writing diverse historical fiction remember that the characters and the plot must, as always, take centre stage – with the theme and historical setting woven through.
Children’s Historical Fiction
Example: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
The best way to educate children of all ages on history and the way we lived a long time ago is through the joy of storytelling.
From The Book Thief to Last of his Name, any time in history can be brought alive for children through storybooks.
5 Elements Needed For Writing Historical Fiction
When planning your fictional historical novel there are five important aspects that you need to be aware of before you start writing.
1. Pick A Time Period
You can’t write a historical fiction novel without first choosing a time in history (or more than one time). Historical context is vital for all historical fiction stories as without accuracy you may as well call the novel a fantasy inspired by a certain era.
Choose a time in our historical past that resonated with you, and that excites you, as you will be doing a lot of research. If it bores you, then your writing will also bore the reader. Choose a time period that makes you hungry for more!
2. Choose A Historically Accurate Setting
Many places are considered historical – others are merely old. Whether you are inspired by a certain castle, monument, natural area or even a place that no longer exists, adding a backdrop that people are familiar with in your book can really ground a reader.
Your historical novel only works if the setting and the time period work side by side, and suit the sub-genre.
For instance, a Regency romance set in a grand English stately home works really well. Whereas an Egyptian adventure story set in Finland may be a little harder to pull off!
3. Base It On A Historic Event
Once you have your chosen period in time and your setting, you’re free to create your characters and plot.
But before that, some writers like to centre their novels around certain historic events.
The most important aspect of this is that the historical facts you feature in your book must accurately reflect what really happened at that event.
If you’re writing historical fantasy then it’s okay to twist things up, but if you intend for your fictional events to be accurate then it’s very important that you do your research – which means reading as much as you can on the subject and watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, and talking to experts in that era.
4. Create Memorable Main Characters
It goes without saying that every memorable book is full of memorable characters.
Although you may wish to base some of your characters on real historical figures, the fact you are writing fiction means you are free to create your own characters.
It’s very important that your characters speak, dress and behave appropriately for that time period – but equally, never forget that their sensibilities, emotions, and interactions with others won’t be too different to how we all still act today.
When creating characters also remember that class, social standing and rank were a lot more defined back in the day. Ensure that, before writing your characters, you are familiar with what was (and wasn’t) acceptable in that time, the foibles and interests of that time period, and create a storyline that fits that era.
5. Make Sure You Know Your Genre
Lastly, make sure you know who you are writing for.
You may well want to write a historical novel about the Crimean War – but the tone, language, and plot will change dramatically depending on whether you are writing it for a child or an adult, or whether it’s a romance, adventure or mystery.
Top Tips For Writing Historical Fiction
The only difference between writing historical fiction and any other genre is that research is key. Getting your historical sources right can be the difference between a good book and a great one.
To represent true history, a writer must ensure they know the epoch in which their book is set inside out. They also must enjoy what they are writing about, because they will have to fully immerse themselves in that world for a long time.
