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51 Of The Best Historical Fiction Writing Prompts

You’re looking for historical fiction ideas , and most of the ones you’ve come across are either too detailed and specific or too vague — at least for you. 

History writing prompts should paint enough of a picture to allow you to fill in the gaps as you step into it and look around.

Your own perspective and the connections that form in your mind will take that partial image and complete it. 

We kept that in mind while creating this list of 51 writing prompts for your novel . May each one flood your mind with the possibilities. 

51 Historical Fiction Writing Prompts 

If you’re racking your brain for interesting historical events to write about, check out the following prompts to get those synapses firing. You’ll find everything from civil war writing prompts to famous unsolved mysteries . Dig in and find something to play with. 

1. Changing Sides. A slave sent by his master to fight in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy changes sides to fight for an end to slavery, not knowing what it will cost the woman he loves. Meanwhile, she risks her own life to protect a friend. 

2. Mail Order Bride. Your only support dies, and to survive, you answer an ad for a bride in the midwest. You’re not looking forward to being a stranger’s wife, but something in the letter he wrote you calms your reservations.

medieval soldiers historical fiction writing prompts

3 . Circus Fugitive. It’s 1925, and you’ve joined the traveling circus as a clown to hide your identity after being framed for a murder you didn’t commit. A rival performer recognizes you and threatens to expose you but doesn’t. He wants something else.

4. Atlantis Rising. You’re a citizen of ancient Atlantis and one of the few chosen for preservation during the centuries of submersion, thanks to Atlantean technology. You’ll never see your family again. One friend — with secrets — sabotages the plan.

5. Pearl Harbor. You’re one of the pilots in an air fight with Japanese bombers over Pearl Harbor. You spot one going in an unexpected direction and follow it, only to see them kamikaze into the building where the love of your life is working.

6. Equal Rights for All. A friend invites you to a meeting where you decide to join the fight for women’s suffrage and equal rights. Your employer spots you protesting and gives you a choice: distance yourself from the cause or lose your job. 

7. Prodigal Daughter. In the 1970s, you ran away from home to see Woodstock and only now, ten years later, are you heading back home, after a brief but troubling phone conversation with your mother. 

8. The Speakeasy Scandal. It’s 1923, and you’ve just opened your own speakeasy, limiting its patronage to select members of your community. But one of them is a mole for the local sheriff. He ends up dead in the alley, and you’re arrested for it. 

9. Sioux Pioneer. You lose your husband on the Oregon Trail to a wagon mishap and are then abducted by a Sioux tribe. Write a story describing your evolving relationship with the Sioux chief’s (adult) son. 

10. No Place for Black Veterans. You’re an orphan who befriends a returning WWII soldier after seeing how the community rejects him because of his skin color. Your friendship attracts the attention of local Klansmen and a neglectful aunt.

11. Undercover DJ. An undercover American WWII soldier sneaks into a German radio room and delivers a cryptic message in perfect German, hoping to alert other Americans to a devious German plot he’s discovered. 

12. Haunted Hotel. It’s 1930, and you buy a hotel that just happens to be haunted by the ghosts involved in a very public murder in the roaring 20s. Turns out, plenty of people are willing to pay good money to be haunted by glamorous murder victims. 

13. Jack the Seam Ripper. Using an item in your grandmother’s “treasure box,” you go back in time and get a young Jack interested in tailoring and fashion design. But can you really stop him from following his darker impulses when an old lover returns?

14. Poker Face. In 1800s England, the poker stakes are higher than most spectators are willing to risk. You’re the reigning champion until a new challenger hits the scene. Thing is, you’re ready to lose and disappear. But it won’t be that simple.

15. Don’t Forget the Pie. You run a 1940s diner and see all sorts of people, many of whom you only see once. Everyone who tries your pie wants the recipe, but it’s a closely-guarded family secret. One customer offers to work for a month to get it.

historical place as a tourist attraction historical fiction writing prompts

16. Dear Jane. Your sweetheart is a Vietnam soldier who just broke up with you in a letter. You do some digging and find out he’s left you for one of his fellow soldiers, whose fiancée is the same best friend who comforted you after the break-up. 

17. Once Upon a Drama. You’re a novelist who wakes up in Victorian England and meets your own characters. While rooting for your favorite two people, you don’t expect to fall for one of them. You definitely don’t expect to tell them about it.

18. Ever Since Summer Camp. Five teens meet at summer camp and bond together in response to a tragedy. Their lives continue to intertwine as they grow up in 1950s California. One of them shares the secret that binds them, and lives fall apart. 

19. The Stolen Child. As part of a time-traveling detective couple, you’re excited about your next assignment in Germantown, Maryland: the kidnapping of Charley Ross — a mystery that remained unsolved. 

20. Darkness in the French Quarter. In the early 1880s, your connections with the New Orleans aristocracy leads you to a beautiful Creole woman, Madame Delphine LaLaurie , who has been torturing and murdering the slaves of her household. 

21. Road Trip! Lewis and Clark plan for the Oregon Trail. They talk about hardships they expect, people they’re leaving behind, and what each one most hopes to gain. Your main character is a jilted lover who hatches a plan to stop the expedition..

22. Special Delivery. He delivers milk. She delivers newspapers. They cross paths when they both witness a mugging in 1920s Chicago and intervene to protect the victim. The supposed “victim” then offers them both a job with a hefty payoff. 

23. Nursing History. You pay someone to help you explore your past and see one of your past lives as a WWII nurse. Your fiancé in that life looks an awful lot like your current boss. You see what you went through together and the child you had. 

24. Lost at Sea. A loved one boards the Titanic on their way back home to you. When the ship goes down, they supposedly end up on one of the few liferafts, but they don’t return with the survivors. A year later, they show up at your door.

25. Million Dollar Fling. Ten years ago, you had a moment with a ship’s captain during a 1950s cruise with a group of wealthy socialites you met at college. You show up at a life-changing job interview in New York and come face-to-face with him again. 

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26. American Blood. Your family came to the U.S. after government intervention essentially handed rule in your native country to an organized crime network. A former friend is recruited to their ranks and comes to the U.S. for a business deal. 

27. Two for One. You’re waiting in the parlor for your gentleman host, watching the butler pour tea and eyeing a plate of jammy biscuits. You’re here to meet the man your sister wants to marry. So, why does he know everything about you ? 

28. Jazz Runaway. Two new friends cajole you into joining them to check out a new jazz band. It’s 1930s Mississipi, and you know your parents wouldn’t approve of these friends, but they remind you of someone you lost. What you learn changes you. 

29. Voodoo Priestess. It’s June in 1881. You’re walking in a funeral procession while the band plays. In the coffin is your mother, the Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau , and you’re headed to the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, plot 347. 

30. Is it Jack or Jackie? A woman named Mary Pearsay is arrested for the murder of a woman and her child. After her death, Ripperologists suggest she may have been the real “Jack the Ripper.” Your investigative partner has a weird fixation on her. 

31 . Missing, Presumed Innocent. You’re investigating the case of a young English maidservant who disappeared on January 1st, 1753 and reappeared on the 29th, emaciated and weak. Her story of abduction doesn’t match what investigators find. 

32. The “Mad Monk.” You’ve just met the man who murdered Grigori Rasputin on the 17th of December in 1916, and he’s only too happy to recount the details. He’s not so forthcoming about why he did it, and you’re determined to find out. 

33. Da Vinci’s Muse. The world knows about Leonardo da Vinci but not about the Renaissance woman who inspired him. As one of her descendants, you’re determined to make her known, at the risk of exposing a dark secret. 

34. The Invisible Apprentice. Being William Shakespeare’s apprentice would be great if he weren’t always stealing your ideas and claiming them as his own. So, you write a brilliant satiric play exposing him. He loves it and takes it to the stage. 

35. Death in the Family. You know who really killed JFK, and it wasn’t that patsy Oswald, who’s already dead. Exposing the real killers would put you and your family next on their list. 

36. Nightmares in Heaven. You’re secretly watching Michaelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. You know he’s been having nightmares, which find their way onto the chapel ceiling — before the Archbishop demands he paint over them. 

37. Candy Creep. The creator of Sweethearts candies sends you a box “anonymously.” The messages on those tiny hearts reveal more than you want to know about him. 

38. Better Half. You’re on a visit to New York in 1977 with your fiancé, and you’re separated when the blackout hits. Write about your adventures as you find your way back to each other — and when you find out where he’s been. 

39. Tactical Magic. It’s 1692, and you’re a witch keeping a low profile in Salem, Massachusetts while trying to protect your sister. She’s just been accused by a group of girls after meeting with the minister’s daughter in the woods. 

40. The Baby Diaries. You found your mother’s hidden diaries detailing her experiences as a young Black woman in the 50s. Now, some of the things she said and did while she lived make sense. You didn’t expect to learn about a half-sister.

boat in the dock of ancient times historical fiction writing prompts

41. Forbidden Knowledge. You wake up in the famous library of Alexandria mere hours before it burns, destroying everything. You witness the arson and stealthily pursue those responsible. 

42. Profanely Biblical. At the Nicene Council, Emperor Constantine has booted any bishop who doesn’t agree with his decision on which books belong in the Christian Bible and which should be destroyed. You’re a collector of the latter.

43. Before the Mayflower. On the west coast of Africa, in 1462, you see hundreds of captive men, women, and children being loaded into ships. You ask why and learn the truth as you spot a friend among them. What do you do?

44. The Haitian Revolution. In 1804, Haitians win their independence from French rule. As a Haitian immigrant to the U.S., you openly supported their fight. But when a massacre follows the revolution, you encounter open hostility. 

45. More Than Courage. You’re a student at Harvard when the university admits its first Black student: Beverly Garnett Williams. You share some classes with her, and you witness her courage every day. You also witness people’s reactions. 

46. Illegal Heritage. It’s the Spanish Inquisition, and your family has converted to Christianity from Judaism to survive. That doesn’t stop the local clerics from harassing you — or your pious neighbors from pointing fingers.

47. Crazy in Love. You’re the last person Marilyn Monroe talked to before she was murdered. And you’re determined to expose her killer. But no one believes the “crazy best friend” — including your doctors at the mental hospital.  

48. Model Neighbors. You read your parents’ collected love letters and learn about what they experienced as an interracial couple in the 1960s. They had you before they were forced out of their white neighborhood. 

49. Pirate Queen. You’ve been kidnapped by Blackbeard and instead of killing you, he keeps you as a slave. But you have a brilliant plan to take over the ship and become the new pirate captain of the Queen Mary’s Revenge. 

50. She’s Indisposed. You’re an apothecary in the 1600s, and two star-crossed lovers have asked you to prepare a potion to help one of them fake their death. You create the potion but get it mixed up with a powerful remedy for constipation. 

51. Tele-porta-vision. In 1972, you sit around your English family’s first TV set — a gift from your dad’s new employer. You wake up hours later in the middle of a crop circle nearby, unable to remember how you got there. Dreams tell you more. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you have 51 prompts with cool historical events to write about, which ones make you want to put this aside and start writing? 

And what else will you bring to your story to make it uniquely yours? 

Humor? Romance ? Horror ? Fantasy ? Choose-your-own adventure? 

Pick a prompt , and play with whatever comes to mind. Tell your inner editor to take a nap while you get the words out. This is a time to create. 

Write away. 

Want some writing ideas for historical fiction? Check this list of helpful historical fiction writing prompts that will inspire your writing.

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist

‘Is this story true?’ readers invevitably ask. In the first of her BBC Reith Lectures, the double Man Booker prize-winning author explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction

S aint Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.

There is a poem by WH Auden, called “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the teacup opens A lane to the land of the dead

The purpose of this lecture is to ask if this lane is a two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look. There are techniques we can use.

NICK HIGGINS for REVIEW cover 170603 Hilary Mantel BBC Reith Lectures

My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. My own family history is meagre. An audience member once said to me, “I come from a long line of nobodies.” I agreed: me too. I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother – but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the 19th century to form my sense of who I am, at this point in the 21st: even nobodies can do this.

