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Writing Historical Fiction that Sells

by A. Howard

I'm in a book store perusing the aisles when I run across a novel that takes place during a time period not well-known to me. I slip the novel from the shelf, read the back cover, and realize I've discovered another piece of historical fiction I'm going to buy and read with enthusiasm, and in the process, I'll learn something, too.

The love of historical fiction drove me to write for publication. That was the easy part, of course; next I had to learn to write it. Although history has always interested me, I am by no means a classic historian, and yet, of my eight published novels, four fall into the genre of historical fiction. I learned that, with the right preparation, it's always possible to succeed.

If you want to write great historical fiction, start by becoming a fan of the genre. Reading novels you admire with a discerning and appreciate eye will improve your own skills and might even spark a creative idea of your own. Take note of each author's approach and style, not with the goal of duplicating it, but instead with a goal of finding inspiration for your own voice, style, and story.

Perhaps the most classic approach is to take an event in history that fascinates you and then create characters to witness it and be influenced or even changed by it. A timeless example is Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which takes place during the Spanish Civil War. Two more recent examples I loved take place in England during World War II: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphries and Atonement by Ian McEwan. My novel, The Magic of Ordinary Days, came to life when I combined a love story with an obscure event that happened during World War II in Colorado involving Japanese American internees and German POWs.

You might also take a person in history, preferably one about whom not much is known, and then create a fictional life for him or her. Tracy Chevalier does this beautifully in her novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of the girl in one of Vermeer's most loved portraits. In the same vein, Philippa Gregory fictionalizes the life of Anne Boleyn's sister, Mary, in her rich novel, The Other Boleyn Girl.

Your protagonist need not be a real person as long as he or she captures readers' attention. Sena Jeter Naslund creates a wife for the fictional character, Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame, in her fascinating book, Ahab's Wife. Jim Fergus fictionalizes a long-ago governmental proposal and plays a powerful "What if?" game in his novel, One Thousand White Women. Perhaps the most innovative approach is to create a fictional life for an object. In the novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, the subject is a Vermeer painting as it goes from one setting and owner to another over time.

Once you've found your story, make certain the writing is authentic. You don't have to become an academic expert about your historical period, but instead become what I call a "casual expert." Read voraciously on the subject, take notes, and conduct interviews to familiarize yourself with all aspects of life during your time period. Then pepper your narrative with specifics about daily life and write dialogue that reflects the times and therefore rings true. Paying attention to all the fine points will make your historical fiction smile. Do your homework, take your time, and seek advice and help when needed.

Finally, don't let anyone tell you, "You can't do it."

Best of luck on your journey!