Five Tips for Writing Historical Fiction
Since starting MAHLLC, Gwen and I have received a good number of stories set in the distant past. This is fine with us; we both enjoy historical fiction and have some education in the area. Gwen’s areas of expertise include Kentucky history, Civil War history, and the Gilded Age in general. I spent a number of years studying classical languages (Greek and Latin) and literature, classical history, and Bronze Age history. I developed a side interest in the Roaring Twenties that stems from several years playing Call of Cthulhu.
Last year, we decided to publish two anthologies of historical short stories: one collection in the horror genre (History and Horror, Oh My!), the other in the mystery genre (History and Mystery, Oh My!). I learned more about historical fiction from editing other people than from writing my own stories. Below are some tips I’d like to suggest.
- Don’t lose your story in a forest of facts. I received several stories that imparted an impressive amount of information about ancient cultures and languages, but the effort to educate the reader buried the plot. Remember that you’re writing fiction, not a treatise. Yes, some stuff has to be explained, but remember that the details should serve the story. “The Scent of Anger,” by T. Lee Harris, was set in ancient Iran with exotic weapons, but the characters and plot always took precedence.
- If you’re using a language other than English, do so sparingly and get the words right. Try to set the words in a context that will flavor your story but also suggest their meaning to the reader.
- While editing the two anthologies, I discovered that the horror stories were often superior in historical detail with an eye towards enhancing mood, while the mystery stories tended to have more sophisticated plots with mundane historical details that clues could be slipped into. This was no big surprise, but the best stories blended these elements. “What the Prodigy Learns,” by Morgan Crooks, was a horror story where a seemingly minor slip-up led to a very creepy conclusion, while “Life Sentence” by Cari Dubiel used sheer stench to create mood and impart clues.
- Don’t make assumptions based on the technology of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first. Fire is omnipresent, and not just for cooking. When night comes, there’s going to be plenty of candles, and perhaps mirrors to increase the illumination. More animals – not pets – should be present in historical stories. Animals were used to do work later done by machines, and dinner sometimes had a name. Most people could not read, and news took more time to travel. Modern medicine didn’t exist; more people are going to have disfigurements, injuries are more likely to get infected, and illness was a big deal.
- If at all possible, view your setting in person. When Gwen and I found the remains of Fisher’s Mill, Kentucky, we discovered that the town center was in one enclosed, raised area and the terrain surrounding it was far different than we had envisioned. It changed how we wrote travel scenes and made our heroines’ investigation more complicated (always a good thing in a mystery). Many of the buildings are also smaller than they are portrayed on television, and that’s important to know I know that many authors don’t have the wherewithal to travel to Rome, Greece, or even New England. In that case, try to get maps and pictures – the older the better. There were no photographers in the ancient world, but seeing a photo of the terrain from the early twentieth century, before the shopping mall was built, could be very helpful.
I hope these help you write better fiction. And please – no matter which century you’re writing in, follow the submission guidelines.
Sarah E. Glenn, a product of the suburbs, has a B.S. in Journalism, which is redundant if you think about it. She loves writing mystery and horror stories, often with a sidecar of funny. Several have appeared in mystery and paranormal anthologies, including G.W. Thomas’ Ghostbreakers series, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, SinC Guppies, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and the Historical Novel Society. Sarah is now the chief editor of Mystery and Horror, LLC. Before that, she edited two different newsletters and was a first round judge in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine’s 2003 “Slesar’s Twist Contest.” More recently, she was a judge for the 2011 and 2012 Derringers. Interesting fact: Sarah worked the Reports Desk for the Lexington, KY police department, and criminals are dumb.
Sarah’s Twitter: @SarahEGlenn
Sarah’s Blog: http://saraheglenn.blogspot.com/
MAHLLC Website: http://www.mysteryandhorrorllc.com/