How to Write Historical Fiction | Karen Kao
In this post, International Writers' Collective teacher Karen Kao talks about what historical fiction is, the importance of research and how to weave actual historical events and figures into your story as well as the nitty-gritty of description, dialogue, and setting in a historical context.
I hate history. I’ve no head for dates or names. And yet, my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, is a work of historical fiction. It is one of a planned quartet of interlocking novels set in Shanghai.
My inspiration comes from my father’s stories of growing up in Shanghai. Of the uncle who gambled away his fortune to feed his opium addiction. Of the aunt who became a dance hall hostess to send herself to school.
Maybe you, too, have an illicit bit of family history you’d love to share. Or, you’re obsessed with a particular historical time and place whose story is screaming to be told. In that case, you can use all the craft elements we teach at the International Writers’ Collective. A narrator and a point of view. A tone that differs from your mood and action, especially when the latter is dramatic. Vivid descriptions and minimal exposition. Scenes that put your reader in the room.
These are craft techniques that all writers use. But historical fiction presents a few additional challenges.
WHAT IS HISTORICAL FICTION?
First things first: what do we mean when we talk about historical fiction? Sarah Johnson is book review editor for the Historical Novels Review, a print magazine for members of the US/UK Historical Novel Society. She defines historical fiction as: “a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”
A story about two hipsters sipping flat whites at a cafe in Brooklyn is not historical fiction. Neither is The Great Gatsby because, when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it, he was writing from personal experience. Historical fiction requires research.
Of course, research is not a task limited to writers of historical fiction. Richard Powers studied 120 books about trees, not to mention countless journal articles, in order to write his Pulitzer Prize-Winning eco-novel, The Overstory. Write what you know, the old saw says. And thus you must know before you write.
How much do you need to know? Hilary Mantel, winner of two Booker Prizes for her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, sets the bar high:
At first you are a stranger in your chosen era. But a time comes when you can walk around in a room and touch the objects. When you not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back: that rasp of homespun wool: that whisper of linen and weight of brocade: the way your riding coat settles when you mount your horse: the sway and chink of the items at your girdle or belt, the scissors and keys and rosary beads. You listen: what sound do your feet make, on this floor of beaten earth? Or on these terracotta tiles? How do your boots feel as you pull your feet out of the mud? How old are your boots? What colour is the mud? When you can answer these questions, you are ready to begin.
So why didn’t I heed Mantel’s advice when I wrote my debut novel? Because, given the perils of writing a novel and understanding the history, the former scared me the most. So I concentrated on the story and hoped I could fix the historical gaffes after the fact.
Whether you research before or after you write, know that you must go deep. There’s no other way to narrate with authority, to immerse your reader in your world, to entangle her into the lives and times of your characters.
Purists will say that good historical fiction must involve a major historical event: war, revolution, slavery in the American South. From a storytelling perspective, there’s something to be said for this approach. The coming of war, for example, creates tension. Privileging the reader with more knowledge than the characters can also create pathos.
The Burmese Railroad is the crucible for The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. He began his research, as I did, with stories he heard from his father. Prisoner san byaku jū go (335) was a POW in a Japanese death camp. Flanagan places his novel in such a camp. He shows us the ordeals of prisoners, guard, and commandant. In the process, we come to question the value of life.
You don’t need a war to write historical fiction. What you need is a story that could not take place at any other point in history. If your aim is to write literary historical fiction, then you’ll need a theme that is both accurate to the past and relevant to the present.
My novel is an indictment of the sexual mores of 1930s Shanghai: the concubines, dance hall hostesses, and child brides. If I’ve done my work well, then the reader will hear an echo of my story in our contemporary attitudes toward women.
When developing the characters of your historical novel, you have the choice of including actual historical figures: a general, a politician, a king. If you do, then your next choice is to decide whether to let such a famous figure blend into the scenery or participate in the main action.
Or you can do as Charles Dickens did when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens tells his tale of the French Revolution exclusively through fictional characters. Monsieur Defarge leads the storming of the Bastille. Madame Defarge is a prime witness of the executions that follow, always seated in the front row, her knitting needles at the ready.
We see that same range of choices in historical fiction being written today. All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel by Anthony Doerr told through the eyes of two fictitious narrators: the blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc and the budding German radio genius Werner Pfennig. Their paths cross in Saint-Malo as the Americans firebomb this last German hold-out.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders places the historical figure Abraham Lincoln in the cemetery where his beloved son Willie is interred. But the Lincolns are not alone in this place. Ghosts swarm, squabble, feel sorry for themselves. Saunders has historical figures mingling with imaginary (ghostly) characters.
But it’s Hilary Mantel who takes the cake. Not only is Thomas Cromwell, a Tudor courtier, her main character in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She uses only historically verifiable events and names. Where then is the fiction in Mantel’s historical fiction? This is her response:
my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.
Whether you choose to people your novel with actual persons, famous
or otherwise, the dictates of good craftsmanship remain the same.
Characters must come to life, jump off the page. Their wants and needs
must feel compelling to the reader, whether or not the character is
likable. How does the writer achieve all this? Details, details,
Description is how the writer places her reader into the world of her story. Good description uses all five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Some descriptions are so apt, they come to define a character. Think about Madame Defarge and her knitting needles. She wouldn’t be nearly so loathsome a character without them. It’s the telling detail that produces the most juice.
