Here's an interesting question – for historical fiction writing, do you have to be a historian to write good historical fiction? If you love historical fiction, is it because you’re curious to learn how people existed in a past that didn’t have social media or the internet at their fingertips? Or are you fascinated by the Victorians and their penchant for taking photographs with dead family members? Not to mention poisoning people with a good dose of arsenic. Maybe the tombs of ancient Egypt fascinate you.
The Historian's Perspective
It's not uncommon to assume that a historian's expertise would lend itself perfectly to historical fiction. After all, historians spend their careers researching, understanding the past, and writing about it. Their depth of knowledge can add authenticity and richness to historical fiction writing.
There are two levels of historical research:
Primary sources: these are oral histories, eyewitness or first-hand accounts, letters and newspapers, diaries and journals, public records, audio recordings, items of clothing, photographs, paintings and maps. Primary sources are published or unpublished material created by people contemporaneous with the event or topic.
Secondary sources: are published or unpublished materials created after an event took place. The person writing did not participate in the event or witness what took place. Secondary sources include academic articles, journal and magazine articles, biographies, textbooks, and commentaries.
A historian has to be a good detective and ask many questions. For example: are the sources objective? What was the original purpose of the source? How did people in past cultures view their world? What were the causes of past events and were they intentional? Are there other points of view? Patterns in the sources?
When historians bring the rigorous methodology of research to historical fiction writing, what happens?
The Author's Craft
Historical fiction isn't merely a regurgitation of facts. It's a blend of factual accuracy and imaginative storytelling. Great historical fiction writing crafts characters and plots that resonate with readers, seamlessly weaving history into the narrative.
It’s About Finding the Balance
Here's where the real magic happens. You don't need to be a historian, but a love for history and a commitment to research is vital. This blend of creativity and accuracy helps you breathe life into the past without getting bogged down by minutiae.
Research Is Key:
• Understanding the Era: Dive into books, articles, and documentaries to get a feel for the period you're writing about.
• Consulting Experts: If possible, talk to historians or academics who specialize in the period.
• Character and Plot: Create compelling characters and plots that could happen within the historical context.
• Historical Accuracy: Ensure that the historical elements enhance the story rather than overshadow it.
Historians Who Write Fiction
Here are some historians who show they get the balance right when it comes to historical fiction writing. They give the reader enough historical detail but don't get bogged down.
Alison Weir – writes about the history of English royal women and families.
Dan Jones – he portrays Medieval England in a fresh, engaging way
Iain Pears – art historian who writes detective novels
Tracy Borman - her Stuart-era novels show us the intrigue in James I’s court
Kate Williams – has written four historical novels spanning the 1840s to the Great Depression and a novel about Mary Queen of Scots.
Elizabeth Peters (whose real name is Barbara Louise Mertz) has Ph.D. in Egyptology and is known for Amelia Peabody series.
Samantha Greene Woodruff – writes about psychiatry after WWI.
Simon Sebag Montefiore – best known for his Moscow trilogy.
Harry Sidebottom - best known for his two series of historical novels, the Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars.
Ian Mortimer – sometimes writes as James Forrester and, under that name, has a trilogy set in the 1560s.
Any one of these writers will show you how to master the craft of historical fiction writing. But the one writer who nails historical fiction isn’t a trained historian – Dame Hilary Mantel.
Being a historian is not a prerequisite. It's about striking a balance between authenticity and imagination. Your goal with historical fiction writing is to take readers on a journey back in time, guided by characters they care about, in a world that feels real. Your love for history, paired with a commitment to your craft, is what will make your historical fiction shine.