Some may argue that fantasy offers the most wide-open landscape for storytelling. But with 5,000 years of recorded human history spanning many civilizations both extant and extinct, empires that have come and gone, innumerable people both famous and infamous, and seven continents (well, maybe Antarctica isn’t quite so rich a source), the worlds and characters available for an author to explore in historical fiction are vast. And even though historical fiction must be grounded in fact, the opportunities for colorful, enlightening, and entertaining narratives are nonetheless rich.
The elements of a good historical narrative
Whatever your source of inspiration, I postulate that it falls into one of six basic categories: time, place, person(s), event(s), culture, or legend.
Some might argue that culture is nothing more than the convergence of time and place—and in some cases, that’s true. In the past, however, culture could develop and remain in relative isolation for long periods. Consider, for example, the Mayan civilization that existed in a limited location, but spanned the time from 2000 BC to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century CE. Alternatively, culture can be spread, typically through mass migrations or conquest/imperialism/colonialism. The culture of the Roman Empire affected places and peoples from northern Britain to north Africa and from the Iberian peninsula to the Middle East. For these reasons, I consider culture to be a distinct category.
A single category of inspiration may be your starting point, but the shape of your story will also be inspired in varying degrees by one or more of the others. Imagine the author being like the audio technician at a concert or in a recording studio. You have a mixer board in front of you and by tuning each of the dynamics, you shape the reader’s experience.
Note that time has a non-zero starting point. This is historical fiction, after all, so time can’t be completely ignored.
There’s one more dynamic to shaping the reader experience, and that’s the fidelity of your story to known facts. I define the four degrees of fidelity as follows:
- Documentary: Your purpose is to educate the reader. You won’t stray from the facts beyond a few fictional characters and some imagined conversations.
- Illumination: You want to educate the reader but in a way that’s highly approachable and easy to absorb. You’ll likely put words into the mouths of even your historical characters.
- Imagination: Your goal is to stimulate the reader’s interest by painting a picture of how things might have been. Many—perhaps even all—of your characters will be fictional and you’ll take greater poetic license with the events of your story.
- Fantasy: Your story may be a reimagining or a complete creation to put flesh on something obscure though it must remain true to the primary inspiration.
The degrees of fidelity exist in a continuum, however, so your work can fall anywhere on the scale.
So how have others done it?
I’ll begin by saying these are my personal assessments. Others—even the authors themselves—might describe the nuances of these examples differently. And I welcome any feedback or discussion.
That said, let’s start with something fun—Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes took time and place as his inspiration, peopled the story with fictional characters, used historical events as the catalysts for his story arc, and reflected the culture of the English aristocracy of the period. His paramount purpose was entertainment, so while faithful to the details of time, place, and events, the story relies heavily on his imagination. That doesn’t mean it has no merit as historical fiction. By stimulating viewers’ imaginations, Fellowes piqued an interest in what was actually happening during this period that viewers might have shunned had they been presented with only a history book.
So how have other writers manipulated the settings on their mixer board to create great books?
Ken Follett chose a very specific time for Pillars of the Earth and World Without End but populated the story with fictional characters to paint a detailed canvas of life at the time of the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals.
Edward Rutherfurd took place as his primary inspiration and even reflected that choice in the titles of his books.
Herman Wouk and Leon Uris both created novels around world-changing events (World War II and the founding of the state of Israel, respectively). Uris would later tell the other side of the Exodus story in The Haj.
Colleen McCullough chose the final days of the Roman Republic as her time and place, peopled her series heavily with historical characters, relied on historical events, and used her extensive research to create a series that is both entertaining and deeply educational.
James Clavell was inspired by the cultures of Japan and Hong Kong to create his Asian series.
Jack Whyte took something we think we all know so well—the Arthurian Legends—and overlaid the legend with the historical facts of what was happening in Britain as and after the Romans left. The result is a nine-volume series that tells a completely plausible story of what could have given rise to the legends.
Creating your own reader experience
Within the panorama of human history, there are myriad sources of inspiration. Archaeological studies of long-vanished places. An old newspaper clipping. A merchant’s account book from 18th century Portugal. A myth or legend. Your great-aunt’s journal. Another author’s historical tale. A particular era. A local event or an event that played out on the world stage. A piece of art or the artist themselves. A place you visited and felt drawn to. An inscription in an old book. Famous, infamous, or not-so-famous historical figures (How many of us read the novel Désirée when we were in high school and thought it was a sweet, romantic story about an imaginary girl who might have loved Napoleon? How many learned later that Désirée Clary was a real person with a real attachment to Napoleon who later became queen of Sweden, though admittedly a reluctant and rather uninspiring one?)
Are there things you should avoid? There certainly aren’t any hard and fast rules. Just when we think the Tudors have been done to death, along comes Wolf Hall. The Knights Templar have inspired both historical fiction and mystery/thriller writers, but most of the tales have been from the perspective of the Templars. Has anyone written the story from the point of view of Philip the Fair? Do you prefer to write dark stories but don’t know if that’s acceptable as historical fiction? Wallace Breem did just that in Eagle in the Snow. Perhaps “tone” is another dimension that should be added to the mixer board.
Once you’ve chosen a category of inspiration, are you locked in? Is this now your brand for all your future writing? Frankly, that’s your choice. Philippa Gregory has made a career out of the Tudors by pivoting up and down the family tree of Henry VIII and writing about each of the women she finds there.
A counterexample is Bernard Cornwell. He pivots from time to event to place in just three sets of his works—and this doesn’t even consider his Richard Sharpe series or the numerous other books that make up his portfolio.
Sure, fantasy offers wide latitude in storytelling. But so does history. And because historical fiction requires a solid foundation of facts, once you choose your inspiration, the world-building task is, to some degree, already complete. Perhaps best of all, we’re sometimes lucky enough that readers already have a modicum of familiarity with that world. So find what inspires you; then get out your mixer board and create that truly unique reader experience.
Pamela Taylor’s inspiration for her first book turned out to be that final straw that pushed her to leave the corporate world behind for the world of words and imagination. Now an author and an editor, she loves helping others polish their stories almost as much as she enjoys writing her own. She’s a member of the DFW Writers Workshop and the Editorial Freelancers Association and is in her second year on the judges panel for the Ink & Insights Contest. You can learn more about her books at secondsonchronicles.com, and about her editing services at editing4you.com.