The Key to Making Your Historical Novel Publishable

It is some combination of confusing, intimidating and challenging to hear that the very thing that brings a story to life can also  – too often, in fact – be the thing that kills it.  This is especially true in the historical genre, as well as science fiction and fantasy.

It’s like salt in a great recipe.  Absolutely necessary.  But too much and the dish is rendered inedible, even though it remains visually appealing on the plate upon which it is served.  Toxicity, in food and in storytelling, is often invisible.

The learning is this: it’s not about the salt.  Never was, never will be.

Relative to fiction, I’m talking about “world building.”

Writing a story about a time and a place from history (the battle of Iwo Jima, the Alamo, the theater where Lincoln was shot, the Garden of Eden… etc.), for the primary purpose of transporting the reader into that time and place… at the expense of a compelling story unfolding within it… is the great trap for well-intentioned writers who don’t get this principle.

It is also the reason so many historicals get rejected.

And therein resides the seductive aspect of that trap: for you, the author, it very well might be all about the world you are building. It’s why you’re writing it in the first place.

You began with an interest in the time and place of the history you are writing about.  Including the reliving of an actual event or time-span.  You want to take the reader there with you, and so, you focus on the time and the place, even the event itself, rather than unleashing a compelling story that unfolds there, like a windmill on a landscape.

When that’s the case, story can become an obligation.  And too often when that’s the case, it comes off as a contrivance.

It’s not about the landscape.  When it works, it’s about the windmill.

The story of the ticket taker at the Ford Theater on the night Lincoln was shot… that’s not dramatic enough.  Been there, read about that, saw the movie.  Unless you make it dramatic and compelling enough to warrant a novel on its own, which means you have to integrate your story into the historical one.  How?

Having that ticket-taker at the Ford Theater witness the tragic events of the night and then tell us his version… that isn’t enough.  Having the people behind the assassination set out to eliminate him as a witness (speculative or not; who knows, maybe in your fiction the local cops wanted to frame J.W. Booth as an easy heroic fix)… now that is a story that will get you published.  Same time and place, same potential to transport the reader there… but now it’s a story within the real story that comes at it from a new angle.  Speculative or not.

Understanding the difference in that example is your ticket.

Published authors in these genres know how to strike the right balance between ambiance and dramatic tension involving the hero of the story (versus a hero who observes it, or wanders around from thing to thing while it’s all going down).  Because they understand that, while the reader may have (like you) come for the world building (“I love WWII stories,” for example), they stay for the story.

The best way to learn the difference is to see it in play.

A novel should never be a tour of anything, as its primary narrative objective.

It should give us a hero with a problem to solve and/or a goal to reach… with opposition along the way… and stakes hanging in the balance, the strength of which moves the reader toward empathy.

This is as true for historicals as it is with any other genre.

Unless you’re reading unpublished (and unpublishable) work, you won’t find this type of lopsided, drama-lite, ambiance-rich narrative out there.  In published novels you’ll find the balance stricken properly.  The key for us as writers, then, becomes recognizing it as such.

And then applying that recognition to our own stories.

The best historicals plop their hero smack in the middle of the action.  They play a role, they move the story along, rather than just watching the story move along.  Unless your hero is a known person from that page in history, you’ll need to invent someone, and a role for them, that fits seamlessly into the actual history.  An unsung hero in a well-known set piece.

Not all historical novels revolve around a documented event.

If your story is set in a time and place and that is the scope of your historical ambition (perfectly fine, by the way), you still need to present a compelling story that makes the time and place dramatic.   In The Help (yes, it really was a historical novel), Kathryn Stockett certainly took us back to 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, but the story she told — the dramatic plot and the players within it — was totally of her own creation.

As in any genre, it is the quality of your invention that makes it work.  In a historical novel you didn’t invent the history (either specific or ambient), which is why it needs more than the history itself.

Otherwise it’s like taking your reader to Disneyland after they’ve shut the place down… the fun lasts about 10 minutes before they turn off the lights, and there’s no caramel corn anywhere in sight.

The reader is always there for the ride, no matter how vivid and compelling the park itself (your time and place) may be.

Read this piece and find the gold that illustrates these points.

