The Fine Line of Writing Historical

By Brian Kaufman

Though I write in multiple genres, I tend to circle back to one genre in particular. Three of my published novels are historical fiction. My first novel, The Breach, told the Alamo’s story from the Mexican point of view. That book took me three years to research, two years to write, and another half-decade to convince a publisher to take a chance. I was fifty-years-old when the book came out. It seemed to me that if I wanted to build up any kind of a backlist, I’d better write something besides historical fiction.

Shameless Plug.

Yet, here I am again. Next month, Five Star/Cengage will release Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, a Civil War novel. Having written in the genre, I do have advice that may be of some value to the historical fiction writer:

  • Research is Not Writing. One of the joys of historical fiction involves wading through documents in search of historical nuggets. When I researched The Breach, I spend several days in the Alamo library. Though the experience pure intellectual bliss, no chapters were written those days. John Fowles, the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, explains that he writes the story first and fills in historical details during the rewrite. I can’t pull off that magic trick, but I get the idea. At some point, you have to start writing.
  • Do Your Homework. Historical fiction readers can be intolerant of mistakes. You can lose your reader’s trust with the tiniest misstep. Your fiction can be measured against a relatively objective standard—a historical record. Roll up your sleeves.
  • You Won’t be Perfect. On the other hand, you should expect to get some details wrong. In fact, you may choose to get some things wrong to fit your story’s timeline. If you feel like explaining, write an afterward with a mea culpa and move on.
  • Expect Disagreement. While researching Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, I discovered that there was bitter disagreement over the cause of the Civil War. Slavery? Culture Clash? Economics? Tyranny? If you write about important themes, someone is going to disagree with you. Don’t be sad. Hopefully, you’ve provided food for thought.
  • Historical Fiction is Prone to Info-dumps. Perhaps you are proud of your research and believe the reader will be equally enthused about your historical tidbits. Maybe you’re cementing your authority behind a wall of fact. Either way, you risk boring your reader if you dump information. Use historical details that fit your story. Don’t mold your story to accommodate facts.
  • Use Multiple Sources. Primary sources (original documents, like journals and legal papers) are terrific for providing the small details that lend realism to your story. Secondary sources (textbooks, magazine articles, etc.) can give you a context for your plot and your themes.

My parting piece of advice is this—if you want to write historical fiction, you should read historical fiction. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Study the pros. 

 Then, put words on the page.

Tips for Blending Fact And Fiction

Writing Into The Past

Principles for Writing Historical Fiction

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