5 Crucial Elements Your Historical Fiction Novel Needs

5 Crucial Elements Your Historical Fiction Novel Needs

By on Nov 20, 2015 in Fiction, Writing & Editing


The basic definition for the genre of historical fiction would be: a story set in a certain era of the past, which the writer researched, but didn’t experience. That definition seems a bit dry, and fails to capture the real meaning of the genre, which is to bring the past to life. For example, when a person reads a dry history textbook, he or she knows what happened, how it happened, and when it happened. But, when a person reads a historical fiction novel, the individual should read the last page and feel like he or she knows what it was like to live in the past. In essence, this is what the writer of historical fiction needs to capture and present it on the pages, and below, we’ve shown the crucial elements a historical fiction story needs to achieve this.

1. The setting

Everything begins with the setting. Once you’ve chosen the era in which your fiction is set, you need to ensure you capture the spirit of it. How it felt to walk the streets of the town, village, or city, what the people did and how they spent their time are only part of the things you will need to research, and in some part, imagine, in order to show how it felt to live in that era. This means you need to pay a lot of attention to world building – especially when it comes to day to day life of your characters.

2. The dialogue

People spoke differently in the past. That is a given, and only reading novels actually written in that period will show you how people used to speak. However, this doesn’t mean the dialogue in your novel will need to be completely different from the way we speak today. If it is completely different, many readers will get lost in it, especially if the dialogue differs completely from the way the protagonist thinks. And this is important, especially if you’re writing from a first person point of view – the way the protagonist speaks out loud needs to mirror the way the protagonist thinks and processes his or her surroundings. What you need to do is find the perfect balance – your characters should speak in a way that ensures they will be both authentic for that time period, and comprehensible to the reader.

3. The characters

When it comes to the characters themselves, you need to remember people from different eras of the past had different perspectives on life, different priorities, diverse ways of thinking, and that dictates a lot of their actions. For example, two sisters are discussing the elder one’s current love affair. In the modern era of today, the conversation might be accompanied by a lot of giggling, joking, and smiling. But if that conversation happens in the past, it might be accompanied by whispers (for it is told in secret), and even considered scandalous by the little sister. This difference in possible reactions and ways of thinking means your story will develop in a different way in different eras of the past, and a lot of it depends on the people that lived in the era, their mindset and ways of thinking.

4. The viewpoint

Whether your protagonist is a man, or a woman, a child or a teen, a beggar or a king, you must be inside their head, and capture their mindset, their way of viewing the world, and it must be according to the era they live in. A protagonist can make or break a story, and when it comes to historical fiction, it gets even more important. You cannot have a story where the character’s moral code reflects today’s – because then, the protagonist will seem unreal. However, that doesn’t mean your character cannot have radical, or revolutionary thoughts, but if they do, they should be toned down, and shaped to fit the era they live in.

5. The story

The previous elements will largely dictate your story – of course, not in a way that says you have no control over it. You need a plot that maybe doesn’t revolve around world events, but your story will still be affected by them. However, how your story plays out depends on the era, the time period it is set in, the passing of time, and on the characters themselves. This makes your task of writing historical fiction even more daunting, and you must always think not only of linking your scenes and your characters’ actions by cause and effect, but by cause and effect according to rules of character behavior and thinking that is completely different from today.

Image credit: Pixabay

Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.


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