She was the daughter of a Patrick, the wife of a Patrick, the mother of a Patrick; her name was Catherine O’Shea, and she spent her early life in Portlaw, a mill village near Waterford in the south of Ireland. Portlaw was an artificial place, purpose-built by a Quaker family called Malcolmson, whose business was shipping and corn, cotton and flax. The mill opened in 1826. At one time Portlaw was so busy that it imported labour from London.

The Malcolmsons were moral capitalists and keen on social control. The village was laid out on a plan ideal for surveillance, built so that one policeman stationed in the square could look down all five streets. The Malcolmsons founded a Thrift Society and a Temperance Society and paid their workers partly in cardboard tokens, exchangeable in the company shop. When a regional newspaper suggested this was a form of slavery, the Malcolmsons sued them, and won.

As the 19th century ended, textiles declined and the Malcolmsons lost their money. The mill closed in 1904 – by which time my family, like many others, had begun a shuffling stage-by-stage emigration.

Two of Catherine’s brothers went to America, and in time-honoured fashion were never heard from again. Catherine was a young married woman when she came to England – to another mill village, Hadfield, on the edge of the Peak District. Like Portlaw, it was green and wet and shadowed by hills. As far as I know, she never left it. She must have wondered, does the whole world look like this?

Her first home was in a street called Waterside – for many years the scene of ritual gang fights on Friday nights between the locals and the incomers. I know hardly anything about Catherine’s life. I suppose that when a woman has 10 children, she ceases to have a biography. One photograph of her survives. She is standing on the doorstep of a stone-built terraced house. Her skirt covers her waist to ankle, her torn shawl covers the rest. I can’t read her face, or relate it to mine.

But I imagine I know where the picture was taken. There was a row of houses which fronted Waterside, their backs within the mill enclosure. In time the houses were knocked down, but the facades had to stand, because they were part of the mill wall. The windows and doorways were infilled by blocks of stone. By the time I was alive to see it, this new stone was the same colour as the mill: black. But you could see where the doors and windows had been. When I was a child these houses struck me as sinister: an image of deception and loss.

The door of a house should lead to a home. But behind this door was the public space of the mill yard. By studying history – let’s say, the emigrant experience, or the textile trade – I could locate Catherine in the public sphere. But I have no access to her thoughts. My great-grandmother couldn’t read or write. One saying of hers survives. “The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead.” I assume it was what she said to keep the 10 children in order after lights-out. After her early years, as I understand it, Catherine no longer worked in the mill. But I am told she had a certain role in her community: she was the woman who laid out the dead.

Why do we do this – or employ someone to do it? Why do we wash their faces and dress them in familiar clothes? We do it for the sake of the living. Even if we have no religious belief, we still believe what has been human should be treated as human still; witness the indignation if a corpse is desecrated, and the agony of those who have no bodies to bury. It is almost the definition of being human: we are the animals who mourn. One of the horrors of genocide is the mass grave, the aggregation of the loving, living person into common, compound matter, stripped of a name.

Commemoration is an active process, and often a contentious one. When we memorialise the dead, we are sometimes desperate for the truth, and sometimes for a comforting illusion. We remember individually, out of grief and need. We remember as a society, with a political agenda – we reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.

Nations are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our forefathers were giants, of one kind or another. This is how we live in the world: romancing. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here: between, let’s say, where my great-grandmother was and where I am today. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.

As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone, and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted. When we remember – as psychologists so often tell us – we don’t reproduce the past, we create it. Surely, you may say – some truths are non-negotiable, the facts of history guide us. And the records do indeed throw up some facts and figures that admit no dispute. But the historian Patrick Collinson wrote: “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Historians are sometimes scrupulous and self-aware, sometimes careless or biased. Yet in either case, and hardly knowing which is which, we cede them moral authority. They do not consciously fictionalise, and we believe they are trying to tell the truth. But historical novelists face – as they should – questions about whether their work is legitimate. No other sort of writer has to explain their trade so often. The reader asks, is this story true?

That sounds like a simple question, but we have to unwrap it. Often the reader is asking, can I check this out in a history book? Does it agree with other accounts? Would my old history teacher recognise it?

It may be that a novelist’s driving idea is to take apart the received version. But readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn – and if you challenge it, it’s as if you are taking away their childhoods. For a person who seeks safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.

It’s not possible to lay down a rule or a standard of good practice, because there are so many types of historical fiction. Some have the feel of documentary, others are close to fantasy. Not every author concerns herself with real people and real events. In my current cycle of Tudor novels , I track the historical record so I can report the outer world faithfully – though I also tell my reader the rumours, and suggest that sometimes the news is falsified.

But my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel. In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction – it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk. If you want to know how it was put together line by line, your only hope, I’m afraid, is to ask the author.

For this reason, some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue that a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts – which may or may not agree with each other – and actively requesting a subjective interpretation. You are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, “Take this document, object, person – tell me what it means.” To the novelist he says, “Now tell me what else it means.”

The novelist knows her place. She works away at the point where what is enacted meets what is dreamed, where politics meets psychology, where private and public meet. I stand with my great-grandmother, on the doorstep. I break through the false wall. On the other side I connect my personal story with the collective story. I move through the domestic space and emerge into the buzzing economic space of the mill yard – the market place, the gossip shop, the street and the parliament house.

Portrait of Dame Hilary Mantel for her BBC Reith Lectures

I began writing fiction in the 1970s, at the point, paradoxically, where I discovered I wanted to be a historian. I thought that because of my foolishness at the age of 16, not knowing what to put on my university applications, I had missed my chance, and so if I wanted to work with the past, I would have to become a novelist – which of course, any fool can do.

For the first year or two, I was subject to a cultural cringe. I felt I was morally inferior to historians and artistically inferior to real novelists, who could do plots – whereas I had only to find out what happened.

In those days historical fiction wasn’t respectable or respected. It meant historical romance. If you read a brilliant novel like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius , you didn’t taint it with the genre label, you just thought of it as literature. So I was shy about naming what I was doing. All the same I began. I wanted to find a novel I liked, about the French revolution. I couldn’t, so I started making one.

I wasn’t after quick results. I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.

These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.

Because his thoughts can only be conjectured. Even if he was a diarist or a confessional writer, he might be self-censoring. But the wallpaper – someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and colour, and if I kept on pursuing it I might find out. Then – when my character comes home weary from a 24-hour debate in the National Convention and hurls his dispatch case into a corner, I would be able to look around at the room, through his eyes. When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic – who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics – complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart, that there was not nearly enough.

In time I understood one thing – that you don’t become a novelist to become a spinner of entertaining lies: you become a novelist so you can tell the truth. I start to practise my trade at the point where the satisfactions of the official story break down. Some stories bear retelling. They compel retelling. Take the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn. You can tell that story and tell it. Put it through hundreds of iterations. But still, there seems to be a piece of the puzzle missing. You say, I am sure I can do better next time. You start again. You look at the result – and realise, once again, that while you were tethering part of the truth, another part has fled into the wild.

However, it took time for me to get to the Tudors. For most of my career I wrote about odd and marginal people. They were psychic. Or religious. Or institutionalised. Or social workers. Or French. My readers were a small and select band, until I decided to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag.

To researchers, the Tudor era is still a focus of hot dispute, but to the public it’s light entertainment. And there were shelves full of novels about Henry VIII and his wives. But a novelist can’t resist an unexplored angle. Change the viewpoint, and the story is new. Among authors of literary fiction, no one was fighting me for this territory. Everyone was busy cultivating their outsider status.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

For many years we have been concerned with decentring the grand narrative. We have become romantic about the rootless, the broken, those without a voice – and sceptical about great men, dismissive of heroes. That’s how our inquiry into the human drama has evolved: first the gods go, and then the heroes, and then we are left with our grubby, compromised selves.

As you gain knowledge and technique as a writer – as you gain a necessary self-consciousness about your trade – you lose some of the intensity of your childhood relationship with the past. When I was a child the past felt close and it felt personal. Beneath every history, there is another history – there is, at least, the life of the historian. That’s why I invited my great-grandmother into this piece – because I know my life inflects my work. You can regard all novels as psychological compensation for lives unlived. Historical fiction comes out of greed for experience. Violent curiosity drives us on, takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass.

The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement. The 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay said, “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” So how do we teach history? Is it a set of stories, or a set of skills? Both, I think; we need to pass on the stories, but also impart the skills to hack the stories apart and make new ones.

To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism. To retrieve the past, we require all those virtues, and something more. If we want added value – to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside – we pick up a novel. The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act, puts the past back into process, into action, frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.

We can’t leave theory aside: it is impossible now to write an intelligent historical novel that is not also a historiographical novel, one that considers its own workings. But I have tried to find a way to talk about the past without, day by day, using terms like “historiography”. I became a novelist to test the virtue in words that my great-grandmother would recognise, from that journey she made, Ireland to England, from one damp green place to another: words like thread and loom and warp and weft, words like dockside, and ship, and sea, and stone, and road, and home.

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Last Updated: August 5, 2021 References

This article was co-authored by Stephanie Wong Ken, MFA . Stephanie Wong Ken is a writer based in Canada. Stephanie's writing has appeared in Joyland, Catapult, Pithead Chapel, Cosmonaut's Avenue, and other publications. She holds an MFA in Fiction and Creative Writing from Portland State University. There are 8 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 76,797 times.

Historical fiction is a very popular genre among readers and writers. Good historical fiction can transport you into past time periods and bygone eras, full of colorful characters that modern readers can relate to. You should first learn more about the genre and conduct research for your historical fiction stories. Once you have these resources, you can sit down and create the setting, develop the main characters, and write a draft of your story.

Learning about the Genre

Step 1 Recognize the characteristics of historical fiction.

  • Good historical fiction writers will have a love for research and history. You should be curious about learning about past historical times, and be interested in imagining life in past times. Historical fiction can take a lot of time to do well, as you will need to conduct research and read historical texts to ensure you are getting the time period right. [1] X Research source
  • Though you may think you need a university degree in history to be a good historical fiction writer, this is often not the case. Many historical fiction writers have backgrounds in journalism and newspaper reporting. The skills required to be a successful journalist, such as good researching skills, good attention to detail, and the ability to write with precision and clarity, can also translate into being an effective historical fiction writer. [2] X Research source

Step 2 Read examples of historical fiction.

  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
  • The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

Step 3 Analyze the examples.

  • You may ask yourself several questions about the texts, including: How does the author introduce the historical time period to the reader? Do you believe the historical time period is accurately described, and if so, why? How does the author use physical and emotional characteristics to describe the main characters? What is the central conflict of the story and how is it explored in the novel? Does the author create an ending that is satisfying or unsettling? Does the story feel historically accurate and creatively written? If so, in what ways does the author achieve this?

Conducting Your Research

Step 1 Determine the exact time period and location of your historical novel.

  • For example, rather than choose, “20th century, France," you may choose “1935, Paris." Or, rather than choose “18th century America," you may choose to focus on “1776, Philadelphia."

Step 2 Look for research texts at your local library.

  • Look for encyclopedias that focus on specific time periods and locations. You can also look up biographies of historical figures who were alive during the time period.
  • You can read scholarly texts that focus on specific elements of the time period and location, such as what people ate in 1776, Philadelphia or how people dined out in 1935, Paris. You may be able to lean on historical texts that delve deep into the everyday customs and practices of the time.

Step 3 Study catalogues, newspapers, and magazines.

  • Magazines and catalogues can be a useful way to get a sense of how people were writing, talking, and gossiping during your chosen time period. You can also notice any popular slang or terms from the time period and the more popular products consumed by people during the time period.

Step 4 Speak to history experts.

  • You should look for experts that are very proficient in a certain aspect of the time period, such as an expert in embroidery in 17th century America or an expert in the origins of horse racing in 19th century Paris. This will then allow you to ask them very specific questions about the time period and get specific answers in return.
  • You can also ask experts to refer you to other experts they may know, creating a network of experts for you to lean on as you write your story. Using experts for different elements of your story will ensure you are getting an informed opinion and make your story feel more authentic.

Step 5 Use caution when you do research on the internet.

  • You should fact check all the information you get online with scholarly texts and discussions with history experts. Try to verify the information from the internet with other outside sources so you are sure you are using historical fact that you can then transform into fiction.

Creating Your Setting

Step 1 Consider the landscape and terrain of the setting.