Let’s take a look at some other tips top historical fiction authors shared with me for this article:
Historical Fiction Authors Share Their Writing Secrets
I find it useful to write a plan for my stories, because it guides me to the research I’ll need. Having to stop and research while writing can really hamper your feel for the flow and plot. Not researching can undermine your work, so getting started early really helps.A J West, author of The Spirit Engineer
Always remember that people are people no matter what century they’re in. For my debut, I made the mistake of thinking I needed to be an expert in the subject matter to the extent that my story was almost overwhelmed by research. The research needs to complement the character’s storyline. Please don’t do what I did and go off on a tangent about 17th-century table looms because a character mentioned it in passing!Stacey Thomas, author of The Revels
I find reading contemporary fiction written during the time period more helpful than academic texts. Partly for getting dialogue right, but also just a sense of how people used their time and their priorities in life.Mathew West, author of The House Of Footsteps
My biggest tip is to only write what you’re absolutely passionate about. Readers can feel that in their bones, and will buy into your story because of your informed enthusiasm.Jacquie Roberts, author of the Quintus Valerius Roman Britain mystery novels
I think it’s important to consider what you’re writing. Is it so deeply immersed in the period that you want it to present as if it could have been written by a contemporary author, or is it more modern, or even subversive of the norms of the period? That will affect style.Rosie Andrew, author of The Leviathan
For me, I try to really enjoy going down those rabbit holes, exploring details about food, clothes, events that may or may not be relevant. But don’t be afraid to never actually use any of it in the writing. It’s still a wonderful way of immersing oneself in the period.Lucy Ashe, 2023 debut novelist
The story is the important thing whenever it’s set, so try not to get bogged down in details. As in all fiction, you want to present great characters with great problems, the historical is just another tool to help you do that.Lizzie Page, author of The Orphanage
It’s important to find a way in, to root yourself into the story. My first novel, Rebecca’s Choice, was set in the house my grandparents lived in, where I played as a kid, a house I loved. I took it back to the 1890s and threw research and imagination into the mix.Heidi Gallacher, author of Rebecca’s Choice
5 Popular Historical Fiction Tropes
Like with most genres of books, readers of historical fiction enjoy certain tropes in their stories. Here are five of the most common tropes you may want to include in your own work.
1. Book’s Titular Hero Returns
Much like the parable of the prodigal son, many historical fiction novels love to feature the hero returning home.
Perhaps they have been away at war, or on a voyage, or have returned to the family home with a new bride. How have they changed? What secrets are they hiding? What has changed in their absence?
2. Young Woman Determined
Many books set in the past enjoy showing women in a time where they had very little autonomy, and having them take back some of that power.
Whether that may be a poor widower getting revenge, an orphan girl marrying into a rich family, or a woman out to prove herself against men or a higher class.
3. Wrong Woman
This is another popular trope. Perhaps the ‘wrong woman’ is a gentleman bringing home a new bride that is about to shake things up for his family. Or perhaps a woman is mistaken for someone she is not.
4. Rags To Riches
Much like the story of Aladdin, everyone loves a tale where a person with nothing rises to a higher rank and makes a success of their life.
5. Feuding Families
Shakespeare started it with Romeo and Juliet, and now this trope can be found in most genres.
Featuring feuding families works really well in the historical fiction genre because there were many times in the past when class put pressure on established and successful families to dominate society.
Where To Find Inspiration
Are you currently writing historical fiction? You will be surprised how easy it is to find inspiration for your historical stories in the current day.
Movies & TV
There is no shortage of costume dramas on television and in movies (old and new) that will help you with both plot ideas and research. From the hair, fashion and make-up of the leading ladies, to the historical events that shape the lives of your characters, you can have a lot of fun taking notes while watching your favourite period dramas (not to mention it’s a great excuse to sit and watch TV all day)!
It’s also useful to make a note of how they spoke back then and the mannerisms of the characters, to help shape your own characters.
There’s nothing like true events from historical times to make you realise truth can be stranger than fiction. Many authors base their historical fiction novels on an event or a character that once existed, and then filled in the gaps.
Whether you are exploring difficult times such as the slave trade or The Great Depression, or more wondrous and niche events such as the invention of the hot air balloon, or the Victorian obsession with seances, there’s a lot of information to be found online, in libraries and history books.
Basing your book on real-life events can be easier in a way, as you have a solid platform from which to launch. But it also means you must be very careful and accurate with your research to ensure you get all the facts right (unless you are writing historical fantasy – in which case you can bend the truth at your whim).
Use your book as the perfect excuse to travel.
When I was writing Son of Secrets (the second book of my fantasy series) I visited the fabulous Fiesole in Tuscany, Italy. My series is full of past life flashbacks, and I wanted to feature one life set in Roman times.
Visiting the setting of my novel was so much more evocative than simply Googling as I got to see not just the sights and history (I visited lots of museums) but experience the smells, the sounds and the general awe of the place.
Visiting a place in the past made writing my scenes a lot easier and much more poignant.
If you are writing about a specific time in history, museums and working museums (where people are dressed up as characters from that era) can really help.
