How to Write Historical Fiction – A Book Set in the Past

How to Write a Historical NovelThe hardest part of writing historical fiction is authenticity. These tips on how to write a book set in the past will help you write a historical novel that readers (and editors!) love.

Before the tips, a quip:

“It’s not a documentary. It’s a historical fiction. But we have attempted to make the world, the background, the detail of that world as authentic as possible.” ~ Jonathan Stamp.

As Stamp indicated, authenticity is important – even crucial – in historical fiction. If you’re writing a historical novel set in medieval France, you won’t know exactly what life was like back then – but you still need to make your story’s setting and events as realistic and accurate as possible.

To learn more about writing historical fiction, read The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.

And consider these seven tips before you start writing…

Tips for Writing Historical Fiction – Books Set in the Past

You want to write a novel, but not just any novel. Say, for instance, you want to write a book set in medieval France. Perhaps this is your first historical novel, or the first time you’re writing a book, and you don’t know much about France in that historical time frame.

Where do you begin? With your characters, of course!

Create Your Characters

You won’t have a novel idea if you don’t have people, fictional or non-fictional, to play a role in the book. Before you put the pen to paper, you should know who your main character is and what he or she plans to accomplish in the story. If your main character is a person who lived in the past, you will need to know about that person’s status, lifestyle and personality. Historical fiction allows room to “play” (because it’s fiction), but it still needs to contain the ring of truth.

Research the Era Your Book is Set in

Once you have a strong idea of who your main characters are, you can better clearly define the setting of your historical novel. Here are several questions that will guide you as you write this book: What year will the story take place? Will it span over a number of years, or will it be confined to one year or to one season? Where will your story take place? This is where you must do your historical research. You can borrow books from your local library, purchase them online, or read articles about writing historical fiction online. Once you know the setting well, you will be able to create mental images of the physical landscape and of the buildings that inhabit it. These mental images will help you write historical fiction in a believable way.

Learn About Fashion in That Pocket of History

The next step is to research the style of clothing people wore in the time period of your book’s setting. Learn the names of clothes and the fabrics people used in that time frame to make clothing. If you want to write a book set in the past, you need to learn the details because that’s where authenticity is found.

Study the Architecture (an important part of writing historical fiction)

From the greatest cathedrals to the smallest country cottage, architecture plays a significant role in writing historical fiction. Why? Because it reflects the ideals of the people of that given historical period and it is what defines a civilization. For example, Gothic architecture in western Europe flourished from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Such cathedrals boasted pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. Medieval architects built these structures with the intention to glorify God.

Before writing your historical novel, it is important to learn the names of every structural feature and the raw materials from which these structures were made from.

Learn Warfare (even if you’re not writing a book about war)

Warfare dominates history. There was not one century that was warless. If you are the kind of writer that wants to include fighting in your historical novel, then it is important you study the art and nature of warfare in the chosen setting of your book. You will also need to know the various weapons soldiers used to fight with and the armor they wore. Again, to write a believable book set in the past, you need to learn the details.

Research the Socioeconomic Status of the Era

Unlike today, the socioeconomic status of an individual was very important. Status defined a person’s lifestyle and how he or she dressed. There was no fluidity, no moving upwards. If you were born a peasant, you were a peasant for life. It is important for you to know, before writing your historical novel, the socioeconomic status of your characters.

how to write a historical novel set in the past

Maybe She's Reading Historical Fiction

Write Dialogue That Represents the Past

You have completed the hardest part of your outline — your research. You know much about medieval France. Your characters are well developed and now it is time for their book to be written. They will need to interact with each other (most great historical fiction contains character interaction!).

This is where writers can take liberty when writing historical fiction. Realistically, the people in medieval France spoke French – possibly a very old, formal version of the French language. But, there is no way you will have them converse in French in your story unless you are fluent in French. In your novel, they will be speaking English. Although this aspect is not technically accurate as far as a book set in the past goes, it is necessary to engage readers in a meaningful way. Yet, you must be mindful of the historical timeframe in which your characters exist. They would speak formal English and not the twenty-first slang that has crept into modern-day English.

Accuracy is king in historical fiction. That is what makes writing a historical novel more difficult to write than other genres of fiction. That said, if you do your research thoroughly and effectively, you will be able to write an excellent historical fiction book – and get it published.

For more tips on how to write a book, read Story Writing Help – 6 Ways to Write Better Fiction.

What do you think of these tips for writing historical fiction? Comments welcome below!

Deanna Proach is a novelist. Her first historical suspense book, ‘Day of Revenge’ was released by Inkwater Press. She currently resides in Sechelt, British Columbia where she is writing her second book, ‘To be Maria’.