Bestselling author Robert Harris (Fatherland) has written a new spy novel based on actual events (An Officer and A Spy), a story so vividly drawn within a time and a place from history that the environment itself becomes organic and natural… allowing the story to emerge from within it.

This article from The Daily Beast wasn’t written for writers, per se, but if you look closely you’ll see how Harris has honored (seized the inherent power of) the principles described above: the story trumps the ambiance of the history, all while seizing the gritty ambiance of it both in terms of time/place and the events themselves, which are well documented.


Thanks go out to Mike Wustrack for sending this my way.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

14 Responses to The Key to Making Your Historical Novel Publishable

  1. Jason Waskiewicz

    I think sometimes authors do all that research and feel a need to share it. Often the history and details are what got the author interested in that historical setting.

    I don’t write historical fiction. I write science fiction. As Mr. Brooks notes, it is so easy to let the milieu get in the way of the story. I discovered the magic of hinting at things rather than sharing each detail. I have the larger empire in my novels worked out, but I realized that the only part that matters is that which directly applies to the novel. I also did a lot of research on shipbreaking, but only used enough for flavor. Too much detail will make it seem inaccurate. Better for the reader to fill in the gaps.

    The best novels leave you wanting more and make you feel like you’ve seen part of something much larger. They’re like an iceberg: more is below the surface than above it. The setting should support the story.

  2. MikeR

    I love historical fiction, and the -reason- why I love it is that “the time and the place” becomes an element of the story. It wouldn’t be the same story if it were somewhere and/or somewhen else. The story resonates against its setting. But, as you say, it -has- to do that successfully. You’re not just a tour guide.

  3. Robert Jones

    I’ll go even a step further towards a pitfall…depending on the century, even language can become a nightmare. People expect earlier century tales to sound adequately antiquated. But even if you’ve studied the language for some time, you could end up overdoing it, potentially phasing out some of your audience, or end up getting carried away to the point of sounding ridiculous, even comedic. On the other hand, I’ve seen people blow the reality of their world wide open by using references, or language, that was not around at the time.

    That applies to props and world building as well. I read a novel last year that portrayed drug abuse in the 19C with disposable needles with plastic caps. It was an e-book, and the author said he sent it to some expert or other who claimed to sort out these things for him. He should’ve sued whoever guided him in language and setting. But mostly, he should’ve pursued a little more research on his own before bumbling into something as blatantly off as that.

    I think the rules of history are a lot like those of writing. Learn enough to understand, then weave in what is necessary when it’s appropriate, just as you would weave in any type of description into a story–a little at a time to appropriately establish your setting, language, nuance, but never in huge chunks that stop the story to explain something…anything at all. Because that’s a stopping point for the reader as well.

    My favorite is when a character takes a walk, or a drive, through town and gives the reader a history lesson of time and/or place. Even if the point in history has an important bearing on the story, like Larry’s example of the theater Lincoln was shot in, it’s the characters, what they see, hear, and smell through the camera of their perceptions that must bring the audience into that world, not an amazing world first where characters are arbitrarily plunked down in the middle of an historical river that washes over them, hanging them (and their very personal circumstances) out to dry. If they are there, they aren’t going to know it’s history because it’s all happening contemporaneously.

    Even if the main character is narrating from some point in his future, if he stops the story to tell his audience that, “In those days, we did have such and such…” well, the key phrase there is the narrator is STOPPING the story.

  4. This is right on, Larry. It’s a timely reminder to me, because I’m now combining history with fantasy (alternate history fantasy) and I just have to remember: it’s about the ride. Writers often try to prove stuff: We want the world to know we can Write, nail those metaphors, be appropriately indirect; dig out those historical nuggets. Well and good. But the ride. The ride, people.

  5. While I like the type of universal story which could be set against almost any backdrop (the best Star Trek episodes of each series were about people and relationships, not flying through space) I agree with the comments above that having the place and time integral to the story makes for a better read when it’s done right.

    I think of Chandler, and how some of what Philip Marlowe deals with couldn’t have happened anywhere but Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Not exactly historical fiction, but very much of a place and time.

  6. Essentially, this is an advanced description on the pitfalls of “infodump”, only geared to the story aspect rather than writing style. An excellent explanation.

