Do you need some ideas on how to write a historical fiction short story? We’ve put together 9 practical tips for you. Read on to learn more!
1. Understand the genre itself
Historical fiction is still fiction, meaning, short stories and novels that fall into this genre might have real people from history as the protagonists, or, the protagonists might be fictional people who interact with historical people that we know existed. However, the story itself is still fiction, or, it’s based on a real story that has been fictionalized and it is not supported by the historical facts of what really happened.
On the other hand, short stories, by nature, do not dwell on a theme or a topic for long. They have a point – they lead the reader to a certain moment of understanding the protagonist or the situation. Writing a short story that belongs to historical fiction, as such, usually answers a short question, or describes a momentary situation, without delving too much into any kind of details.
2. Choose the era very carefully
Since you’re writing a short story, think carefully about what your short story will be trying to say or portray, in a historic setting, because that, ideally, should dictate which era would fit your story best.
For example, let’s say that you wish to write a story about the expectations of noble women in polite society and the limitations of life imposed on noble women by the same polite society. You would have many eras to choose from, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period and beyond, through the Industrial Revolution and even up to contemporary times, for there is still nobility present in some modern monarchies.
But, you wouldn’t be able to set such a short story and make a similar point about the expectations of noble women in polite society if you set it in the distant past, before empires and monarchies existed, or, even if they did exist, like Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Greece. Nobility did exist during those times, for sure, but during these eras, women were treated differently, especially noble women, and as such, the expectations and limitations of life imposed on noble women during these times would be quite different.
3. Be thorough in your research
Once you have decided what era would fit your story best, you need to embark on a very thorough research of said time period. You need to research both historical events that happened during this period, as well as what life was like for the country your story is meant to take place in, for the nobility, people in power, the rich people, as well as the common people who were just trying to eke out a living.
This research should include everything from clothes (and what materials were available), what was used as makeup or hair dye, how well developed their medicine was, and what maladies did or did not have a cure at that time (although, it goes without saying that prior to the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics, a lot of maladies did not have a cure and people could die from something as harmless as the common cold).
You need to research well about what the religion of the era was like, what the people believed in and prayed to, as well as how their religion impacted their culture and behavior. Further from religion, you need to research the level of education available at the time, which people were able to get any kind of education, and what kind of an impact education itself would have on an individual person during that era.
4. Read books written in that era (if possible)
The best way to get a feel of the language that people spoke (or at least, as close as a feel as you could get) is to read books (fiction or non-fiction pieces of work) that are from or were written in that era. If not that era, then the books should have been written as close as possible to that era and ideally talk about or refer to that era in some way.
The goal here is to get a feel of the language style of the time period in order to try to emulate it as best as possible. But, more than that, reading fiction works that are written in that era will give you a much better insight of what the people’s culture and thought processes were like, which you will not get by reading non-fictional accounts.
However, this will depend on availability, especially on works of fiction. While you can read any fictional work regardless of the form – be it a play, an epic poem, or a short story or a novel, keep in mind that the further back in time you go, the less available material will be there to read.
Moreover, keep in mind that fictional work coming from ancient times has been translated many times throughout history and the works in the original languages have been lost. For example, many of the Ancient Greek pieces of work have been originally translated, not from Ancient Greek, but from Arabic.
5. Read historical fiction works set in that era
By reading historical fiction works (stories, novels, etc.) that have been written in modern times (or let’s say, 20th century and beyond), you will gain many different benefits, but two of them are the most important.
The first one is that you will be able to understand the genre better. You will learn what tropes are being used the most, what kind of stories are being told, what kind of characters are being used, and also, what time periods (or eras) are very popular, which ones have been overused, and which eras have not. For example, the Regency period is very popular for historical romance novels, along with the Victorian time period. For war and spy stories, the two World Wars are prevalent, with honorable mentions going to the Cold War and the Vietnam War as well.
The second benefit is that it will give you an idea of how other authors interpret the era, what language they have used, what writing style they have used in dialogue and speech, and determine what direction you yourself will take when writing your story.
6. Set the story around a certain historical event
Considering that you are writing a short story set in a historical time period, beyond stating outright what year it is at the beginning of the story (which can be considered lazy writing), you should orient your story around a historical event to immerse the reader immediately in the story.