Whether you are researching ancient kings of Egypt at the British Museum, or Jane Austen’s own house museum in Hampshire, not only will you be inspired by the artefacts and information on display, but you also have access to experts who will be more than happy to talk about their favourite subjects
Likewise, art gives us a unique glimpse into a far-off time.
Whether you are at an art gallery for story inspiration or to research fashion and setting, it’s a great place to soak up the style of a bygone era.
In the final book of my fantasy trilogy, Children of Shadows, I was inspired by the painting Primavera – I spent some time imagining the lives of two of the models Botticelli used for the painting and featured them as characters in my book.
The beauty of writing historical fiction is that you’re free to introduce any character you wish, as long as the way you paint that period in time remains accurate.
Visit your local library and read as many books as you can – not just books about the era that interests you but those written during that time.
Seeing things from the point of view of an author (what was seen as important, thrilling, scandalous, or story-worthy back then) will give you a glimpse into how you too should approach your story.
And remember historical novels are not always set in Europe or America. Contemporary western literature dates back hundreds of years and can be a great source of inspiration, but likewise, there are many other works from all around the world that may inspire you.
Interview Someone Who Was There
If you are writing historical fiction set in the past seventy years, why not interview someone who actually lived back then? A real person’s life experience will enable you to re-live historical events through the eyes of someone who was actually there.
Likewise, you can watch interviews on YouTube. I recently watched a 1990s interview of a woman who had survived the Titanic. It was fascinating to hear someone who was really there recount the horror of that fateful night.
A fiction writer will always draw inspiration from the people in their own lives – whether they mean to or not.
A flick through an old family photo album or a chat with your great aunt may well uncover some great ideas for your next novel. Sometimes family members have old relics and antiques that they will want to show you, or outfits from decades ago. Most of these items will probably come with their own story attached.
You may even discover some family secrets you never knew about!
Likewise, signing up for sites like Ancestry.com can help you trace your family tree, enabling you to see photos and documents from long-forgotten relatives.
So go and speak to the eldest person in your family and ask them questions. You never know what you may walk away with!
The Author’s Imagination
Many authors pluck ideas out of thin air, using the ‘what if?’ method of brainstorming. It’s a very easy technique. All you have to do is think of a situation and ask ‘what if?’
Although this is popular for those writing contemporary genre, you can use modern-day scenarios to inspire your historical fiction too.
For instance, you may be sitting on a train and see a woman accidentally pick up the wrong piece of luggage and ask yourself ‘what if two characters in my book did that… except it’s 1899 and they are on the Orient Express… and one is a spy?’
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is a genre of novel whereby the author is inspired by a real historical event or period in history and uses that as the backdrop of their book.
Unlike historical non-fiction, where the book will be a factual account of a person or era in history, historical fiction is simply set in that time or inspired by something that happened in the past – the author is free to twist and change it at their will.
What Is A Historical Fiction Example?
Historical fiction can include more than one sub-genre. An example may be a historical romance series such as Bridgerton, set in the Regency era (which has gone on to be a top-grossing Netflix production), it can also include historical fantasy such as Outlander (also a big TV hit) or something a little more serious.
What Are 3 Characteristics Of Historical Fiction?
1. Historical Accuracy
It’s very important that authors of historical fiction do their research. Unless you are writing fantasy and have purposely misrepresented a certain time period, your book will lose credibility if you do not portray that era accurately.
Be authentic. It really helps to have a genuine love of a certain time in history if you choose to write about it.
An author must be sensitive when writing historical fiction; especially if they are focusing on diverse characters or contentious issues. For this reason, I would strongly recommend all writers (especially those writing historical fiction) use sensitivity readers and consult experts from that era.
As a writer, you don’t want your book to lose credibility because you are either insensitive or inaccurate.
Historical fiction is a fun, fascinating and varied genre, covering many different themes and styles – for every age and reader.
I hope you have found my guide to writing historical fiction both interesting and informative, and I hope your books will one day make it into an article just like this one!
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