Monday, September 23, 2013

New Voices: Six Ways to Write Authentic Historical Fiction

Today we welcome Jewell Tweedt who will give authors some advice on writing historical fiction.

Putting the History into Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can be defined as a story set in the past. The setting is real and drawn from history. It should contain details of that time period. Okay-that means that just about any one and any place that ever existed is fair game to build a story around. The possibilities are endless –that’s what makes writing so much fun. Seriously, how can a writer not have a billion ideas swirling in her head?
A few examples include Regencys, westerns, and WW II. Take note- people LOVE WWII, especially guys.  Here a few thoughts from a history teacher turned historical writer:

1)      Write about a time period that interests you. You’ll be spending a lot of time ‘living’ there.
By writing what you like you may actually finish the book. For every 1000 people who say they are writing a book, one person will finish it.
Having enthusiasm for the time period and how your characters lived then will show in your work. It’s kind of like how someone on the other end of the phone line knows you’re smiling. It comes through.
Try to have a quiet place to work because you’re traveling back in time. Ignore the kids, the washer, the lure of Facebook.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been jerked back to 2013 with the shrill buzz of my dryer.

2)      Use a variety of primary and secondary sources to add authenticity.
Primary sources are original materials that haven’t been filtered. Examples are diaries, letters, or newspaper articles of the time. Okay, I know it’s rough to find sources for some periods, but old stuff is cool!
Secondary sources are accounts written after the fact. These include books or articles that have been filtered or interpreted. Cool too, but be careful to read several accounts. There are many sides to a story.
Pick a person from that time period to learn about culture and perspectives during their lives. For example, if your character is an 1870’s school teacher find someone who really was a teacher and read up about how licenses were obtained, how teachers boarded with families and how they had to clean the school room and the privies! Yuck.

3)      Find adventures or mysteries that actually happened to add interest to your work. In my second book Still Faithful  I wrote about Confederate gold that was moved from Jefferson Davis’s  treasury and hidden by 12 year old Rebel  soldiers. It’s true and fascinating.
      In my third book Faith and Hope-Grace’s Story I wrote about a blizzard using a description of a huge one from 1878 known as the Easter Blizzard. The day started at 60 degrees and a few hours later it was 30 degrees below zero and snowing two to three inches an hour with the wind blowing 50 miles per hour.  Why make up something when it’s already there to borrow?

4)      Add details for depth of understanding.
      People who read historical fiction like history. They want to know more. Excedrin Migraine tablets didn’t exist 150 years ago. Migraines did. Instead people dipped rags into vinegar and tied them tightly around their foreheads until the pain eased.

5)      Be sure landmarks, inventions, settings are accurate.
      If your character arrives on a train then that train, those tracks should have really been there. If you write that the Union Pacific Railroad came through Omaha in the 1850’s you’d lose many of your readers. They know UP tracks weren’t laid until after 1865 in Nebraska. Check your facts and avoid turning off your readers. 

6)      Inject some emotion and connect with your readers. If they feel for the characters they’ll want to read more. Humor has existed since the beginning of time. Try it. One of the favorite scenes of my first book Faith of the Heart is when the big, burly sheriff comes to rescue the heroine and she’s already taken out the bad guy with a solid thud of a cast iron skillet to the outlaw’s noggin.

So in conclusion, like what you’re writing, use resources to add accuracy, borrow from real people and settings, provide details, and have fun doing it.

Jewell Tweedt was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the setting for the back to Omaha Adventure series. She lives in western Iowa and divides her time between teaching middle school students and writing. In her spare time she reads, gardens and grades papers. Lots of papers.  Readers can learn more about Jewell and her books at

1 comment:

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Enjoyed the post today, Jewell, and will use the helpful suggestions. I agree particularly with selecting a time period you're passionate about. Thank you.