Historical fiction is the genre of writing that fictionalizes events in an historical era of Earth. In works of historical fiction, expect to find actors—be they historically grounded or entirely original—actively participating in events of historical significance, or living their stories with an historical event prominent in the background. Think about how the movie The Patriot told a story of family and revenge against the backdrop of the American Revolution. The Last Samurai honored Japanese antiquity at the onset of a technological and cultural revolution sometime during the 1800’s. Das Boot depicted life and war aboard a German U-boat during World War II. Sometimes giants—influential characters that made their names shaping the future of the world—take center stage (like Mohandas Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln in their films) and sometimes, they are ancillary or supporting characters (like General Cornwallis and Emperor Meiji in the films mentioned above.)
Story is always the most important when it comes to fiction writing, but just behind that, the most important aspect of historical fiction is authenticity.
Notice that I didn’t say accuracy. Believe it or not, Hitler didn’t die in a cinema fire. Despite that fact, Inglorious Basterds is a good movie with a good story. Keep that in mind while writing in the genre. It’s in the name, historical fiction is about blending fiction and fact and needs authenticity more than it needs accuracy.
So, how do we get authenticity in our stories? The answer is world building. You have to know and understand the world you’re creating. This understanding will help you avoid mistakes like continuity errors, anachronisms (something that didn’t exist during the time depicted,) and perhaps most importantly, major actors behaving out of character. Even then, incorporating anachronisms and changing a historical figure is not always a hard and fast sin. The only real rule in writing is “only break the rules if you think you can get away with it.” But, at a basic level, focus on world building. Not only will it make your historical fiction better but it will make all of your writing feel more complete. It may even make it easier. If you have a period you would like to depict, but no ideas for a story, yet, learning about the period in question may give you ideas. I didn’t know the emperor’s name who featured in The Last Samurai and a quick internet search led me down a fascinating rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles on “The Meiji Restoration,” “The Boshin War,” and the real last samurai, “Saigo Takamori.”
You probably already know where this is going. To build an authentic setting for your story, it’s time to engage in that most dreaded of all writer tasks, research. If you’ve written fantasy, you know a little something about worldbuilding, but historical fiction presents a unique challenge in this area because you don’t get to just make something up, and no one can argue with you; some aspect of what you write in the genre actually happened. Even if you don’t include notable actors or events from the time period, you will still be dealing with a people, a culture, and a language with its own period and culture specific idiosyncrasies (the German three, anyone?)
That being said, the core of world building in historical fiction is the same as it is in fantasy. We must ask ourselves, “What made the world the way it is?” This question is the foundation of all your research, and the answer to that question will only lead to more questions and more answers. The collection of questions and answers you accrue will become the basis for your world. I’ll cover world building itself in a future post.
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