Tolstoy is a master of the telling detail. War and Peace is a novel of the Napoleonic Wars. In a scene early on in the novel, the Russian army comes under cannon attack. Imagine the chaos: the roar of the cannon, the whistle of the cannonball, the impact when metal meets man. Out of all these possibilities, Tolstoy chooses the feet of the retreating soldiers each time a cannonball strikes and they miss a beat.
Choosing the right detail is particularly painful for the historical novelist. You’ve learned so many cool facts from your research, right? The temptation is to use them all. Jennifer Egan said that with Manhattan Beach, her first foray into historical fiction, her one regret is not letting the last draft sit for six months and then going back in for a final pruning. “You need time for the spell of the details to wear off,” she said. You can read more of her tips in this IWC post.
Another danger is not doing enough research and as a result, finding your manuscript littered with painful anachronisms. These errors of fact will erode your credibility with the reader. For example, my second novel will be set in post-revolutionary China. I wrote a scene involving a mother and daughter eating dinner with their plastic chopsticks. Plastic utensils in China, 1953? Oops.
Dialogue can be tricky in historical fiction. How to mimic the speech patterns of your chosen age? How to explain period terms without dropping footnotes every which way? In the case of a novel set in a country whose language is different from the author’s, how do you translate, if at all?
In one of the opening scenes of The Underground Railroad, the slaves Caesar and Cora speak. Caesar wants Cora to run away with him from the plantation. There’s trouble ahead. “It’s bad now,” Cora said. “Ever has been.”
To present the speech of Civil War-era slaves, Colson Whitehead pored through oral history archives, including the 2,300 first-person accounts by former slaves collected by the Federal Writers’ Project. He culled the digital collections of the University of North Carolina for runaway slave advertisements.
To capture the speech patterns of the Soviet gulag, Anthony Marra hit the road. He’s the author of the linked short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno. He traveled to the locations that appear in his stories: Kirovsk, a former Siberian gulag; Grozny, Chechnya; and Leningrad / St. Petersburg. Here is a sample of Marra mimicking the speech of Leningrad 1937 in his short story “The Leopard”.
“Do you speak?” I asked
“With understatement, I see. Tell me your name.”
I clasped his shoulder and he flinched, surprised by the sudden gesture of affection. He shared his first name with Lenin – an auspicious sign.
Last but not least, there is setting: the time and place where the story unfolds. In the case of historical fiction – when done properly – setting rises to the level of a character, possibly even the raison d’etre of the novel. The pitfalls for the historical novelist are no deeper than any other fiction writer. The challenge is to place the reader as quickly as possible into your world.
Some might say that the historical novelist has it easy. All you have to do is drop in a time marker and Bob’s your uncle, right? Time markers are dates (days, months, years) that announce to the reader where we are in the time continuum. Anthony Doerr marks each section of All the Light We Cannot See with a date. Here’s an example, the opening page from Section Zero.
7 August 1944. Leaflets.
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
Dickens, Tolstoy, Mantel and Marra all use dates, to one extent or another, to guide the reader through the chronology of the story. Rather than dates, Whitehead uses place names to mark Cora’s journey from station to station along the Underground Railroad.
Of all the examples I’ve cited here, only George Saunders avoids both time and place markers. He allows his characters to reveal that the Civil War rages, Abraham Lincoln is in the White House, and Willie is dead.
Why use one or the other or none at all? It depends on the story you want to tell. Doerr’s novel spans 80 years with jumps, small and large, back and forth in time. For Whitehead, place names create momentum; they force a reset of the reader’s expectations and allow us to harbor new hope for Cora. Saunders needs neither an exact date or place to show us the grief of a father burying a beloved child.
In short, there are no rules on how to introduce your setting although my personal preference is the James Bond opening. Grab the reader by the throat and fling him out the airplane. Before he hits the ground, say, by the end of the first page, the reader must know where he’s headed.
To write historical fiction, you will, sooner or later, need to research your period. This is not a visit to a few Wikipedia pages to get your dates right. You will need to do enough research (and only you will know how much that is) until you can smell what your characters smell and can taste what they eat. You may start with history books and end up with original sources like oral accounts, period records or, as in my case, talking to eyewitnesses.
Your plot may center on a major historical event, a Japanese POW camp or the marital woes of Henry VIII. Or, it may not. What you want is a story that could only have taken place in the historical time and place you’ve chosen.
The lucky writers among us have characters who appear to them in dreams. The rest of us must fashion them out of whole cloth. You may choose to give voice to Abraham Lincoln or Anne Boleyn. Or you will populate your novel with the creatures of your imagination as Marra, Whitehead and Doerr did. Whoever your characters are, let them come alive.
The devil is in the details and you’ll need them in your dialogue and description. Look for the telling detail: Madame Defarge’s knitting needles or the cadence of slave speech. Watch out for those anachronistic chopsticks!
Think about setting as the sum total of all of the above. If your story could only exist in the time period you’ve chosen, if your characters are true to their time in action and speech, then you’ve established your setting. Use time and place markers if you think your reader might get lost.
No history book will recount the bombing of Saint-Malo the way Doerr does. No eyewitness account, no newspaper clipping, no grainy photograph. The journey toward writing a work of historical fiction might pause in an archive but it begins and ends with your imagination.
Note: This blog post was originally published by the International Writers' Collective on 8 April 2020.