Writing Historical Fiction

As most of you know, my fiction work is primarily historical. At times, this makes for difficulties and potential embarrassments. Although it’s fiction, in order to give the author credibility, it can’t alter historical facts.

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you can pretty much make up the rules as you go. If, in your fantasy land, gravity pulls up instead of down, so be it. In your sci fi, if a spaceship flies faster than the speed of light, so be it. Well, those may be slightly extreme examples, but you get the point. You have a lot of latitude to make up your own world.

If you’re writing contemporary fiction, you pretty much know what’s going on in the world. For those things you don’t know, there’s a plethora of information available to keep you within the bounds of reality.

With historical fiction, one must be a bit more careful. Would a woman in the Old West carry a pistol? Where would she carry it? Did all women in that day wear long dresses with multitudes of petticoats, or did some wear jeans? These are a few of the things the historical fiction author must consider.

Most of us have a certain degree of general knowledge of various eras of history. At times, however, our general knowledge—or our belief we have such knowledge—can be a trap. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Before I wrote my novella series, Fancy, I wrote basically the same story several times as a novel. In all of these novels, I had Fancy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered Birmingham was not there in the pre-Civil War days when she grew up. It was founded in 1871, and I had her born there in 1847. How embarrassing it would have been if I’d published it that way. I had to move her to Florence, Alabama, for historical accuracy.

At present, I’m working on the second volume of a three-novella series. In this story, I have my protagonist moving from Gum Pond (now Tupelo), Mississippi, to South Pass, Wyoming, in 1864. I had her join up with a California-bound wagon train just outside of St. Louis. Then I happened to stumble across the information that the wagon trains to the west coast were pretty much a thing of the past by that time. Another potential embarrassment.

Certainly, I’m writing a work of fiction. I can make up strange or ruthless characters. I can have Indian attacks. But I can’t move a 10,000 foot mountain to the middle of Nebraska or have ocean waves beating against the road in Kansas. Nor can I have an airplane land in front of the wagon. As a historical fiction writer, I can take a lot of license, but it must be within the realm of possibility. I must be careful with what I say took place.

What sort of near-misses or pitfalls have you experienced in your writing that would have embarrassed you if you hadn’t caught them?

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WANA: We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.

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For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tab above.

For more information about his books, click on “Books” above.

Contact him at dnwalkertx (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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10 Responses to Writing Historical Fiction

  1. David: My current WIP take place in the early 1980s. While that is not so far away to be called historical in any sense of the word, it seems historical when I can’t give my characters a cell phone or other modern technology.

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  2. Barb Estinson says:

    I understand why your writing demands so much research, Kudos to you for putting in all the time and effort, Bro!

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  3. I agree with your that historical fiction tends to be one of the heaviest in terms of research. Most of the people who read historical, are well versed in their favorite time periods. When I was writing WW1/2 stuff, it felt like I spent more time researching that writing, but without it it wouldn’t come across as convincing. And I liked reading about those times as well, which made it slightly addictive 🙂
    Cheers!

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  4. Sharon Walker says:

    Yes, it’s most important to get the facts straight by doing your homework, even when writing historical fiction.

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  5. Karlene says:

    David, this is why historical fiction authors do a ton of research. Thus, all those things can be changed if you choose to write historical fiction. One of my favorite books was the Lincoln letter. And, with that said… I am taking for granted the facts are accurate. I know they are, because I know the author. But… when I read historical fiction…that is one of my expectations… accuracy. Most will search and rat you out. But then again, even in fiction… people search out accuracy, too. I find a fiction novel with a 767 and an engineer seat… wrong. They didn’t have them then….then I stop reading. So… details are essential.

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    • I didn’t mean to denigrate the need for accuracy in other genres, such as yours. My main point is that you’re much more likely to know the relevant facts of your genre, and if not, they are generally more readily available than obscure facts from back in history. Thanks for you comment, as always.

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      • Karlene says:

        Oh… I did not take it that way at all. For me, I assume that all facts are accurate… historical fiction, or any kind… if in fact, they state a fact. If I am conversant in a subject and see the fallacy… it turns me off. For historical fiction, I might not know the facts…but assume all those who do would feel the same way.

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