  • You should try to be specific about the landscape and terrain of your setting. For example, if you are writing about a street in Paris, France in 1935, you may ask yourself: Were there cobblestone streets and row houses or apartment buildings? What monuments might be visible from the street? What were the major landmarks on the street? Where there trees and other greenery on the street or off the street?

Step 2 Determine how people get around in the setting.

  • You should also consider if there were different means of transportation for different classes and groups. For example, in Philadelphia in 1776, women may not have been allowed to use horse drawn carriages on their own. Or, in Paris in 1935, there may have only been one to two automobile models available to only wealthier individuals and families.

Step 3 Describe the sensory details of the setting.

  • For example, you may try describing a day in the life of someone living in Paris in 1935 on a residential street. You may describe the smell of bread from the bakery in the morning, the sound of horse carriages in the distance, the touch of starched sheets, the taste of tea at the breakfast table, and the sight of the sunlight coming into the kitchen.

Step 4 Use maps and other visual representations.

  • You may also include a map or other visual representations in your story as supporting material. Your readers may appreciate a map of a time period and location, especially if it is unfamiliar to them.

Developing Your Characters

Step 1 Look for historical characters with a unique backstory.

  • You should also consider the historical characters that surround your main characters. Maybe your main character frequented the same circles as famous writers and thinkers of the time. Or, maybe your main character was close friends with a major historical leader.
  • You may also find historical characters who may have been mere footnotes in history and largely ignored by historians. You could then bring these forgotten characters to life in your fiction and shine a spotlight on their fascinating lives.

Step 2 Find historical characters that dealt with conflict.

  • For example, maybe your story is about a struggling artist in Paris in 1935. The artist may be based on a forgotten artist of the time who struggled with drug addiction and poverty. The artist may also have a conflict with the outside world in that her work was often misinterpreted or ignored by the critics of the day. She may also have a conflict with other artists in her circle, who are becoming more famous and well known than her.
  • You may also use the historical time period as a source of conflict. Often, unique characters in history stand out for their attempts to go against the status quo of the day or the social norms of their time. A story about a female main character who sewed the stars onto the first American flag, for example, may be interesting because during this time, women were not permitted to vote or to participate in the politics of the day. This may then create a conflict for your main character, as she is not able to actively participate in the political process, even though she desperately wants to get involved and be part of this process.

Step 3 Describe the physical and emotional qualities of your main character.

  • Physical qualities: Tall, thin, dark skin, thin nose, wide eyes, with long plaited hair. Has a cleft lip from birth and a scar on her left ear.
  • Emotional/psychological qualities: Street-smart, no formal educational training, devoted to painting and drawing, obsessed with fame, short-tempered, attractive to men and women, tendency to spend money as soon as she has it on drugs, alcohol, and food.

Step 4 Create flawed characters.

  • For example, your main character may have artistic talent and the ability to leave an important mark on painting. But she may also struggle with drug addiction and poverty, leading her to make some difficult and imperfect decisions to survive.

Writing Your Story

Step 1 Create a plot outline

  • You may use a plot diagram to outline your story. A plot diagram is one of the more common ways to structure your story and consists of six sections: the set up, the inciting incident, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.
  • Alternatively, you may use the snowflake method. The snowflake method is often used by writers who do not want to follow the more traditional plot diagram, but are still looking for a way to organize their story. The snowflake diagram consists of a one sentence summary of the story, a one paragraph summary of the story, character synopses, and a summary of scenes.

Step 2 Do not limit yourself to historical fact.

  • Though you should strive for accuracy and fact in your story, you should also be willing to sacrifice historical fact for a good tale. You are writing fiction based on some element of history, after all, and are not obligated to ensure every detail is historically correct. The need for historical fact should never trump your ability to create an engaging tale.

Step 3 Avoid cliche descriptions and details.

  • It can be tricky to avoid cliche when you are writing historical fiction, especially if it is set in a time period with familiar images and phrases, such as the British monarchy or turn of the century Paris. You may need to work extra hard to ensure your writing does not fall into cliche when describing the setting of your story or the perspective of your characters.
  • For example, rather than describe a party in turn of the century Paris as “packed to the gills, with a bevy of artists and creative types,” you might describe it with more detail, “so crowded you could only spot the champagne glasses on brass trays, floating over the perfumed heads of every known artist in Paris.”

Step 4 Read and revise your rough draft.

  • Read the draft out loud to yourself. You should highlight any cliches or familiar language as well as any awkward sentences or phrases. Make sure you are historically accurate whenever possible and that you have a good reason for the instances when you deviate from history. You should also ensure your draft adheres to your plot outline. If you deviate from your plot outline, it should be for the good of the story overall.
  • You should also read the draft out loud to someone else. Get feedback and constructive feedback from them to improve your writing and your next draft. Often, getting an outside perspective on your work can only make it better and more engaging for your readers.

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Stephanie Wong Ken, MFA

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Aposiopesis, write a time-travel story where a character from the present finds themselves in the 80s or 90s., write an epistolary story set during a major historical event. the event may be the subject of the letters directly, or be referenced in the background., write about a character who is living through a major historical event — whether they know it or not., set your story in eighteenth century london, including a casual reference to something that changes the course of history..

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The best historical fiction writing prompts

One of the joys of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to look to the past and ask: what if? What if an English woman suddenly found herself transported through time from mid 20th-century Scotland to mid 18th-century Scotland? What if you could meet the woman behind Johannes Vermeer’s famous oil painting? What if you could talk to one of Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors? All of these stories already exist, of course — Outlander, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Wolf Hall — but there are many more to tell. And hopefully these historical writing prompts will help you do just that!

The possibilities for historical fiction are practically endless — you’ve got an entire world, and the course of millenia to choose your setting from! What really matters is making sure that you are able to include the kind of textual details and references to real-world events that will immerse your readers entirely. That requires research, preparation, and a whole lot of planning. While other genres may give you a little (or a lot!) more leeway for invention, historical fiction readers expect a certain level of rigor from their novels, so bear this in mind in your story development and editing process.

Here are our top ten historical fiction writing prompts:

  • A bard falls in love with the monarch who employs them.
  • You’re Shakespeare’s apprentice, and he’s always taking credit for your ideas.
  • You worked at one of the first printing presses during the Printing Revolution of the 15th century.
  • Write about a specific time in history through love letters.
  • The revolution is here — and you’re going to play a crucial role in leading it. (Choose any revolution you like, from any era.)
  • A family sit around their brand new radio for the first time after dinner.

Here are some additional resources to help you write historical fiction:

  • How to Master the 'Show, Don't Tell' Rule (free course) — Fiction which relies heavily on its setting will require a lot of exposition, but how can you do this well? You want to avoid info-dump. (“Oh Mary! I do so love returning home to our quiet town on the coast of Victorian England, having been injured from my time as a soldier in the Crimean War, 1853-1856!”) Instead, you should be employing the golden rule of show, don’t tell — and our course explains exactly how to do that.
  • The Ultimate Worldbuilding Guide (free resource) — While our guide is also used by fantasy authors to cook up entirely new worlds from scratch, this resource provides helpful prompt questions which you can use to shape your research.

Want more help learning how to write a short historical fiction? Check out How to Write a Short Story That Gets Published — a free, ten day course guiding you through the process of short story writing by Laura Mae Isaacman, a full-time editor who runs a book editing company in Brooklyn.

Ready to start writing? Check out Reedsy’s week l y short story contest , for the chance of winning $250! You can also check out our list of writing contests or our directory of literary magazines for more opportunities to submit your story.

Have a story you’re ready to start submitting? Check out our list of writing contests or our directory of literary magazines .


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How to Write Historical Fiction: 10 Steps to Writing a Great Story

Krystal Craiker headshot

Krystal N. Craiker

how to write historical fiction

You don’t need a history degree to write historical fiction—you just need to love history.

But many writers find writing historical fiction intimidating. Although it requires more research than most other genres, it doesn’t have to be any harder than writing anything else.

If you’ve ever wondered how to write historical fiction, you’re in the right place. Here are ten steps you can take to become a historical fiction writer.

What Makes a Good Historical Fiction Novel?

How important is historical accuracy in a historical novel, 10 steps to writing historical fiction, final thoughts on how to write historical fiction.

Historical fiction readers love this genre because it’s a perfect balance of realism and escapism. Historical fiction is grounded in real events and time periods, but it’s more engaging than reading a history book on the subject.

A great historical fiction book brings history to life. But it does more than focus on the events. Rather, historical fiction transports readers through time, connecting them on a human level with people of the past.

When you’re studying history in school, it’s easy to forget that the past was full of real people who did very human things and had very human struggles.

Good historical fiction writers humanize the past, immersing their readers in a world that feels new and familiar at the same time. Historical fiction reminds us we’re not so different from other people after all.

how to write historcial fiction

Historical accuracy is a controversial subject among historical fiction writers. But the truth is, you will have readers who don’t care much about accuracy and readers who will hyper-fixate on an obscure detail you got wrong. So, keep in mind that you can’t please everyone.

Historical fiction ranges in accuracy. There are books like Wolf Hall with real people and events that are as accurate as possible. And some writers prefer to only fill in the gaps of what research can’t tell us, like The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are historical fiction books that are only loosely inspired by history. These books may occur at a specific time, but accuracy about details isn’t the author’s primary goal. Regency romance like Julia Quinn’s books are great examples of this.

And of course, there are eras in history that we know little about. Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear focuses on interactions between Neanderthals and early modern humans. We know very little about their culture and customs.

The level of historical accuracy in your novel is up to you. In general, it’s a good idea to keep a broad sense of the era accurate. But you can choose to overlook smaller details.

historical fiction writing tip

For example, in my upcoming pirate novel, my timeline for major events, as well as travel time between locations, is very accurate.

But ships with steering wheels instead of tillers didn’t become mainstream until a couple of decades later. That didn’t fit with the pirate aesthetic I wanted, and most historical romance readers aren’t maritime historians, so my ships have the traditional wheel.

If you worry about getting emails citing all your errors, consider adding an author’s note that explains your choices in the back of your book.

Writing historical fiction can feel overwhelming at first. But these ten steps on how to write historical fiction will help break the process down.

steps for writing historical fiction

1) Pick a Story Premise and an Era

Chances are you’re reading this article because you already have an idea for a historical fiction novel. Perhaps you have a favorite historical era or event you want to explore.

But if not, spend some time thinking about what you love about history. What excites you? What do you wish you knew more about?

Once you’ve decided on a premise and an era, it’s useful to pick an actual year. This will help you narrow your research and build your setting with external conflicts and events.

For example, if you’re writing a WWII novel, decide if you’re setting the story before or after D-Day. This will affect your story’s narrative.

2) Research the Basic Historical Context

Now you have to become a semi-expert in your era. This will require some in-depth research, but it’s hard to know where to start.

I once heard a historical fiction writer say she starts by getting an overview of the time period from the children’s section of the library. Then she can formulate research questions to go into great depth. Crash course videos are another great starting point.

I like to use a strategy that AP history teachers use with grade school students. Break down a time period and location by using the acronym PERSIA to take notes.

The acronym PERSIA stands for political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, arts . Social refers to social structure and social norms. Intellectual deals with major achievements.

A simpler form is PEGS , which is political, economic, geographic, social . Use these categories as an outline for your research.

Using one of these formats can help guide your research and organize the information you learn.

To go into greater depth, look into books, podcasts, documentaries, journals, and primary sources. Consider reaching out to a research librarian to help you find information. They’re professional researchers and can save you time and frustration.

3) Keep a List of Interesting Historical Details

As you research, your creativity will kick into overdrive. You may stumble upon one line in a book that fascinates you and will fit your story well.

These may be obscure details that aren’t important in the grand scheme of history. But these historical tidbits bring your story to life.

Keep a list of these little facts, along with a citation of where you found them. You may weave them into your story later.

4) Take Great Notes

There is nothing more frustrating than jotting down a historical fact to use later, only to never find the information again. I speak from personal experience.

When you take notes, add enough details to give you context. Then, add a citation to find it later. You don’t have to be picky about using a style guide. Just make a note of the book and page number, website, or episode where you learned the fact.

Find a note-taking system that works for you. Many people use a database app or spreadsheet to keep track of notes. Some people use folders and notes within their novel-writing software.

