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ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION

By H. P. Oliver

It seems historical fiction is becoming an increasingly popular book genre', and that's good for me because historical fiction is what I write.  In fact I've been writing historical fiction for about ten of the 30 years I've earned my daily bread in the writing craft.

During my decade of "living in the past," I've come to some conclusions about what it takes to write interesting yarns set in the past; yarns that immerse readers in both the time period and my story.  What follows here are a few of those conclusions that might help others to become successful writers of historical fiction.  These points may also be useful to readers who enjoy a good tale set in the past.

We Are Story Tellers

Yes, I'm a story teller and proud of it.  Throughout my career I've always been associated in one way or another with the entertainment industry and that association became even closer when I began writing novels.  My job, plain and simple, is entertaining readers.  I do that by telling stories that are, hopefully, interesting, thought provoking, and fun to read.

Doing Our Homework

Writing fiction of any kind is about readers—the potential audiences for our stories—and that is truer of historical fiction than most other genres because readers of historical fiction are generally very knowledgeable about the historical period(s) in which they are interested.  I'll tell you here and now nothing will have them turning off their e-readers faster than historical inaccuracies in our stories!

That means we historical fiction writers must do our homework by learning everything we can about the periods in which our stories are set—the clothes folks wore, what they ate, how they got around, how they spoke, and everything else that was part of their world.  Read about the period, visit any remaining physical vestiges of the time and, for more modern eras, watch old motion pictures produced during the period.  In those films, study the dialogue and costumes, and watch the backgrounds for other details.  Since my stories are set in California during the period between the World Wars, old movies provide me with a wealth of information, usually having nothing to do with the stories told in the movies.

Write in Living Color

Most folks think of the first half of the Twentieth Century in black and white because the views we've seen of those times are in old photographs or films.  In order to transport readers back to those days and put them in the scene, we have to make our historical worlds as colorful as the world we see around us every day.

In my case—yarns set in the 1920s, '30s and '40s—I try to put myself in the period so I can accurately and colorfully describe the buildings, furnishings, clothing, automobiles, and just about everything else the people in my stories encounter.  I know I've done my job well when a reader says, "I felt like I was right there in the middle of it all."  That's a big "well done" as far as I'm concerned.

One caution, though: We must not become so immersed in color that we neglect our plot and characters.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, the story is the thing.  Background color is merely a stage setting that helps us bring our stories to life.

Conclusion

We've barely scratched the surface in this essay on writing historical fiction, but I'm going to step on the brakes and leave something for future essays.  Besides, by this time you've probably figured out that most of what I've said here is common sense . . . IF you stop and consider what goes into a good piece of historical fiction.  Until next time, happy time travels!