by Rhiannon Reintjens, Junior Editor for Non-fiction jaBlog!
Artwork by Mia Martins
History was my favourite subject at school, so it’s no surprise that I love to write historical fiction. However, historical fiction is the genre that I have found the hardest to write. What makes it hard is the research.
Is your story set in France during World War II? Medieval England? Or maybe Ancient Rome? Whatever time period you choose, you’re going to need to do some research. Here comes the tricky part. What and how do you research?
I like to break up historical fiction into two separate categories: fiction based on real events and/or real people; and fiction that is not based on anything and is completely made up
The second category, completely made-up history, is a little easier to research. As your place and characters are fictional, you won’t need to do any research on them. Your research will mainly consist of everyday life in that time period, including food, clothing, and social statuses. Once you’re confident enough that you know these details, you can begin your story.
The first category, historical fiction based on real people and events, is where the research load really gets piled on. Not only do you have to research everyday life, but you also need to do extensive research on a historical figure or event. For example, I recently wrote a story centred on the assassination of Julius Caesar. Although my protagonist was fictional, my story still fell into the first category. I wanted to focus on Caesar, both the kind of person he was and his feelings at his death. This meant that I had to do research on Caesar himself, the events leading up to and during his death, and information on why he was killed. I have a folder about two centimetres thick containing all my research. A good way to look at it is that, the more “real” history you have in your story, the more research you will need to do.
Once you know what to research, you’ll need to know how to research. Readers of historical fiction tend to be picky about the accuracy of your story, especially if it falls in the first category. This means that your research needs to come from reliable sources. For my story, I borrowed several books from the library and searched the internet for information. You have to be careful when doing this. Try to only use well-know authors and websites.
You could even go one step further. For my story, I spoke to a historian and asked him what resources were the best. He was extremely helpful. I knew I could trust him because he was the historian for a popular BBC television show, and he’d only made eight mistakes in the six years that the show ran.
Just remember not to get too bogged down in information. Only read what’s important for your story. If you’re writing about the French Resistance, you probably don’t need to know about the Russian Front. You can always go back to your research if you’ve missed something.
Although you want your story to be authentic, be careful not to bombard your readers with information. If they’d wanted a history lesson, they would have picked up a non-fiction book. In the first draft of my story, I was so focused on being accurate that I lost sight of the plot. It fell flat. Remember that your story is fiction first, accuracy second.
Even though historical fiction can be hard to write, it’s not impossible. These tips really helped me, and I hope they will help you.
Rhiannon Reintjens is a 20 year old writer from Australia. She has loads of ideas but isn’t very good at putting them on paper (or computer screen). She hopes that one day she will actually finish writing a novel.