I like to use a project management board like Trello. I can keep track of all my information, take quick notes on my phone, and easily categorize my research.

5) Plot Your Novel

Not every writer is a “planner.” But with historical fiction, there are so many pieces to keep track of that some degree of plotting is necessary.

You must keep a real historical timeline of events, pick the historical details you want to include, plus you have to create a plot with conflict and character arcs.

There are many plotting formats you can use, such as the Snowflake Method, the Story Circle, or Save the Cat! beat sheets. Or you can create your own system.

If you’re more of a “pantser,” create a basic outline. Remember, nothing is set in stone when you plot. Your outline is a living document, and your characters may decide your story needs to go another direction.

But having a rough outline will help you keep all research and plot points together in a way that makes writing easier.

6) Keep Diversity in Mind

You know the phrase, “History is written by the victors?”

We often get a one-sided view of history, particularly that of the group that held the most power. But there’s more to history than you learned in school.

Women have always had agency in their lives, even if they are largely erased from the historical record. Queer people have always existed, but they didn’t have the vocabulary we have now for their diversity.

People of color are also not a monolithic group. Be careful not to erase the stories of marginalized people, but do so sensitively. Avoid harmful stereotypes and caricatures.

Research these groups of people during your era. Often, this information lies in scholarly journals. A librarian can help you get access to many of these.

We recommend hiring sensitive readers with experience in historical fiction to help you portray characters different from you with respect. ProWritingAid will also flag some potentially harmful language with our inclusive language report. You’ll see these improvements alongside your style suggestions in the tool.

7) Craft Engaging Characters

This step is true for any type of fiction. But it can be extra fun when writing historical fiction.

Characters make a story. Readers keep turning the page because they’re invested in your characters.

Consider what makes your characters stand out. Find interesting vocations from the era. Make your characters’ motivations match their time period.

This is also a great time to play with social norms. Do your historical characters break any societal standards? What are their pastimes?

Small quirks and historical details will also make your characters memorable. Does your heroine always forget her bonnet? Do your characters bond over a writer or philosopher of the time?

8) Create a System for Missing Information

Just when you think you’ve researched everything you need to know, you’ll run into questions while writing. These are usually minor details, like fabric types or when something was invented.

It’s easy to fall down a research rabbit hole when you run into these problems. You’ll think it’s simple to find the answer, only to spend several hours looking up when shoelaces were invented.

I spent at least fifteen hours over several weeks trying to find a visual of historic bilge pumps on ships so I could describe it. It culminated in me reading an entire book about bilge pump technology at 2 a.m., which still didn’t have a good diagram!

You will never finish writing your novel if you do this too often. So, you can create a note system to fill in the gaps on your first round of revisions. I like to add “LOOK THIS UP” in all caps. Other writers prefer to use brackets or comments on their document.

You’ll often find that you learn the answer later, or you may not need the information at all.

When you do need to fill in the missing information, you can now separate your research time from your writing time. Give yourself dedicated time to look up information that doesn’t take away from the time you spend writing.

Historical fiction writing tip

9) Find a Balance of Old and New Language

Language changes over time, and your historical characters likely spoke quite differently from how we speak today.

You want to show the time period through dialogue, but you also run the risk of alienating readers if it’s too hard to read.

The balance of old and new language patterns is up to you. It will depend on your sub-genre, your comparison titles, and your own knowledge of historic speaking patterns.

It’s a good idea to use modern language in narration. Then choose some words or phrases to work into dialogue to enhance the historic setting.

10) Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More

Once you have your completed draft, put it away and celebrate. Give yourself a couple of weeks before you come back to edit. This ensures you’re looking at your manuscript with fresh eyes.

Historical fiction will take several rounds of edits. In your first pass, you’ll fill in those missing details and perhaps elaborate on certain scenes.

You’ll do developmental edits for plot holes, pacing issues, character development, and more. Then you’ll work at a chapter and scene level.

Finally, you’ll do line edits, cleaning up your prose and making sure every word is perfect.

ProWritingAid can help. We can offer pacing feedback and line edits on your manuscript. You can set your document type to Historical Fiction to get personalized feedback about how well your writing matches genre expectations. It’s a great feature that can save you time during your editing process.

ProWritingAid Histroical Fiction Document Type

While it may require more research than other genres, historical fiction is a fun genre to write. It doesn’t have to be any harder than writing anything else.

If you maintain a solid system for your research, plotting, and writing, you can write an amazing historical novel that readers will love.

historical fiction essay

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.

Krystal N. Craiker is the Writing Pirate, an indie romance author and blog manager at ProWritingAid. She sails the seven internet seas, breaking tropes and bending genres. She has a background in anthropology and education, which brings fresh perspectives to her romance novels. When she’s not daydreaming about her next book or article, you can find her cooking gourmet gluten-free cuisine, laughing at memes, and playing board games. Krystal lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, child, and basset hound.

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Seeking Truths through Fiction

Historians on Writing Historical Genre Fiction

Alix E. Harrow, Suzanne Marie Litrel, and Laury Silvers | Nov 16, 2021

H istorians jumping genres need not confine themselves to writing traditional historical fiction. Their training and diverse interests lead them to working in all genres, from fantasy to mystery, and to categories such as young adult. Perspectives invited three historians who have published novels to explain how they found their way to genre fiction.

 Illustration of a girl sitting in a treehouse reading books with an orange tabby cat at her feet. Above the treehouse is the night sky with a dragon, detective, knights, fairies, and aliens in the tree branches. Below the treehouse are historic landmarks around the world.

There’s much to enjoy in genre fiction—and readers can find historical stories in all of them, from mystery to fantasy to romance.  Anne Lambelet

Telling the Truth, Slantwise

I grew up on stories, especially ones with magic. Before I could reliably point to Kentucky on a map, my mother’s bookshelves had given me a geography of make-believe: Narnia and Neverland, Middle-earth and Earthsea. I went to more than one midnight book release and played The Legend of Zelda on at least three consoles. In second grade, I carried around Edith Hamilton’s Mythology , and in middle school, I wrote an aggressively awful fantasy novel full of prophecies and unpronounceable names.

A Spindle Splintered

But by the time I left for college, I’d decided, with the crippling self-seriousness of adolescence, that I’d grown out of magic. I was always more of a Wendy than a Peter (“one of the kind who likes to grow up”), and the entire fantasy genre suddenly struck me as childish, an extended game of pretend for people who couldn’t face the real world. My mom gave me a brand-new set of my favorite space opera paperbacks as a going-away present. I hid them in the back of my dorm closet.

I majored in history. It was the anti-fantasy, I thought, a serious project of examining the world as it really was. Also, there were no math prerequisites, and a senior in my dorm told me it was “more reading than I could possibly imagine” in a badly misjudged effort to scare me off.

I turned out to be a somewhat erratic historian but a good enough writer to cover the gaps. I tended to skate over the actual labor of historical study: names and dates, material facts, the granular minutiae of the past. But I liked what historians did with those details. I liked the process by which disparate threads became a vast tapestry, a depiction of a time and place none of us had ever seen, and I very much liked arguing about the accuracy of that depiction. My professors called it the historical narrative ; now I think of it as a story.

I hadn’t tried to make up stories of my own since middle school—very few people are as brave at 20 as they were at 12—but in graduate school, I did the next best thing: I studied them. I built an MA thesis around late 19th- and early 20th-century British children’s literature. It felt like pulling off a low-stakes heist. I could indulge in pure fantasy but still have all those serious, important conversations I wanted to have (or at least be seen to have) about power and gender and environment. I could talk about the truth using nothing but lies. I could grow up but still go back to Neverland—at least for a visit.

I should have known I’d never be content with just a visit. One night in January—there is no month longer than a January in Vermont during your second year of grad school—I brought home an extra book from the library. It had nothing to do with my research—it was just a silly paperback fantasy I’d read as a kid. I didn’t remember much of the plot (wizard school? dragons?), but I remembered the soaring, lifting feeling it had left in my chest, and I missed it badly.

I could grow up but still go back to Neverland—at least for a visit.

So I reread A Wizard of Earthsea . And then The Tombs of Atuan  and  The Farthest Shore . They were, in fact, about wizards and dragons, and they did give me that familiar, nostalgic, almost melancholic ache in my chest. But they weren’t silly at all.

Ursula K. Le Guin was an academic before she was an author. Her Wikipedia page has all the most coveted keywords, the ones synonymous with sober, successful scholarship—Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright. But when she published Earthsea in 1968, it was largely ignored by sober scholars of the world, dismissed as children’s fantasy.

Which, of course, it is. But it’s also smart as hell. It’s about power and gender, environment and empathy. It’s a story about a world that never was, and it’s a reflection on the world as it actually is. It’s the truth but told slant. Reading Earthsea that January was the first time I understood fantasy and history not as opposites but as different approaches to the same frustrating, humbling, infinite work: making sense of the world, explaining it to ourselves. Telling stories.

I didn’t do anything dramatic, like quit school or write an instant New York Times best seller. But I felt a subtle shift in my trajectory, like a compass needle sliding away from true north. I started reading fantasy again, not for comfort or escapism but to learn.

Since then, I’ve written a dozen short stories, a couple of novellas, and two novels. They’re shelved differently in every bookstore I’ve seen so far: historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, sometimes simply “fiction.” They range from fairy-tale retellings to epistolary adventure novels. But all of them are basically just lies assembled into stories. All of them are trying to tell the truth slantwise. And all of them, of course, have magic.

Alix E. Harrow is the Hugo Award–winning author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January , The Once and Future Witches , and A Spindle Splintered . She tweets @AlixEHarrow.

Time-Traveling Tales for Teens

As a teen, I disliked history. A lot. At my international school in São Paulo, Brazil, our World Civilizations teacher read to us from a textbook on European history. That made no sense. Neither did the fact that we copied prewritten notes from the blackboard and couldn’t ask questions. History was for bores, I decided then—those who memorized information about the dead and cared little for the living. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to study, teach, or write about the past.

Jackie Tempo and the Ghost of Zumbi

Historical fiction, on the other hand, offered an exciting escape from my tedious 10th-grade present. It also provided the unexpected bonus of exam prep. Long before my decidedly uncool teens, books had been my friends—but never more so than in World Civ. “We’ll start at the beginning, with the Greeks,” our teacher announced. I tuned out almost immediately but connected some of what he wrote to what I had read in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy . As I took notes, I thought about Alexander’s true love, the Macedonian’s route to India, his disappointment with war-weary men, and his last laboring breaths. The story Renault wrote lent context, a place to park the facts my teacher shared. I could “remember” where I’d been with Alexander, even during exams.

Years later, I found my way to teaching 9th and 10th grade and realized that stories—real or imagined—encouraged my own students too. A few years in, I was assigned to teach AP World History. The course was known among high school teachers for its vast curriculum and subpar exam results, forcing me to retool my style. I began layering memoir and fiction into lessons to kick-start student engagement. Mindful of our 39-minute class periods, I chose pointed excerpts from memoirs and fiction that intersected with course content. These included scenes of China’s Cultural Revolution from Da Chen’s Colors of the Mountain . What emboldened a child to taunt and throw rocks at a former landlord—his own grandfather? We debated “turning points,” animated by Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus . Would preventing Columbus’s return voyage hold off European conquest in the Americas and impede the transatlantic slave trade? Such discussion helped plunge my students into the past. I stocked relevant fiction in my classroom, with more available in the school library, for extra-credit “book chats.” These made for rich reflection, spurring me and my students to further investigation. They did well on their AP exams, later confirming that stories helped them get past test anxiety and right into the essays.

Jackie Tempo has steered readers to new adventures in teaching and learning far beyond the classroom.

But what, I wondered, could help future high schoolers build historical context they would need? At home, my elementary-age son was drawn to Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House  books. In creating a series that led students through history, Osborne encouraged readers to connect to classroom studies. I wanted to do the same for teens, with the intention of layering in more complex themes and content for their studies. I decided to give novel writing a try.