Deanna also wrote Promoting a Book – Should You Hire a Book Promotion Company?, here on Quips & Tips for Successful Writers.

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17 thoughts on “How to Write Historical Fiction – A Book Set in the Past”

  1. Maurice–to make your HF story authentic I would create fictional characters in a realistic historical setting. Description is the best way to describe the physical setting–ie, the architecture of buildings. If your characters are based on real people who lived in the time that you are writing about, I would do a seperate scene or two that is backstory, and I would strive to make that backstory as true to their life as you possibly can. This is where research comes in handy. That said, make the backstory descriptive and engaging like you would in any other novel. While you want to stay to the facts, you don’t want your writing to be entirely bogged down by facts. I would suggest you read a couple of historical fiction novels set in the era you are writing about just to get an idea of what those authors have done to make their books so engaging and successful. Good luck!

  2. first i want to thank you for giving the opportunity to have a feedback to
    questions.i is not easy to get since i don’t know any writer .
    i am writing my first book, after a first short story published on a website called ” The story break “.
    my question is: i am writing historical fiction based on true it possible to write this book , when i fell that, in order to make it more authentic,i should add , from time to time , historic facts about persons or anything else for that matter ,which look like paragraphs from a history book, but are essentials to the understanding of the book?
    thank you for your time, and all the best.

  3. This article was really helpful! I’m writing a novel that will have a subplot set in the past, and I’ve been struggling with how to make it believable, especially the dialogue. I’ve been looking for a recommendation for a book on how to write historical fiction, and lo and behold, you’ve included a recommendation. Thanks!

  4. Missy–yes, I love reading Historical fiction. In my teenage years I was obsessed with the French Revolution. That’s what resulted in my first novel, ‘Day of Revenge’. I’m currently into the medieval period, the Crusades. I read Ken Follett’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’ and loved it. It’s so worth another read. I just bought the first two novels of Jack Whyte’s Templar Knights’ trilogy and am looking forward to reading them.

    I did seek out literary agents, but in the end chose to publish (POD) with Inkwater Press, a small publisher based in Portland, Oregon. What really surprised me about getting published was having to market my book on my own.

    I wish you the best of luck with your writing endeavors.

  5. Great to-do list. I’m just beginning my story and you answered one of my questions about using English. My story will be in the Byzantine era around the year 450. Finding the type of information I need is challenging.

    Now I know your web site – I’ll be back.


  6. Hello Deanna,

    Thank you for this article and tips for writing historical fiction. Have you always liked reading historical fiction? I only started reading it a few months ago, and am hooked! Now I want to write it.

    Also, did you get a literary agents for your novels? What surprised you about getting published?

    Thank you for humoring a new writer,

  7. “In your novel, they will be speaking English.”… Oops, but I’m writing in Russian 🙂 Great tips here! Makes me respect those who dare to write historical stuff even more.

    Greetings from Finland though 🙂

  8. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    I think it depends on how you define “speak formally.” To me, it seems like even Shakespeare’s slang is formal speech, while to them it was improper.

    The interesting thing is that we can’t really use historical writing to learn how people spoke, because people write and speak differently! That is, if you read dialogue in a novel, it’s not nearly as choppy, full of incomplete sentences, full of “um’s” etc that the spoken word is. Writers clean up dialogue to make it easier to read…which could make knowing how people really spoke in a certain time more difficult.

  9. Well Marie, you do have a valid point. What makes historical fiction so hard to write is that we were not there. We don’t know how they spoke back in those days because we didn’t live back then.

  10. I disagree that historical characters necessarily speak formally. It might sound formal to us, but slang has been around since the beginning of language. Shakespeare used slang, curse words have been around forever, and illiterate peasants hardly spoke in formal proper sentences even in 1400.

  11. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    As a reader, I’m not into historical fiction at all! I admire all the work that goes into writing historical fiction – what research! what a dive into the past! – but I just can’t get into it.

    I love contemporary novels, preferably about businesswomen and careers. Since I have a hard time finding good, strong novels about business, I keep telling myself I should write them 🙂 Maybe after the excitement and adventure of Quips and Tips wears off…

  12. Thank-you very much for this helpful article.
    It gives me much encouragement that I am on the right track.
    I would like to add a tip I have found about the diaolgue section. It has helped me tremendously to read books by authors who were writing in the time period I am trying to write in. I do it with a notebook handy and try to read a variety of literature, including some that my charcters might have read. Sometimes I have picked up slang words and ways of putting things that I have been able to assimilate into my novel. Immersing myself in the literature of that period has also helped me to feel more natural writing (-and speaking, as my children would complain!)with formal English and a much wider vocabulary, than we use normally.