This historical event might have just happened prior to the start of the story, might happen by the end of the story, or the historical event might be happening while your story is taking place. For example, the Bubonic Plague lasted from 1347 to 1352. A story set in the beginning of the plague would be different than a story set in the middle of it, near the end, or after it. Similarly, a story set in ancient times just prior to the rise of Alexander the Great will be different than a story after his rise or after his downfall.
As such, choose your era first and then the historical event around which your story will take place, and see how you can use the event in the writing, through the narration of the protagonist, to help to immerse the reader in the story faster and easier and give them a sense that they have taken a step back in time.
7. Create a believable protagonist and characters
One of the biggest mistakes writers tend to make when writing historical fiction (regardless of whether the subgenre is romance or crime or any other genre), is creating characters with modern sensibilities and modern ways of thinking. This is why it’s important to research education, whom it was available to, and what kind of an impact such education would have on a person.
For example, you cannot have an erudite protagonist who is a peasant and has never set foot in a school. That protagonist will not talk like an erudite and it is questionable whether a peasant would be able to think in such modern ways (if you give that protagonist modern sensibilities). If your story takes place in Ancient Greece and the protagonist is a student of Plato or Socrates, it is possible that the protagonist is both erudite and a peasant, because their schools did accept people who had the intelligence and willingness to learn. It is not certain whether these schools allowed women to attend or not, so if your erudite peasant protagonist is a woman, it is possible she might have had to disguise herself as a man to gain access to such education.
For a lot of time throughout history, many things that we see as negative today, like cruelty, for example, used to be viewed as normal. For example, in the past, people thought nothing of having a thief’s hand be cut off for their crimes, and as early as the 5th century BC, theft was punishable by death in Ancient Greece.
Delivering cruel justice was considered normal, while in modern times, theft is a crime punishable by prison time, not death or cutting off the thief’s hand. These days, we are used to a certain way of thinking that is kinder and more positive, and often, writers forget that this manner of thinking did not come about until very, very recently.
8. Do not clutter the story
It’s understandable that you will research a lot in order to write your short story. Be careful not to clutter the story itself with too many details. You are not meant to explain too much about the technology or medicine at the time, but only enough for the readers to understand what kind of a time (historically speaking) the story is taking place, and to get that feeling of immersion into a different time period.
Sharing too many details will only serve to make your story unnecessarily longer, and even worse, it would make the readers feel as if they are reading a history textbook rather than a story. Explaining the full dynasty that came before Cleopatra and Anthony is not needed, for example, for the readers to enjoy a story narrated by Cleopatra’s maid just as Anthony is about to come to her chambers.
A story told by a medic during World War I does not need to be cluttered with recounts of which battles came before and what the medic did during those battles. Additionally, relevant for this example, is that a lot of the battles of World War I were named after those battles took place, and it is questionable just how much the soldiers on the ground were informed of those battles.
As such, it follows that even your characters, while living through the historical events, would not be able to name them as history has named them, so ensure to know what the people referred to those historical events during that time. Even the Black Death/Bubonic Plague was not called that until the 16th century; it was called the “Great Pestilence”‘ or the “Great Plague,” instead.
9. Take artistic liberties – but not too many
It seems a bit ironic to give advice to take artistic liberties after most of the previous tips have been about keeping as close to history as possible, however, it is worth noting that taking some artistic liberties can make for a more interesting story.
For example, whether access to Plato and Socrates’ philosophy schools was strictly forbidden for women has not been proven. Plato’s school did have at least two female students, while Socrates’ school did not and women were presented as nagging wives in most of the dialogues between Socrates and other philosophers as told by his disciples.
As such, taking the liberty to create a premise where women were forbidden or discouraged from attending would not be too far from the truth. It would enable one to tell a story about a woman dressing up as a man in order to obtain education (and women have had to work harder to get the right to education for millennia after the existence of Plato and Socrates schools).
On the other hand, taking too many liberties and changing historical events and facts just to fit the narrative of the story you are trying to tell will catapult your story in the genre of alternative history fiction. Of course, this does not mean your story would not be good, but it would not be historical fiction.