By my second year of teaching AP World History, my son was in middle school. I wrote at a middle school level but with high school content in mind. I wanted to create an easy, quick read that would provide AP World History students content, context, or both. I began with less-familiar “tricky” topics that teachers tended to skirt but that were deeply embedded in the curriculum. Drawing from my years in Singapore, Brazil, and Taiwan, as well as my graduate work in Chinese studies, I created Jackie Tempo, a time-traveling teen who struggled in both history class and in life.

Jackie learns that books can take readers out of time and place—in her case, to Ming China, colonial Brazil, and 10th-century Dar al-Islam. She finds a magical tome that opens temporal gates and her own worldview. With it, Jackie tracks her missing parents across the centuries. She meets characters long gone and gets caught up in their hopes and fears. Hers is an improbable, dizzying journey, and for educators and historians, it’s a story of time travel perhaps not unlike our own.

Teachers and students have called me Jackie, and this isn’t far from the truth. Jackie Tempo and the Emperor’s Seal includes scenes from my postgrad backpacking trip through China; Jackie Tempo and the Ghost of  Zumbi partially reflects my encounters and experiences in Brazil. After an enriching field trip to a mosque, one 9th grader reflected on his initial hesitation to visit. This prompted me to highlight Abbasid-era culture and exchange in Jackie Tempo and the House of Wisdom . Some characters developed as I was writing, but I also introduced my own friends and mentors to readers. As they did for me, librarians and teachers offer Jackie refuge among books and an appreciation of past and present.

My readers have shared that the Jackie Tempo books steered them to new adventures in teaching and learning far beyond the classroom. At one author visit, a 9th-grade student who read The Emperor’s Seal for his English and social studies classes exclaimed, “I felt like I was actually in China!” In 2019, an early modernist told me she had read The Emperor’s Seal when she was unexpectedly assigned to teach a modern world survey. She had needed a crash course on 16th-century China, and she told me that it helped. And research for the next book prompted me to stop imagining overlooked voices and listen for them myself; I returned to graduate school and earned a PhD in history.

As a disaffected teen, I wanted out of my World Civ class. Historical fiction pointed the way. For some young readers, it shades in unfamiliar landscapes, adding texture to classroom studies. The genre personalizes the past for both students and the instructors who would take them there. After all, isn’t history—time travel—more fun when we have trusty companions by our side?

Suzanne Marie Litrel is the author of the Jackie Tempo novels and an educational consultant. She tweets @slitrel.

Sex & the Medieval Muslim Woman

Umberto Eco quipped that in every instance when critics accused him of anachronism in The Name of the Rose , he was quoting 14th-century texts. I get it. As a retired scholar of early medieval mystic Islam now writing historical mysteries set in 10th-century Baghdad, I, too, face ironic claims of anachronism in my Sufi Mysteries Quartet .

The Sufi Mysteries Quartet

Most concerns arise over the women portrayed in my novels, especially Saliha, a free-spirited, sexy woman unwilling to let men control her. In our present era in which many assume that Muslim women desperately need saving, Saliha comes as a surprise. But as a specialist on women in this period, I can assure my readers that she is not a figment of my contemporary imagination.

I turned to writing mysteries after leaving the academy. I may have been done with academia, but I was not done doing history. The murder at the heart of each book arises from a historical question, and each red herring is a point of discussion on that question. The detailed personal story arcs, the sociopolitical settings, and even lushly described walks across Baghdad are parts of a larger argument I am making about the time and place. In short, I am grinding axes all over these books. I am saying straight-out what I could only hem and haw about in scholarly papers. And much of what I wanted to say was frank talk about the lives of early Muslim women.

All my characters are constructed on figures from the past. Using research in social history, I flesh out hints of women’s lives that come to us through mediated and often meager primary sources, and I bring them to life in my novels. For instance, in Ibn al-Jawzī’s Ṣifāt al-ṣafwa , a male transmitter describes a woman who starved herself for God as having once been “a fattened camel ready for sacrifice.” A woman denying men her body to sacrifice it for God got me thinking about women with the upper hand on male desire: not just ascetics but also those women who reveled in their alluring flesh, married or unmarried, noblewomen or washerwomen.

I may have been done with academia, but I was not done doing history.

I remembered Aisha bint Talha, the niece of one of the Prophet’s wives, who became the basis for Saliha’s character. Shocking stories of her behavior and beauty were widely shared. She refused to segregate herself from men and readily took part in their conversations. Aisha was fun loving, wild tempered, and hot blooded. She refused to cover her face, declaring that the world should know her superiority. This noblewoman was nothing but trouble for her husbands, and they thought she was worth it. In those early reports, she reads like a woman out of a noir movie. I could see Robert Mitchum leaning in to light her cigarette.

And so Aisha bint Talha became Saliha, written as an impoverished woman who escaped to Baghdad from a brutal marriage. A woman done with men except in the bedroom. Men want to protect her, and her refusal to marry spurs a story arc exploring medieval Muslim masculinities spanning three books. Saliha is her own woman, a loyal friend to amateur detective Zaytuna and a lover to Tein, a detective with the Grave Crimes Squad. She works hard, has ambition, and is good in a scrap when a case demands it.

Saliha spurns Tein’s pleas to marry, instead insisting on meeting him for trysts in the hidden doorways of ruined alleys. Women who worked in markets or fields or in the homes of the wealthy had few restrictions on their movements. A widow and a washerwoman like Saliha had opportunities to meet and flirt with men and even find a spot for a clandestine meeting. Unbelievable to some of my readers, yet these meetings happened. Sources such as marketplace inspector’s manuals and the observations of poets, scholars, and intellectuals like the famed al-Jāḥiẓ confirm these brief liaisons and even longer encounters.

But how realistic is Saliha’s insistence on sexual consent? Because married and enslaved women had no social or legal expectation of consent, a few (male) historians argue they did not consider forced sex as a violation. Yet medieval male transmitters passed on reports of free mystic women refusing to marry for this very reason. One account in al-Sulami’s Dhikr an-niswa al-muta ʿ abbidat al-sūfiyyāt describes a free married mystic woman speaking about forced sex in desperate terms, as a violation of her right to intimacy with God. A jurist’s account reveals that an enslaved woman brought her owner to court on charges of sexual brutality. My second novel in the series, The Jealous , addresses these very matters.

The historical axe I’m grinding with Saliha’s character is not to prove there were sexy, independent sidekicks back in the day. Maybe there were, but that is not my point. I am telling the story of a woman who refused to be controlled by men, with all the attendant risks, and, through her character, opening a door to the lives of urban medieval women of her class.

It is a maxim of historical fiction that the author must not “do history,” as it takes away from the story itself, but I have pinned my hopes on Eco’s example. It is possible to educate pleasurably through narrative. I think I succeeded. Well, at least, my novels are taught in university classrooms. Not the same as being an internationally renowned scholar and best-selling author, but it feels pretty darn good. And concerns about anachronisms? They educate too. Surprising readers with medieval Muslim women who demand a say over their bodies may open the reader up to new paths of thought about the Muslim past and the present.

Laury Silvers is a retired historian of early Islam and Sufism and the author of the  Sufi Mysteries Quartet . She tweets @waraqamusa.

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Historical fiction books are works of literature in which fictional events occurred during real-life historical events. Sometimes, these are simply “period pieces”—a novel written today about lovers in Victorian England would certainly be historical fiction. Often, historical fiction authors will integrate their stories into their own historical obsessions—the U.S. Civil War, the assassination of JFK, World War II, Japan’s annexation of Korea, the Biafran War, etc.

Fictional explorations of real historical times teach us a lot about history, society, and what we have in common with people before our times. Nonetheless, it’s a tricky genre to write and understand. What is historical fiction? How do you write it?

This article is a starting point for how to write historical fiction. We examine the historical fiction genre in detail, honing in on the characteristics of historical fiction and how authors employ those in their work. We also share some great historical fiction examples and examine ones you may have already read.

But first, let’s define the genre. What is historical fiction?

What is Historical Fiction?

At its most openly defined, historical fiction describes any work of literature in which a fictional story occurs prior to the author’s present time.

Of course, that’s open to a lot of interpretation. For example, the 1990s are certainly in the past, but are they old enough to be “history?” If I set my story during the Dot Com Bubble, is that historical fiction?

The consensus among most writers and readers is that, for a work to be “historical”, it should be set at least 50 years prior to the year of publication.

Historical fiction describes any work of literature in which a fictional story occurs (50+ years) prior to the author’s present time.

Additionally, the setting of the story needs to be culturally recognizable . Now, that doesn’t mean you need to know about the setting in advance. I’ve learned about many periods of history, in the U.S. and abroad, from reading historical fiction books. What it does mean is that the setting must be significant to history, recognizable by historians, and impact the plot of the story .

The historical fiction genre spans both literary and speculative works. Historical fiction itself tends to be “literary fiction”, but genres like historical romance, historical fantasy, historical mystery, and historical thriller certainly exist.

The literary vs genre fiction distinction is a bit arbitrary, but you can learn more about it here:

Regardless of whether the story is literary or genre, all works of historical fiction share similar characteristics. Let’s look at the characteristics of historical fiction.

Characteristics of Historical Fiction

If you’re learning the ropes of fiction writing, start with our article about the elements of fiction . This article expands upon basic knowledge of writing good fiction.

The historical fiction genre isn’t remarkably different from other forms of fiction, but a few key characteristics separate it from its non-historical counterpart. These include:

  • Worldbuilding, with meticulous attention to cultural contexts.
  • Historical plot, in which the events of history influence the story being told.
  • Universal themes, in that the story can feel relevant both back then and now.

Of course, the best historical fiction involves well-developed characters with interesting conflicts driving forward a powerful story. Readers don’t care about the events of the Civil War, so much as they care about an illicit romance, or a lower-rank soldier trying to escape, or a family home caught in the crossfires. You’re writing about people, not teaching history.

Let’s examine those three important characteristics of historical fiction.

Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Worldbuilding

Writers of historical fiction books must give careful attention to every element of their story’s setting. Everything from culture, customs, and social dynamics, to details like clothing, dialogue , and music, must be attended to with a historian’s lens.

This is easier said than done. For example, let’s say you’re writing a novel set in the U.S. Civil War. Your characters shouldn’t use words like “fedora” and “hobo,” or phrases like “bite the bullet” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Those words and phrases weren’t coined until the 1890s.

Now, not every detail has to be included. Remember, you’re writing fiction, not a history textbook. If the cost of a pound of grain isn’t relevant to your story, don’t try to shoehorn it in.

That said, giving consideration to the following topics will help you situate yourself more fully in the period you’re writing about, and might also provide fodder for what come next in the story.

  • Politics, political organization, enfranchisement
  • Social attitudes
  • Common beliefs, morals, superstitions
  • Prominent people
  • Major events
  • The weather of that year
  • Military organization
  • Class and economy, including the cost of something and peoples’ disposable incomes
  • Existing streets, neighborhoods, borders
  • Idioms, colloquialisms, manners of speaking
  • Material culture, including ways of dressing, architecture, what people eat, what people do for fun
  • Available technologies
  • News of the day (read the newspaper archives, if they exist!)
  • Common diseases

Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Historical Plot

The context of your story should, in some way, inform the plot of the story itself.

Now, that’s not to say you need your story to be about a world altering historical event. For example, let’s say you’re writing a story set during the Industrial Revolution in England. You could write about the most important events: technological development, the Luddite rebellions, the expansion of colonialism to feed the growing projects of capitalism and factory production, etc.

Or, you could write a story influenced by these events. A Luddite falls in love with an innovator. A factory worker tries to write a novel despite the 14 hour workday. In 1811, a British soldier is sent to invade the island of Java, but doesn’t come back with the same sense of patriotism.

Focusing on real characters, whose lives are forever changed by the course of history, is usually more interesting and relatable for the reader. We learn much more about the human psyche and about history when we see it through the lens of everyday people. We also learn more about how history applies to our own lives when we see the ways it affected the lives of long ago.

Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Universal Themes and Shared Humanity

Some conflicts and problems will certainly be unique to the setting of your historical fiction. Most readers in the U.S., for example, will not have many shared experiences with a knight in medieval England. What does bind the two, however, are universal themes, as well as our shared humanity.