  7. MikeR

    @Robert – specifically to your point about “the language nightmare,” personally, as a reader I much prefer the language to be ordinary-readable today … versus it trying to “sound as it did then.” I recently completed reading Wuthering Heights on my Kindle, and it was a MUCH more difficult read than Jane Eyre (well, for a lot of reasons, but …) because of its many examples of brogues and so forth. My reading slammed into a dead-stop as I tried to decipher what the character said. Now, maybe this was the routine practice in the days when this novel was written, but it threw me right off-the-bus every time. Even an “authentic quaint-expression” can be a serious point of bus-wreck if you don’t immediately know or can’t immediately guess what the phrase meant. I’ve seen footnotes, believe it or not, in some pieces, but those get awkward therefore tiring too.

    So … “just a little bit, maybe, now and then, used as a little authenticity-spice,” but remember that -I- am not there-and-then as I strive to approach and then to enjoy your story. Let me feel the flavor of the place-and-date, but don’t disrupt my rapid-eye-scan of your material. I can’t read it if I =can’t= read it.

  8. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–I totally agree. I’ve read my share of classics that take for granted certain terminlogy, or aspects of language that no longer exists. Like those jumble of “brogues,” you mentioned or the addition of too much local slang. “Tess of the D’urbervilles” always comes to my mind when I think about this subject. It’s probably as bad, or worse on the whole, than “Wuthering Heights.”

    I have several little booklets I discovered in England (and can be ordered online if you know what to look for) on European slang, some of it very colorful, but no one would begin to guess what half of it mean if you didn’t live in that part of the world. I try to use such things very sparingly, or with colorful characters during such moments that place the saying well within the context of what is happening. So even if someone never heard it before, they’d know exactly what it means. For example–a situation where something happens that a very cliche reaction might have the character saying, “Gentlemen, we’re screwed,” might instead say, “It’s all up brew from here, gents.” And you know exactly what he means. But again, it has to come from the kind of character where that sort of statement might add color, or a touch of humor. In otherwords, if it’s not within character, you don’t have everybody throwing statments out just to be colorful, or for the writer to say, “Look at all the cool and crazy phrases I know.” Plus, I think even if you did have a character that fit that profile, the more you use color, the less colorful it becomes. There’s a right time and place for that sort of thing. Like everything else in a story, language has to build to a punch. Keep jabbing constantly and the reader ends up getting punch-drunk and weary of it all.

    The Victorian era–which has been of longstanding interest to me–is very close to our own language in many novels written during that period. However, it still leands itself to proper English and an understanding of the period and times. John Fowles, when writing “The French Lueitenant’s Woman,” said that the audience’s view of Victorians frequently sent him looking for the more anitquated words and phrases because much of the language from that period sounds too modern to be believable. People think of Victorian language differently than it actually was. Fowles, BTW, who wrote that novel in third person, balanced his use of language by having description sound very straight forward (yet still close enough to the period) and only added his best period language in dialogue. Which doubtless saved him from sounding too far out there, or too difficult to understand. There’s always a balance. And finding it is up to the writer or you can really sink your own ship.

    Probably the best use of language that I could recommend for not only the Victorian era, and those bordering it, would come from the Jane Austen novels. It’s from the Georgian era, but doesn’t sound contrived, nor is it difficult to understand. The fact that Austen’s writing has not only survived the tests of time, but is translated into film again and again makes them sort of a benchmark for the way people think language should sound in period pieces set anywhere near them in time. Close enough to border Victorian times, yet just a touch more antiquated. Great English, well-turned phrases, and all done without crazy slang, or overly elevated language.

  9. MikeR

    @Robert – (and @Larry…)

    You =definitely= touch on some very(!) important points that are “of very-great professional interest to the historical writer” in that latest comment of yours. (Which comments might well be good fodder for subsequent installments on this forum, Larry …)

    “Fowles […] balanced his use of language by having description […] and ONLY ADDED HIS BEST PERIOD LANGUAGE IN DIALOGUE.” Okay, there -must- be a web-page reference relating to that particular bit of pragmatic insight. So, let’s hear it.

    You refer particularly-favorably to “Jane Austen’s” work. While I, like you, have also very-favorably read this work, obviously Jane could not have known the future any more than any of us can(‘t) do. Hence, if you might please conjecture, “what EXACTLY IS IT ABOUT this PARTICULAR work” that, in your sense, gives it this pleasant and marketable characteristic? “Georgian” vs. “Victorian” yeah yeah yeah, but … what is it about this particular bit of writing (whether or not the author intended it so, or conceivably could have) that breaks the barrier? This, certainly, would help us all to find the dividing-line between authenticity and acceptability with regard to modern audiences.

