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Writing Historical Fiction: Joy and Difficulty

by | Essays and Reflections, Keeping It Current, That's History | 2 comments

The trials and tribulations, joys and difficulties of writing historical fiction. 

I was flipping through Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven and reminiscing about my own time writing historical fiction…

Fire From Heaven is a novel about Alexander the Great, specifically his early life. And for a time, I also struggled away on a historical fiction novel about Alexander the Great, who’s my favorite historical figure. Why was I writing a novel about Alexander the Great when so many have already been written? (And good ones, like Fire From Heaven.) Not because I thought I could do it better, per se, but because I thought I could do it differently. This novel marked my first attempt at writing historical fiction. And while I didn’t pull a complete draft out of it, I learned a lot in the process. 

One thing that struck me very quickly was that the joys and the difficulties of writing historical fiction were often one and the same. Yes, I’m going to expound on this point — it’s what this article is about. But let me just say that there’s nothing so paradoxical as writing historical fiction. Just take that in for a moment. It’s called historical… fiction.

1. How can you write historical… fiction?

I mean, this question is at the base of all the paradoxes surrounding historical fiction. How can something be both historical and fictional at the same time? 

Let’s keep in mind that much of what we consider history is actually historical fiction — a historical narrative stitched together by the logic and, oftentimes, the imagination of the historian. Each history uses a varying degree of historical “fact,” reasoning, and imagination. In the case of early histories which suffer from the loss of contemporary source material, such as that of Alexander the Great, the imagination component reigns perhaps not quite supreme, but close to it. This is why different historians have vastly different interpretations of Alexander, his life, and his deeds. A historian like Peter Green can write a pretty damning biography denouncing him as a tyrant, whereas a historian like Robin Lane Fox can write a biography uplifting him as history’s first romantic. 

In histories closer to our modern time, historians lean more heavily on the facts. For example, there’s a ton of recorded history from the World War II era, so the histories lean more on historical “fact” as it was written by the people of that time than they lean on imagination. 

There are different types of historical fiction. There’s historical fiction that revolves around known “characters” — real people who lived once-upon-a-time. Then there’s historical fiction that simply uses a historical time and place as a backdrop. It may include cameos from real historical people, or it may not. I’d say that the first type of historical fiction, using real people, suffers from a few more headaches than the second: there’s suddenly a necessity to remain as true to that real character as possible. If I were writing a story about a fictional tyrant I made up, I ought to have no qualms calling my character a tyrant. But if I’m writing about Alexander the Great, and don’t believe he was a tyrant, then I feel I have some sort of obligation not to portray him as a tyrant. 

Historical fiction is history plus more imagination than that history originally contained. The writer of historical fiction uses imagination to flesh out characters, locations, day-to-day life. The writer fills in the blanks that aren’t filled by the historical record. The writer uses imagination to connect-the-dots in places where the dots aren’t connected by known historical “facts.”

I’ve put “facts” in quotation marks because I want us to remember that someone created those facts, originally. They’re a subjective representation of what objectively happened. There’s no true fact about what happened in history, because we all have a subjective understanding and view of the world. If two of us watched the same event transpire, we’d each describe it in a different way. Now that’s something to think on… 

2. A blessing and a curse: You’ll never know everything.

So, we established that history is subjective. But it also has gaps. We don’t know everything there is to be known about Renaissance Italy. And if you’re writing historical fiction about Renaissance Italy, you’ll never know everything. This can feel frustrating, but it’s a blessing in disguise. Imagine how much harder it would be to write authentic, realistic historical fiction if we did know everything! You’d have to research every last, excruciating detail. Readers would expect the facts. There’d be no need to call historical fiction “fiction” anymore. 

So be thankful than you don’t know everything. If you did, you wouldn’t be writing historical fiction. 

3. Research, research, research.

This is an oft-stressed point about writing historical fiction: the amount of research involved. On the one hand, this seems obvious and not too bad. If you’re writing historical fiction, odds are that you don’t mind the research, and that you’ve in fact already learned a lot about your topic of interest. By the time I started writing my Alexander the Great novel, I’d taken two courses pertaining to Alexander the Great, was enrolled in a third, and had read countless “primary” sources about his life, plus other historical fiction novels featuring him as a central character. That’s a heck of a lot of work, and you bet it wasn’t a slog. I did it because I enjoyed it, first and foremost. 

But there’s another side to research. There’s the side where you’re writing about a building and suddenly it strikes you that you don’t know if they had glass way back when and what kind of glass, and how would the windows have looked, anyway? Pretty soon that becomes a question about what the building itself would’ve looked like, what rooms it would’ve had… You can pretty quickly become sucked into a neverending chain of research that’s not particularly interesting. Sometimes the research turns out necessary, other times it doesn’t. Two hours’ worth of research might result in one atmospheric detail. This can be really, really annoying. It’s tedious and no matter how much research you do in advance, you’ll never do it all. Little things will always come up.


4. The urge to edit mid-draft

Okay, we all have this urge. For me, it becomes large and horrible when I’m writing historical fiction, which is why it can take me a week to get 1,000 words down. Not because I wrote only 1,000 words that week, but because I wrote 1,000 words the first day, rewrote them the second, the third, the fourth, fifth, the sixth, and the seventh. This, in my opinion, is especially bad when you’re writing historical fiction based on real people and events. The “plan” already exists. So there’s the urge to execute it perfectly the first go-around so that you don’t have to waste drafts on something that is, essentially, already drafted.

I still haven’t figured out how best to go about this. Maybe the rewriting approach is right for historical fiction. But it stymies the type of fast progress I tend to look for in my drafts, so it’s hard for me to keep my patience. If I ever return to my historical fiction project, I’ll probably try to do what I normally do — write a crappy draft and then fix it over several more drafts.

The ultimate satisfaction of writing historical fiction

For all its frustrations, I find writing historical fiction immensely satisfying. Why? It’s like writing a personal truth. One tends to pick a subject they’re interested in and give their own take on that subject. 

It’s also an ultimate exercise in imagination. You have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks around what already exists and use your imagination to visualize people who already exist or people who could have existed at a certain point in time. It stretches the imagination like almost nothing else.

And it feels valuable, as valuable as studying history, because in the process of writing historical fiction you study history as well and provide your own point-of-view. At the end of the day, writing historical fiction is a process that feels like it’s as much about you, the writer, as it is about the history you’re writing about. You find yourself reflected in your characters and events. Writing historical fiction, as strange as it might sound, is an immensely personal process. 

If you’ve never written historical fiction before, I suggest you give it a go. Maybe turn out a short story! At the very least, it’ll be a learning experience, and you’ll appreciate great historical novelists all the more. 

I hope you enjoyed my reflection on this topic. If you did, I’d love if you passed it along using the share buttons below. You can also support me on Ko-fi, follow Voyage of the Mind using the buttons in the sidebar at the top of the page, or subscribe to the mailing list below. 

And you can read an excerpt of the partial draft of the historical fiction novel I wrote. I published it here as a short story, “For Love of Homer.”


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