Theme refers to the central ideas explored in a piece of writing. Think ideas like justice, family, good vs evil, and coming-of-age. Through themes, it is much easier for the writer to connect contemporary readers with the lived experiences of long ago. So, while you probably haven’t jousted, fought off the Normans, or kneeled for a king (and if you have, let’s get coffee?), your experiences might be connected to that of a medieval knight through “justice,” “love,” “duty,” “sacrifice,” or other themes that are universal among humans.

At the center of the historical fiction genre is our shared humanity with the folks of long ago. Whether you’re an ancient Mesopotamian or a modern Manhattanite, you’ve probably eaten too much, partied too hard, fought with a lover, made up with an old friend, or suddenly changed the course of life. Focusing on what’s human and realistic—within the confines of your plot and worldbuilding—will make your story much more relatable, with themes much more universal to the reader.

Historical Fiction Examples

Let’s look at some historical fiction examples from contemporary literature. Most examples of the historical fiction genre are novels, so we’ll examine how these novels use worldbuilding, plot, and universal themes within the genre.

If you haven’t read the following novels, I highly recommend it—all of these novels are wonderful, and could provide inspiration while you are also writing historical fiction. I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum!

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a novel that follows 3 generations of a Korean family in Japan, particularly how these characters navigate issues of immigration, discrimination, and otherness through the whims of the 20th century.

Historical Fictions Worldbuilding

Pachinko ’s historical worldbuilding takes the reader through pre-War Korea and 20th century Japan. We start in a little fishing village in Korea and move our way to the Korean ghetto in Osaka, Japan. The novel takes us through wartime Japan and ends split between Japan and America, evidence of the lasting generational trauma from Japan’s creation and displacement of the Korean diaspora.

Throughout this historical fiction novel’s migrations, plenty of detail shows us the hardships that this family faces. Japan’s annexation of Korea immediately brings poverty, hardship, and military abuse to the Korean people. Japan’s Korean ghettos are equally rife with these same problems, and any moment the people get a taste of survival and stability, something comes up: the arrest of a family member, sudden inflation, etc. The War, too, creates further economic hardship, even for the most well-off Koreans, and anyone who survives does so with a certain amount of guilt.

From kimchi kitchens to Pachinko parlors, the reader sees how Korean culture is inextricably tied to survival during a century of intense strain, both in Korea and abroad.

History and Plot

The novel’s Baek family is constantly being thrown around by the whims of the 20th century. Japan’s annexation of Korea forces Sunja, the grandmother of this family, to move to Osaka as a teenager. There, World War 2 causes significant hardship. Sunja’s husband is arrested for his faith and dies shortly after his release from prison. Sunja’s brother-in -law is significantly crippled from the bombings in Nagasaki. Sunja longs to return to Korea, but finds out soon that she can’t, as the country is about to split into North and South.

While the second half of the 20th century is calmer, the trauma of displacement is generational. One of Sunja’s sons commits suicide after learning his father was associated with the yakuza. Her other son becomes wealthy opening pachinko parlors, but his lifestyle prevents him from finding the love he seeks, and his son, Sunja’s grandson, loses his job because of his father’s pachinko ties.

Survival and loss are tightly intertwined in this novel, and the Baek family can be likened to a pachinko ball being tossed around and landing randomly, hoping that they’ll finally end up somewhere stable.

Themes and Shared Humanity

Of course, most readers have not run pachinko parlors, been part of the yakuza, been displaced by Japanese occupation, had their home country split in half, or survived a nuclear bomb. But, many aspects of the novel’s characters present opportunities for connection.

For example, any reader can relate to their life being controlled by the whims of fate. No, most of our lives won’t change because of nuclear warfare, but our lives will change because of unpredictable forces.

And, many readers of Pachinko will themselves be Korean. If not Korean, then a member of a global diaspora, displaced by war, colonization, occupation, etc. Pachinko is a testament to Korean survival in the 20th century, but this story can easily resonate with members of other diasporas.

Recurring themes in the novel, other than displacement and the whims of fate, include: power (military, governmental, interpersonal) and resistance, discrimination and stereotyping, and cultural tradition.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini is a novel told through 9 different, interlinked short stories, each with a different narrative point of view . It begins with the separation of siblings Abdullah and Pari, and ends with their reuniting many decades later. The stories in between these two narratives showcase the fallout of their separation, the reasons it came to be, and the endurance of pain and familial love across Afghanistan’s 20th century history.

While some of the stories take place around the world, the novel is centered in Afghanistan. The novel’s fragmented narratives allow the reader to experience different facets of Afghan culture, both through different lenses and from different time periods. We hear an impoverished farmer tell an old story, and we hear a Westernized woman tell bawdy poetry; we see Afghan foods, dresses, and customs within the country, and how those cultural details are preserved outside of it.

The 20th century was a turbulent time for Afghanistan. In the middle of the century, the city of Kabul had become very Westernized and progressive, which is why some of the novel’s characters are fluent in European languages and customs. This cultural blending is crucial to understanding the world this novel explores. Nila, in particular, is a fascinating character, as her tumultuous relationship to her own poetry seems symbolic of Afghanistan’s back-and-forth relationship to female poets: sometimes praising the work of female writers, other times condemning them.

When civil conflict comes for Afghanistan, later parts of the novel take place elsewhere, and Nila is one of the lucky ones, even in wealthy Kabul, who can escape before it’s too late.

The separation of Abdullah and Pari is the central plotline this novel follows, but their separation is only exacerbated by the conflicts of 20th century Afghanistan.

Some key real-life events in this historical fiction include:

  • The Westernization of Kabul, a city largely distinct from rural Afghanistan, which still upheld traditional Afghani values and customs.
  • The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), which created a drawn out proxy war between the USSR and the United States, and which killed and displaced countless Afghani people.
  • The invasion of the Taliban, which was the result of several geopolitical factors including the Soviet Invasion.
  • The fall out of the Invasion and Taliban rule, which includes the scattering of an Afghani diaspora and the profiteering of war criminals.

Despite the intensity of the above historical events, the novel never focuses on these events. It is almost entirely dedicated to its characters’ interpersonal relationships. Those relationships are certainly impacted by these historical events, but the focus on love and endurance despite hardship is a core theme of this historical fiction novel.

Some characters represent certain aspects of this history. Nila is a Westernized woman from Kabul who often feels torn by the ways her poetry is received. Adel is the son of a war criminal who comes to unlearn the way he sees his father as a hero. But, again, the focus is on how these people navigate the world given their backgrounds, not on the backgrounds themselves.

When Abdullah and Pari finally reunite decades later, it is too late for them to have any sort of enduring relationship. But, despite their separation and the difficulty it took for them to reunite, they finally do so, in a different country, with echoes of their love for one another still ringing in the present.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is a historical fiction novel that spans over 400 years of colonization, slavery, and survival, beginning with two Asante women in present-day Ghana. Half-sisters Effia and Esi, children of an Asante woman named Maame, are separated by the invasion of British slave traders, and the novel follows these two women and their descendants as they navigate the awful realities of the slave trade and its many enduring effects.

Homegoing moves through the traumas of forced migration, beginning with the Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle in present-day Ghana. Many of the novel’s ensuing generations are subject to different traumatic settings, including:

  • The villages in Ghana raided and pillaged by the British.
  • Villages in Ghana also raided by other Ghanaians.
  • The slave ships to North America.
  • An Alabama plantation.
  • The Underground Railroad.
  • Harlem in the midst of a drug crisis.

The novel casts a wide net, never lingering too long in any of these settings, but certainly giving us the details: hunger, poverty, rape, imprisonment, drug addiction, disease, and the many other awful situations which plague each generation of Maame’s descendants. We see the grime, filth, and disease of the slave ships, the terror of fleeing the plantations, the shit and sexual assault in the slave castles, and the needles in the city streets. We also see how these situations force each character to make unfathomably tough decisions, such as Ness and Sam, who let themselves be caught escaping the plantation so their son can make it to the free North.

Homegoing gives just enough detail that the reader can look with sympathy towards every awful thing occurring to each generation of Maame’s descendants, while still holding out hope that things will improve in the next chapter. Occasionally, they do.

Like the previous historical fiction examples, Homegoing isn’t trying to lecture you about history, but it does push its characters into different situations based on what’s going on during each historical time period.

Here are a few examples:

  • The Anglo-Asante Wars of the 19th century, which gutted modern-day Ghana of its people and resources as the Asante tried to gain complete autonomy from the British. These conflicts kill, maim, and displace several characters of the novel.
  • The introduction of cacao in Ghana , which forces Ohene to abandon his relationship to a pregnant Abena. Abena then leaves the village, and dies shortly after giving birth to Akua.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which decreed that all captured slaves be returned to their slavers, even if they’re found in the North. The result is that Kojo’s wife is abducted and taken back South, which destroys their family.
  • The introduction of heroin to Harlem, which coincided with a period of high unemployment in the neighborhood. This causes several relationships to dissolve in the later part of the novel.

By seeing how real historical events forced these characters to make tough or seemingly-insane decisions, Homegoing offers a richer sense of empathy for the plights of Africans and African-Americans throughout recent (and not-so-recent) history.

Because of the novel’s wide scope, in which each chapter represents a different era of history, many of the novel’s themes emerge globally, rather than from individual stories. Survival, resistance, and the endurance of family are notable themes, but so are those themes’ opposites: war, racism, and colonialism.

Modern readers haven’t been on The Underground Railroad, but that doesn’t make the painful separation of family less relatable, it just adds a particularly racist, pernicious context. Readers might also be someone or  know someone who struggled with drug addiction, who felt estranged from their own communities, or who currently hold out hope that the next generation will have it easier than they did.

Most interesting about this novel is the ongoing side-by-side trajectories of Esi and Effia’s descendants, how they eventually reunite at the end of the novel, not knowing they are related. The initial image of the slave castle returns, too. In the beginning of the novel, each half-sister is given a black stone pendant. Esi’s is lost to the dungeon of the slave castle, where she is imprisoned before being sent to North America. Meanwhile, Effia’s is passed down through generations, as she lives a life of luxury aboveground in the castle, not knowing her half-sister is below. The novel ends with Effia’s descendant giving Esi’s descendant the stone pendant in the modern day, which symbolizes the endurance of family and shared heritage, even though much of that heritage is unspoken or lost to history.

Historical Fiction Writing Prompts

Want to write your own historical fiction books? We’ll look at some tips on how to write historical fiction in a moment. But, for the writer who doesn’t know where to begin, perhaps these prompts will inspire you.

The following historical fiction writing prompts are meant to be applied to any time period, from any part of the world.

  • Investigate your family history. What did your ancestors do? Where did they live? Create a character inspired by one of your ancestors, deeply affected by the time period they lived in.
  • War. What is it good for? Create two characters, one who supports the war, one who wants it to end. Make them fall in love.
  • Write a historical fiction in which one character gains all of their money during a historical event, and one character loses all of their money. Explore how this money (or lack thereof) changes both characters’ trajectories.
  •  Two (or more siblings) are separated because of war. When they finally reunite, they love the memory of their family, but not the family in front of them.
  • Write a historical fiction in which new technology gives a character everything they ever wanted—and every burden they didn’t know they’d get.
  • Two characters grow apart because of global or historical changes. One character embraces modernity; the other is trapped in it.
  • Two characters are united because of an awful, terrible, and unavoidable event in history.
  • Think about someone you know who would make a great protagonist . Now, set them in a story that happened decades or centuries ago.
  • “You know this story, even if you don’t know this history.”
  • Go to your local library, and hit up the history section. Take a random book off the shelf, read it, and look for ways to insert your characters inside that history.
  • The only thing left on the battlefield was a __________. Fill in the blank, then make that item a central image or symbol of the historical fiction story you write.
  • Think of a historical time period you’ve heard about, e.g. the Victorian Era. What assumptions do you have about that time period? Do some research, and write a story investigating all the ways your assumptions are correct—and everything you didn’t realize you didn’t know. (For example, you might think the Victorians were all prudes. Many were actually quite kinky. A story that investigates this would want to show prudishness upfront, and something very different behind closed doors.)

Tips on How to Write Historical Fiction

If you’re new to writing longform fiction, you might want to start with our article on how to write a novel . Writing historical fiction isn’t significantly different from the novel writing process itself, it just requires more research and a particular attention to detail. The following tips on how to write historical fiction supplement what writers will already know about the basic craft of novel writing.

