3 Steps to Writing Good Historical Fiction

What do the movies "Lincoln," "Argo" and "The Great Gatsby," the award-winning HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" and the new hit History Channel series "Vikings" all have in common?

They are part of the new "it" genre ... they make history come to life!

When first embarking upon this journey, I keyed in on what I prefer to read: a series whose plot moviesfrom one place to the next; becoming involved with characters as they move from book to book; and the love of historical truth. Thus, my "The Ivy League Chronicles" series was born -- tapping into the true historical facts of the 1920s, and in this case, the history of the year 1923, to be exact.

As part of my West Coast book tour, I am also presenting a series of workshops in various cities on how to write historical fiction, including one April 22 at the Writers Store in Burbank. As I started to prepare for them, my mind quickly reverted back to the first time my publisher read my book. She asked me, "How did you write such a good book?"

I never really found a quick answer. Now, when preparing for the seminars analyzing what I did to write good historical fiction, I went back to the early days before a plot, before characters and before a murder. I went back to the time I sat with the archaic paper and pencil and doodled my thoughts.

Being an educator teaching English in high school, teaching teachers how to teach writing and then to teaching want-to-be teachers how to teach writing, it was not that difficult to know the steps to produce a good piece of writing.

I find many writers do not understand the power of ruminating and spending time at the pre-writing phase. I call these the "Golden Years" -- the time in the evolution of the book you spend fertilizing your ideas. Thus I suggest everyone needs to take the time!

I have a few suggestions to help you get started researching history:


Choose a time period in which you resonate. I chose the word resonate for a reason: a period that evokes a feeling. I feel the 1920s. It excites me to learn all about the twenties and I love to read anything about that decade. Thus, whatever time period or place in the world you resonate with -- that is where you should start researching.

During my ruminating period, I brainstormed about what history I most enjoyed and the WHY. The WHY is key to your researching: WHY are you researching this era? If you do not create personal meaning for your selected time period, the depth of research which is crucial for a successful historical story will decline as the plot moves forward.


Number one supports my initial golden rule belief: Always do thy own research. The researching act itself is personal and moves with your interests. If you have someone else do it, it is their interests that you are recalling and the story lacks the depth that makes the difference between a good historical story and a great historical story.


You are never finished researching -- even when you are in the midst of writing your story. For example, I wanted to write a scene where two characters went to an elitist lunch on The Green, a historically significant park and recreation area in downtown New Haven, Conn.. As I began to think of how to situate this scene, I realized that during this time period there was no air-conditioning and it was during prohibition -- no drinking allowed.

I had to take a step back and research about when air-conditioning began and how did they eat in the heat ... since it was in the dead of summer in Connecticut. I had to go back to my sources.

What did I find? In a nutshell, that buildings were built a certain way to help keep them cool as well as use of all kinds of fans and shades. And although it was illegal to drink, many restaurants paid off all the legal entities and served drinks with unusual names like the Mary Pickford, and that air-conditioning had been newly invented but started in theaters first.

These details alone gave the chapter a rich historical ambiance.

Interested in tapping into audiences' newfound, yet age-old love of tales that recount true events? Start with the research and let your story write itself from there.

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