    (Heck … I’m finding this to be true in a novel concerning the American late-1950’s!)

  10. Robert Jones

    Mike–From my own standpoint, the quote about Fowles looking for more antiquated words came to me through a writing program I purchased several years ago that had–as most writing books and programs do– quotes from a number of writers concerning the various aspects of writing. The fact that his description plays out more stright forward and the dialogue carries most of the weight of the period language is simply from reading “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and scrutinizing the text…as I do with a great many books.

    I’ve asked myself the same questions concerning Jane Austen, even watched some documentaries about her life I found at the local library. It would seem in our vernacular that she was raised as a farm girl in the country with several siblings, much like some of her characters. She had a keen sense of observation and wrote about what she observed within the classes and cultures she was exposed to. She never married, though was engaged to be but the guy was killed–can’t quite recall how. Austen died quite young of some slight disease, from what is specualted, that a shot of something or other could easily cure today.

    Keeping in mind that a woman in those days was considered an old maid if she wasn’t married before her mid-twenties, there would seem to be a lot of passion and heartfelt loss that fueled Austen’s writing. I recall one of the films showing the house and small table she used as a writing desk, very humble surroundings. And I’m not sure if it was a re-enactment, or actual pages of her novel shown where lines were written, scribbled out, new words written between what she had previously written–all the struggles of re-writing until the words pleased her.

    How she ever learned to do what she did in her situation had to have been through much reading, observation, and dogged pursuance of her craft. A reminder to writers today that even with all our modern technology, books, programs, classes, that hard work and determination are the foundation for achieving anything. And I believe anyone can achieve such things with the proper mind set and determination.

    How long it takes may vary from person to person. And most writers (and creative people in general) feel that tinge of loneliness, or like we are going at it in isolation. Or even flying in the face of everything conventional by the standards set by those who deem themselves the governors of such clap-trap. Cut all of that away and we are all sitting at our table, desk, corner of the couch, and attempting to channel what we feel into words that will translate human emotion and a semblence of experience onto the page, into our characters and language.

    Set aside the notion of needing to be a literary major and understand all the syntax of making sentences perfect and apparently even a countryfied education can be enough to know when the words come together and feel right. Much like we know when a certain bit of writing has captured what we feel and understand about our characters. We go over it, polish it up, play with words, synonyms, metaphores. However, I think our attempts in trying to learn so much ahead of time, place such emphasis on knowing where every word should go from an academic viewpoint, is a plague for beginners. There’s a feeling that what we don’t know can only hurt us. There’s an enormity to this search for knowledge and understanding that hangs above our heads daily.

    Finally, through trial and error and much practice, we begin to feel less pressure. Like maybe we aren’t any less foolish, or smart, than a lot of writers out there making a living from their words. Hell, the’re only people who went through a very similar process, though each of our circumstances differ in terms of how and when we fit those seperate pieces into something whole.

    What I’ve learned about art is that we aren’t really doing our best when we are trying to please that invisible critic, or stare too hard at our own inadaquacies and say, “I’m just not sure I’m good enough.” Art is best created when we tap into our gut and spill what we find there. Sure, we have to understand the basic fundamantals that make up the canvass, the ballpark, the structure of whatever it is we are doing, then cut loose and make the game our own within the confines of that space, canvas, or empty page.

    Back in the day, I held my artwork up to everyone I admired, whose art I kept scattered on my desk around to compare in the days, weeks, years ahead of me. It took years before I could look at my own work and feel it was as good as some of those guys. But having them there, I was always absorbing them, fusing what I liked about each artist into something that would later become my own style. Writers do the same thing when reading other people’s work. We need to observe the painting of words and emotions, book mark passages that made us feel something exceptional for study. Maybe even scatter open books with such passages around us on our writing desks to absorb.

    Then, while cutting loose on our own pages, we read, watch films. I have what amounts to a booklet I created myself of words and phrases from watching and reading period pieces. We learn, we do, we learn a bit more, we practice a bit more. And mostly, we believe that when it all takes shape, it will be a shape that is pleasing. To ourselves. And if it feels like the sort of story that we would like to read, that captures the same type of energy that others have endowed their work with who came before us, then we too may find ourselves an audience one fine day.