1. Immerse yourself in the setting and its culture

Don’t just read a couple of history books and think you know everything. Immerse yourself in your setting and time period.

There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors will spend all day talking and thinking like they’re from their historical era. You might watch documentaries, period dramas, or hang up photos around your bedroom of what people wore, ate, and kept around the house.

Also, read literature from the period you’re writing about. Pay attention to the customs, dialogue, and social hierarchies that seem strange or unusual to you. Investigate these differences, and think of ways you can connect them to your present moment, the present-day reader.

Finally, pay close attention to the values people held at this time. Not only what values were held, but how they were expressed. “Honor,” for example, is a value held in most cultures, but the expression of that value varies widely from era to era.

2. Let history inform the story, not be the story

The historical fiction genre is fiction informed by history, not retelling history. Your goal is not to convey the minute-by-minute details of the bombing of Nagasaki, or the sequence of battles throughout the Civil War. Your goal is to tell a story about people affected by history.

Pay attention to how this works in the historical fiction examples we shared. Historical events offer a framework for the plot to hang off of, but those events are not the story. If Min Jin Lee focused on the particulars of Japan’s annexation of Korea, its cultural shift after World War II, or the economic impacts of the Korean diaspora, it would lose sight of the story—that is, how Korean people were impacted by all of these historical changes.

Your writing should never feel like a textbook. In fact, even the characters of your story might get their history wrong or have different interpretations of the same historical event. It’s people that matter to fiction, because they’re the ones who shape plot . History merely provides the trellis for this.

3. Focus on characters, not historical trivia

If you’re writing historical fiction books, you probably find history interesting. But remember that you’re telling a story set in history, not a story about history.

It helps to be organized about your research. Allow yourself time to go down rabbit holes, to get lost in the details without any clear direction. But after that, be methodical, with focused research questions and a vision for what you need to write this story. For example, if your story coincides which a big technological shift (like the invention of the light bulb), ask yourself who liked this change, who didn’t , and why.

Your research will likely guide you down fascinating rabbit holes. As you write your story, you will likely become somewhat of an expert on the time period you’re writing about. Whatever you do, don’t let your story turn into a laundry list of historical facts. Integrate your research into what your characters are already doing, feeling, and surviving.

4. Be particular about the details, and where you place them

This brings us to an important element of storytelling : fine tuning the details.

There are an endless amount of details you can include to make your story rich, real, and vibrant for the reader. But, including all of those details will only weigh the reader down.

This is where the tools of fiction come in handy, particularly the idea of scene vs summary . Summary writing is where the narrator gives an overview of information that’s relevant to the story, but doesn’t need to be expounded upon. It can be backstory, an overview of your characters and their situations, or connective tissue between the most important moments of a story.

Scene, by contrast, are those most important moments. This is where we see important dialogue exchanges, decisions made or acted upon, and plot points that advance the story or reach the story’s climax. Scene is the building block of fiction, no matter what genre your story is in.

Moments of “summary” are often the best places to introduce worldbuilding details. You can have them scenes, too, but you want to be sure that the reader has all the necessary information they need, and worldbuilding details can often slow a story down or interrupt the story’s flow.

With this in mind, you know that you only need the most relevant details in moments of summary that coincide with the important scenes you’re about to write. If your scene involves two people navigating the remains of a battlefield, you probably don’t need to include information about the sky-high prices of corn.

5. Create windows into your time period

As you write and edit your historical fiction story, think about ways to blend the familiar with the unfamiliar. Your characters might speak differently, act differently, and live in different worlds than your contemporary reader, but they still have much in common. For example, your characters might eat dinner together as a family, just like your reader—but what they eat or talk about might be different. Or, your characters might worry about their appearance, just like your reader—but the appearance they want might be different.

Blend the familiar with the unfamiliar to make your story more relatable. By doing this, you make your characters feel like real, flesh-and-blood people, who aren’t all that different from the reader despite whatever cultural or historical differences they share.

Write Historical Fiction Books at

Want to learn more about the process of writing historical fiction? Check out our interview with instructor Jack Smith on his novel If Winter Comes .

Whether your story is set in Medieval Rome or 19th century Prussia, master the historical fiction genre at Take a look at our upcoming fiction classes , where you’ll receive expert feedback on every piece of writing you submit.

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Sean Glatch

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This information is so very good and helpful. Thank you for sharing.

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You’re very welcome, Theresa!

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Very useful information much of which can be applied broadly, for example the use of details in fiction.

I have a very good knowledge of early Virginia history and have toyed with a story set on the Virginia coast that would have a “bonded servant” as the protagonist I have a real life ancestor to use as a starting point.

But I’m probably, at my advanced age, too lazy to bother.

Again I certainly appreciate your including this material in the newsletter.

I’m happy you found it useful, Anne!

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Hi Anne, I took, am of a certain age and am just beginning my writing career.

I am intrigued by your story idea because my ancestors were early Virginia settlers from England. My genealogy research has yielded only a tiny bit of information and I’m having difficulty going further back than 1805.

I hope you do “bother” to develop and write your story as I think there would be great interest in it.

“too,” not “took”

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historical fiction essay

7 Elements of Historical Fiction

  • March 24, 2015
  • Historical Fiction , Inside Historical Fiction

Inside HF

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18 th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.” Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.” Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5 th century China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15 th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider : attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story .

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell : “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

Update : During 2020 and 2021, I’ve explored each of the seven elements in more detail and have had contributions from other authors to enrich the material. You can find many of these by using ‘seven elements of historical fiction’ in the search bar. Here’s a few to start you off:

  • World Building – Culture & Society
  • Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive
  • Setting – Authors’ Perspectives and Techniques
  • Setting – Research Sources
  • The Plot Thickens

You might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History . Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon , Nook ,  Kobo ,  Google Play  and iTunes . Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook , Twitter and Goodreads .

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50 Responses

This is all so true!! I recently finished a novel set in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. It was by far the hardest one I’ve written because of dialect and lifestyle. It took a lot of research and because it was so long ago, it was hard to come across as much as I did for the other novels. I’m going to reblog this post on my website ( and my press website ( 🙂

Hmm…it’s only letting me reblog once. I will figure this out. LOL.

Reblogged this on Angela Christina Archer and commented: As a historical romance author, myself, I know how hard each and every one of these elements can be at times. I’ve transported myself to 1861, 1897, 1692 (which was, by far the hardest), and now I’m working in 1930. Reposting this post from a very informative blog! Check out A Writer of History and follow!!

Many thanks for your endorsement, Angela Christina!

This is an excellent analysis of the challenges faced by authors of historical fiction. And for readers, it’s an explanation of why they find some books lacking!

Thanks Lil! I appreciate your encouragement.

I think the hardest part is getting the historical setting right (or as right as possible) while still just telling your story.

Sometimes, writers end up lecturing rather than presenting the historical setting, but what bothers me the most, is that sometimes readers would like to be lectured. Have you ever come across this attitude? It goes together with the common comment, “I get it, but maybe you should explain it better.” I get this all the time, and I always think, if you get it, that means I have explained it well enough, no? Sometimes I feel as if historical readers would like the same, they’re not content with seeing it ‘on screen’, they would like ‘to be explained.’

Is this just my impression?

Different readers have different views, of course. In one of my novels, a few male readers wanted more of the war bits while some of the female readers wanted less. Can’t please everyone! And if you look at top historical fiction writers you will find a spectrum of historical detail. Conn Iggulden, for example, is very sparing, while Sharon Kay Penman includes a huge amount of historical fact. Both are very popular!

I am writing a historical memoir. I have several Beta readers givining me feedback on rewrites. Many have done exactly what you are referring to. They want to know more about specific things that are ancillary to the story. For example my antagonist goes to Liverpool, England on a ship in the late 1800s. I am getting questions asking me to explain their dry-dock system or asking for mor infor about certain kinds of ships. I am a voracious reseacher so I am fine with this. But will some of my readers be turned off??

Thanks for your observations. I love the Cornwell quote. We really must make the teachy bits intrinsic to the story.

I have a character who is passing through some fascinating places, but observations of the architecture and historical events are the last things on her mind – so I must force myself to ignore anything irrelevant to her immediate concerns or actions.

Our characters can’t be tour guides – much as we might be tempted to use them that way.

An excellent point, Lausanne.

As an editor of historical fiction I do wish every writer of the genre would read your blog. Thank you Mary. Great insight into the workings of historical fiction.

Linda – you made my day!! Many thanks for giving such a glowing endorsement for my blog.

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Reblogged this on NEVA BROWN & BOOKS .

Thanks Neva Brown … I hope it appeals to your readers.

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I would like to thanks Neva Brown you have uploaded this information to help everyone and from those every one I was also one of them.

i write action novels

Are they historical, Jacob?

I do believe your quote on world-building is not from Harry Sidebottom but actually the first sentence in The Go-Between (1953) ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ by L. P. Hartley.

Thanks for this, Charlotte. And thanks for stopping by … I will check out L.P. Hartley 🙂

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This is some really good information about writing historical fiction. I have been thinking about trying to write historical fiction. I liked your advice about doing some research about the time period you want to write about. It does seem like a good idea for me to read a lot of historical novels.

Thanks for stopping by, Ivy. And best wishes on your writing journey.

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Reblogged this on suzannebowditch .

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Reblogged this on Historical Fiction Addicts and commented: It looks like there is plenty today for writer’s to consider. I hope you enjoy this one and find it particularly helpful.

Many thanks, Kelly-Lynne.

My pleasure

what is the most important one

Hi Colleen … good question. I don’t think there is a “most important” one. I would say that some get more emphasis from various authors as well as in the context of a specific era. For example, you might write a novel set during the second world war, and in this case, dialogue might not need to be too different from the way people speak today. Some of the elements are more obvious than others – setting for example. Theme is more subtle in my opinion – some themes transcend time period – the significance of family for example – other themes might reflect a specific time period. What do you think?

Thanks for writing this 🙂

You are very welcome!! I hope it helps your own endeavours be they writing or studying or whatever!

Thanks for sharing!

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Talk about a post with staying power! Very thought-provoking. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a fictional work based on my life. The first book is steeped in the 1950s and I sprinkle in lots of famous names and products from that area along with attention to geographical sites and addresses. I’m wondering — when assigning a genre to such a work would it be a fictional memoir, fictional autobiography, or historical fiction? Although I’ve striven for historical accuracy, the main character — and his relationship with his father — is by far the central focus of the story. Any help greatly appreciated.

Hi Walter … thanks for stopping by. As to your question, I’m no expert but I think you need to gauge where you are on the scale of truth and fiction before making that determination. Some authors have gotten into trouble with memoirs that aren’t true. If you’re making a fair amount of stuff up and it’s only loosely based on your life, then I would go for historical fiction. Some might even quibble with that since you were alive during the time about which you’re writing. Sorry not to be more definitive. Please stop by again.

Thanks for the feedback. I’ve settled on historical fiction because I believe that best defines the work.

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Historical fiction gives a retrospect of the root of the problems, making readers understand social issues on a low-key level.

So true, Jerry!

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Monday, July 11, 2016


historical fiction essay

Wow, these all seem like extremely thoughtful essays and topics! I read through Treasuring History Through Fiction, which was extremely well written and a fascinating analysis, and have a made a note to read the others later. Thanks for sharing!

historical fiction essay

It's interesting to see how historical fiction and readers' perceptions of it have changed over time - that article gave a good overview. Glad you liked the post!

Excellent overview of valuable essays for readers and writers of historical fiction. Thank you.

Thanks very much for your comments!

historical fiction essay

[ " . . . the British author of the debut novel Golden Hill, explores his transition from nonfiction history to historical fiction and the shift in thought processes that this involved. As he discovered, it's a daring, unsettling task to move from using facts as a constant reference point to relying on one's own imagination and assumptions in order to tell stories. " ] Which is exactly the opposite of my own experience! I just read a "What Is Historical Fiction" definition essay as preface to Jack Whyte's 2014 novel of the Bruce and Wallace, The Guardian. I liked what he pointed out about language being different in the 14th century within even such relatively small regions as England and Scotland. My favorite essay on writing historical fiction and how it should be approached remains Alexander Dumas's.

I heard Jack Whyte speak once (as the guest of honor for the first Historical Novel Society conference in 2005) - he talked about the importance of storytelling in historical fiction. I'll have to check out his definition essay, too.


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Historical Fiction

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From England and France to the deepest Arctic and northern China, these stories will transport you.

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This illustration shows a man peering into an old-fashioned camera at silhouettes of five people standing outside on a snowy night. The drawing is done in shades of blue and red.

By Alida Becker

Alida Becker was an editor at the Book Review for 30 years. She was the first winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing.

Anne Michaels has served as Toronto’s poet laureate, so it’s no surprise that her latest novel, HELD (Knopf, 240 pp., $27), turns a multigenerational family saga into a lyrical jigsaw of images and observations, a trigger to “the long fuse of memory, always alight.” It begins in the trenches of World War I with a soldier’s impressions of what’s essentially a “450-mile grave” and ends in the near future as one of his descendants walks the streets of a city on the Gulf of Finland.

In between, Michaels’s narrative glides gracefully back and forth in time, from North Yorkshire in the 1920s to rural Suffolk in the 1980s, then all the way to 1908 Paris. John, the soldier we first meet in 1917, returns from the war to his wife, Helena, and his photography studio. Haunted by what he has seen (or not seen), he leaves a legacy that will send his daughter and granddaughter to other front lines, this time working in field hospitals and refugee camps, “the most dangerous places.”

Each brief chapter is filled with deftly sketched characters: a war correspondent tasked with writing “what no one could bear to read”; a widow encountering an unexpectedly kindred spirit as she trudges across a snowy landscape; even Marie Curie, whose courage is recalled by one of her closest friends. Throughout, these stories spark both poignant connections and provocative divergences. Those whose lives follow John’s must find their own way to survive in this “new world, with new degrees of grief, many more degrees in the scale of blessedness and torment.”

Survival — and how far a person will go to achieve it — is at the heart of Ally Wilkes’s WHERE THE DEAD WAIT (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 388 pp., $27.99), which her publisher aptly describes as “an eerie, atmospheric Polar Gothic.” William Day was a lowly young fourth lieutenant when the deaths of his superior officers gave him command of a ship stranded in the Arctic ice. He made it back to civilization, but emerged with the cannibalistic moniker “Eat-Em-Fresh Day.” Thirteen years later, his former second-in-command, a dashing American named Jesse Stevens, has gone missing in the very same region. Now, in the winter of 1882, the Admiralty orders Day to go find him.

Complications abound, both logistical and psychological. Day’s relationship with Stevens was intense, to say the very least. And as the new expedition becomes trapped in the Far North, Day is haunted by the earlier group’s travails, presented in alternating chapters. Eating human flesh may not have been the only horrific act committed back then, and new crimes could be uncovered in Stevens’s wake. Even the lost adventurer’s domineering wife, a spirit medium who travels with a “pet skull,” begins to doubt the wisdom of joining this ill-fated mission.

The ice has “swung shut behind them like a cemetery gate,” leading Day’s crew toward a possible mutiny. Haunting visions and ominous clues leave no one’s sanity untested. What is the significance of a hideous mask made from the hide of a killer whale? Of unearthing the figurehead of a ship that was supposed to have sunk hundreds of miles away? True to the novel’s title, there are plenty of dead men waiting to be found. And it’s not just the light that “plays tricks out here.”

One of the shape-shifting tricksters from Chinese folklore is the unlikely yet convincing narrator of Yangsze Choo’s witty and suspenseful THE FOX WIFE (Holt, 400 pp., $27.99). Calling herself Snow, she makes her way through northern Manchuria and Japan in 1908 in female guises, intent on hunting down the man responsible for the death of her cub. In the process, she illuminates the realities of a hidebound society on the brink of change: “If there ever was a time for ghosts and foxes to appear, it’s now,” when the last imperial dynasty is failing and uncertainty is everywhere.

For most of the novel, Snow’s pursuit of a Manchurian named Bektu Nikan runs parallel to another quest featuring Bao, a former teacher who has earned a reputation as an amateur detective. His attempt to investigate the death of a courtesan will eventually lead him to Snow — and the solution of a mystery from his youth, when he and his childhood sweetheart left offerings for the fox god at an improvised altar.

Following various clues, Snow and Bao take the reader into the households of aristocrats and peasants, urban centers and rural villages. Their inquiries will soon enmesh them in the dramas of a merchant family convinced that a curse has doomed their son. Young men dabbling in revolutionary politics and a photographer with a bent for blackmail add complexity to the plot, as do a pair of foxes who masquerade as attractive gentlemen. Shiro is the less savory of the two, fond of romancing rich, bored women. Kuro, a novelist, is more honorable, albeit more enigmatic. But this is Snow’s story, and although she relishes being able to live either as a fox or as a woman, she is aware that “neither are safe forms in a world run by men.”

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  • Essay Database >
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Example Of Historical Fiction Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Literature , Time , The Reader , Fiction , Events , Education , History , Women

Words: 1600

Published: 03/16/2020


Lessons from historical fictions

The lessons that we derive from historical fiction vary, depending on what the author writes about the context that they set in the story. There are different aspects of stories that can be learnt from historical fiction about the Middle East. One, a person can learn about the historical events that took place in the Middle East. Authors will always write about significant events that took place in the past in history and those that greatly impacted on the lives of the people at that time. For instance, a historical fiction can talk about people revolting against the administration at the time on a particular day, but suppose that the next day a man dies out of illness the incidence may not be remembered. In Ulfat’s Bittersweet, she talks about a girl who grows up in the 1920s and develops national and female consciousness. She is suppressed to an extent that she ends up hanging herself in response to the situations she constantly found herself in. At the time, the Arab society in which the author grew up did not recognize women to be equals to men and so they were suppressed constantly. In fact, when the author got married, she declined to take the spouse’s name and preferred to be called Mrs. Ulibi. Hamza Bogary also talks about the Arabian culture with regards to the women, education and religion. By reading these two novels, one gets to know more about the Arabian culture during those times that the books were written. Another lesson from the novels is the nature of those real places that the authors set their stories. The fictional stories take place in the past but in real places where the stories have been set. Both novels have been set in the past in the Middle East countries and they talk more about the nature of these places in the process of narration. Bogary gives his narrations about Mecca and speaks of his observations before the advent of oil. This allows the reader to be informed about what motivated the transformation and how it occurred during then. Ulfat on the other hand narrates how the women had to put up with oppression through her own life experience. Sabriya throws a party when his father dies and the story takes place during the French revolt in the 1920s. It was a painful moment buts she chose to celebrate for having to abandon her dreams to fulfill her parents’ wishes. One can also learn about the cultural artefacts at the time. Cultural artefacts include objects, music or artistic references, hairstyle or clothing. In the celebrations that eventually led to the death of the character Sabriya, the author talks about them celebrating with flutes and lute players. There is also the mention of Seklava and other sweetmeats. A celebration is a big event, and so when the author mentions such stuff, they can be seen as treasures in the Middle East during that time or even in the present. The kind of language that was used in the Middle East can also be learnt from these stories. In the past, people spoke differently and the authors were also exposed to different backgrounds as they were growing up. The difference in linguistic exposure will reveal the difference in accents, vocabulary and slang that was in the Middle East. As the reader, I can only understand the story because they are being told in a language that I can relate with. At the end of the story, I can get the message because I am familiar with the language. It is simple and told in modern language.

Disadvantages of learning history from fictional novels

Historical fiction encourages for a search for value in the past events. This is because for one to decide to tell a story, they do not just choose random events to talk about. They are very selective and they always start with the end in mind. The story will have a coherent plot with some resolution in the end. As the reader, one does not just read for the sake of enjoying the story but rather for the sake of getting the importance of the story. In reading the story the reader should be able to notice the patterns and the order, establish the causes and consequences for the agents and their motivations for various actions that they take. The problem is that this search for meaning or value in the story may not have shape or coherence. The author may have just drawn different collections of stories and themes, then patched them up to make a coherent flow of events. That is, the author may have just imposed order on people, places and things that existed in the past. In other instances, the readers may see different patterns or meanings in the stories. Another drawback lies in the fact that fictional history focuses more on the characters and how they make the reader react to different situations and circumstances. Historical fiction derives its emphasis on the individual characters instead of focusing on entities such as the society or governments or the economy. It makes the reader to see historical events in terms of the individuals at the time and ignore the broader social contexts. For instance, take civil rights movement activists such as Martin Luther King Junior. The speeches that he gave changed the minds of the Americans significantly, but the reader instead of looking at these speeches in terms of the collective efforts to bring about the changes in laws and the institutional orders. The individualistic approach of the historical fiction serve to cement instead of countering this tendency. For instance, in the case of Sabriya, the author has drawn a lot of attention on the character to an extent that when she dies, there is too much emotions in the reader. The reader may forget to focus on the broader picture of the character’s death, the oppression that the women at that time had to deal with. Also, with fiction stories, it is more about the artistic nature of the storyline instead of focusing on the facts at hand. It creates a situation whereby readers end up enjoying the story because of the artistic works at the expense of understanding the real facts or motivation for writing the storyline. Another disadvantage is the fact that fiction histories are not detailed enough for one to be able to make some deductions from them. Historical fiction in most of the cases focus on how they make people feel instead of getting to discuss how people are supposed to view the historical actions. Details such as the sequence of events, for instance the years of occurrences, are not given much coverage in fiction novels. The emphasis is on what happened and where, instead of the lessons that a person can derive from these historical experiences. As such, these books are not informative and so not very educative.


Historical fiction in this case refers to the ability to discern timeless symbolic images behind the historical realities. It is not a case of repackaging the past then framing it to fit the present circumstances. Hamza’s story takes the reader into the first half of the twentieth century with his narrations in a graphic and fascinating way life at that time but still the reader can relate with the lessons in very many different ways. In light of this, symbols and metaphors can be of great significance in the present situation but with passage of time their relevance is bound to diminish. The continuous occurrence of events such as the impact of the succeeding waves of modernization define the meaning that will be attached to the historical lessons that the author intends to pass across.

Gender is an important aspect of every community. In these two novels, the impression in both cases is that women were primarily meant to serve their men all the time. Sabriya was found dead after she killed herself because of the fear that she had that she would have to live with after celebrating her father’s death. In her society, she could not talk about her role because women were meant so serve their men. They bowed to commands even if it was against their wishes. That is why she got married to fulfill her parents’ wish.

Education was also part of the historical development although in most of the past events, there was not much of a distinction of with regards to education. Maybe because the education system had not evolved much. In both of these novels, the authors do not specify the levels of education. Instead, the focus is on the consequences of education, such as the professionalism experience of the characters at the time of the narration.

Political Issues

All historical novels normally focus on the political issues at the time of narration as they set the stage for issues that the author would like to discuss. Hamza discusses the social issues in the first half of the twentieth century and in this narration, Muhaisin has to deal with the political consequences of events at that time in history.

Works Cited

Sabriya: Damascus Bittersweet by Ulfat Idilbi (Interlink 2003) The Sheltered Quarter: A Tale of a Boyhood in Mecca by Hamza Bogary (Austin: University Press of Texas, 1991)


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    Apr 4, 2020. History books are great for sharing a macro-level view of the past, but historical fiction reveals truths about the way people lived in history. We have lost the anchor of our history. Our past has become almost unrecognizable in the public forum as it constantly gets reshaped to fit new political paradigms.

  22. Historical Fiction Essay Example

    Historical Fiction Essay Example View Writing Issues File Settings Filter Results When someone says "Historical Fiction" my mind thinks of books written about Rome, Egypt, India, and other ancient civilizations. Maybe that's what Historical Fiction is to most people.

  23. Historical Fiction

    2249 Cite View Full Essay Fictional Family in the Textile Business in London 1850-1914 This paper is a fictional account of a family in the textile business in London. The time period is 1850 to 1914 and makes reference to inventions, trends and other textile pertinent data.

  24. Free Essay On Historical Fiction

    Example Of Historical Fiction Essay Type of paper: Essay Topic: Literature, Time, The Reader, Fiction, Events, Education, History, Women Pages: 6 Words: 1600 Published: 03/16/2020 ORDER PAPER LIKE THIS Lessons from historical fictions