    Fiction writing, with its too few rules of bricks that lay out a meaning for everything, is a reminder that freeform creation and exploration is best when embraced and ran with other than fitting our creativity into a shoebox where is smothers. Because the harder you try to fit it, the more mercurial it becomes. That’s pretty much what happens when we take our big ideas and look at the canvas of structure for anything. The “OMG it doesn’t fit so I must be doing it all wrong” approach. Instead, look at structure first as the empty vessel you will paint your vision upon.

    I think this applies to plot, setting, characters , and language. You may cross out, re-paint, rewrite a lot later to make it all fall into sync, but each new layer is not to cover up a mistake. It’s an elevation, a revalation, learned by what we’ve done in appying those early layers. And if drawing and painting require such reworking by doing, why should we think writing is any different? Yet, I challenge any writer to go to three different museums, look at a variety of different paintings, artist, and subjects, then understand that each one had to be fit into a single, empty, square box. And if it’s a period piece, what made it feel like that period in time? The cars from that era parked on the street? The garments the artists clothed his people in? Yet, a street scene is still a street scene in any era, the foundation is the same. I’ve seen street scenes in parts of London that might look very much like they did in the Victorian era. Except instead of cars back then, the streets are filled with bustling carriages. In the end, what ultimately changes is what the street is decorated with and the artists specific slant of perpective that makes it appear dynamic and fresh.

    The artist doesn’t have to be a died in the wool realist. We view history, filter it through our perceptions, then paint our rendition of it, decorated with enough familiar ornamentation to be percieved as a reasonable facsimile of that period. In the end, we strive to get our story told in spite of the costumes and dialect. Those things are dressing for each scene, maybe even each page in some small way. Snippets of color weaved into the mesh of the fabric. In other words, like the painter fitting all his subject matter onto his canvas square, or the writer plotting on the grid of story structure. It’s just another layer. And as Larry aptly pointed out, the story comes first, then the decorating may transform it to a specific time and place.

    I have to remind myself of this from time to time when I attempt to do too much at once and end up getting frustrated by the outcome. We want all those layers to shine in that first pass with our mental brushes. That never happens in writing. If we’re very lucky, maybe a couple of layers will shine through in certain sections right away. Like dreams, some days we’re just totally clear on what we see and capture a very advanced glimpse of a section of story. And when that happens, we feel like we’re failing in the rest of the scenes that don’t come across as good. However, the foreknowledge of those perfect glimpses is simply proof we can build the rest up to match it as we go along.

    Okay, I’m rambling.

  11. Robert Jones

    Heh–just noticed “died in the wool” instead of “dyed in the wool.” I think die fits artist’s mentality better any way 🙂

  12. MikeR

    @Robert – That was very eloquently and truthfully stated.

    I’ve always believed that creativity, in all of its various forms, has always been highly over-rated by those who have not yet seriously tried to understand it. When we look at =anything= we see only the finished spit-shine version, after both the author and an unknown number of editors have worked on it. We see nothing of the process, and, if the aforementioned people did their jobs well, no remnants of it are left behind at all, save the occasional tpyo. 😉

    It takes (self-)education, though … which is where @Larry is an excellent and gifted teacher who knows how to teach through books(!) You’ve got to strive to learn as much as you can, from others, about what practices are most likely to lead efficiently and predictably to the place that you want your project to go. “Knowledge is power.”

    But then – I don’t care if you’re writing the next great novel, or a piece of music, a report, a training manual – you’ve got to have “informed persistence and discipline.” Maybe the Muse won’t show up, but You will. Every day. Fresh. Sober. Coffee in hand (but kept well away from that laptop!). The stereo loaded with the first five CDs of the day. (Yes, I still do plastic and vinyl.) And, in my case, the Internet connection turned o-f-f. :-O And the phone is on silent. I do all of my work that way.

  13. Robert Jones

    Very true, Mike. Behind most overnight success stories is a lot of years of sweat by someone who toiled away learning craft. And I would have to add learning history to that as well. Even if it’s just the history of all who did it well before us, their successes and their mistakes.

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