Over the past ten years, historical fiction has become more relevant to readers. As authors, we want to write fiction that helps readers understand their own lives, here and now. Perhaps we also would like to offer readers a visit to another time, a visit that can show how the past has shaped our present and contributed to our stories. We can weigh the consequences of historical events and draw parallels with our own time. At its best, historical fiction can help us to make wiser decisions this time around.
In my most recent novel, my main character is born to a close-knit Jewish family, living under Tsarist Russia in 1900. The times were oppressive, and there was terrible danger. Pogroms were commonplace, and anti-Semitism was encouraged by the government.
Along with an estimated three million other Jews at that time, my character came to America to start a new life. She was only sixteen, and she crossed the Atlantic alone. I wanted my reader to experience, through her eyes, the dramatic differences between the old country and the new world. How can we not look at the millions of hopeful immigrants from poor countries who today flee persecution and seek a better life?
I wanted to share with my readers the story and drama of a moment in history. But the last thing I wanted to write was a long, boring history lesson. I didn’t want to be “teachy” or pedantic with readers who had come for the enjoyment of a good story. What allowed me to keep history relevant but not didactic? Could history work behind the scenes in a subtle layer? Could I intrigue the reader with history’s drama: the unusual, the unexpected, even the astounding? I discovered five ways.
1) Embed historical moments in your story
Set up vivid, action-packed scenes that will take the reader into the past and show historical forces at work. Go directly into the past, creating specific moments that illustrate the driving energies of the time. Keep your reader held rapt by the drama of the time.
Was it a time of war? Can you show the character pursued or even caught by the enemy? Allow enemies to act out and express their violent thoughts, their prejudices, their misguided points of view. What is said will not be so different from words you might hear today. Only the specifics have changed, not the underlying forces. Is there perhaps a moment of humanity where both sides set it all aside and reach out to one another as humans?
Did great changes take place in your character’s life for reasons of the times? Was a centuries old way of life destroyed? The journey from the old beloved ways and places to an uncertain future can be poignant as we see, through our characters eyes, this strange new country with its odd customs, different clothes, different values. Did new and modern ways come marching in without any respect for the past? Can we show the resistance to new and different ways, new and different technologies, new and different values?
And even if there were no huge upheavals in the days of which you write, every moment in time and place has its unique issues and driving energies. Allow these to lend an extra dimension and depth to your story. Reach for the extraordinary that is embedded in the everyday.
Don’t explain history. Instead, just throw your character and the entire supporting cast into powerful moments. As your character experiences history, as many people experienced it, so too will your reader. And come back for more.
2) History can be Dry Unless the Reader Feels how it Felt
The old saw, “May you live in interesting times,” warns against the complexity and suffering people often experience in times of great change. Do your characters experience strong emotional reactions to the forces in play at their own moment in time? Allow your readers to feel the emotions of your characters.
Do they feel isolated and disconnected from a fast-changing world? Do they feel left behind? Do they cherish the old ways and mourn their passing? Small things become symbolic and cause a character to feel sorrow: what we always ate, how we always danced, the music we all loved, the special words in our language that have no matching word anymore.
Follow emotions as tensions in the body, the neck, the belly. Notice them manifesting as small gestures. These details bring the emotion to life.
Then there is the dark side: every human has failings, areas where we fall down again and again. Every character has this shadow piece, and if the writer avoids exploring it, the story will suffer.
It requires courage on the part of the writer to look beyond the surface, to look directly at anger, rage, disappointment, to examine the consequences of negative emotions and habits of behavior. Only when the writer has the courage to look, can the character also find that courage. It doesn’t matter if the character lived a thousand years ago. This part of a story transcends time and place.
If an author refuses to step into these areas, readers will know. They may not know why, but they will feel cheated.
3) Let History Make its Own Philosophical Comments
History can provide a comparison that allows you to express your ideas about the forces in play today. The way you describe the background events of a time will give you an invisible platform without anyone feeling they have been dragged unsuspecting to a philosophy class.
Most people have judgements about the past. What have we learned that human beings should never do again? What worked, enhancing the quality of life in a certain political or social setting? What events and movements created Karmic debt for the human race, and still limit us today? You never need to “hold forth” about these things. The influence of historical events on your characters will state your opinions for you.
4) Is Your Research Showing?
Let the historical moment inspire your story, but don’t get carried away and put in every irrelevant detail just because it is fascinating. Include specific historical events and happenings that fit in with your story, are quintessential to the times, and contribute to what you want to show.
There is a temptation to include everything you read on Wikipedia. A writer’s imagination can take wings! Some facts are so charming! But probably most readers are not turning to Wikipedia for enjoyment. Don’t let your research carry you away from your own story.
5) As Above So Below
Find the common threads between the history that takes place in your story and what is happening today. What does that moment in time tell us about today? How does understanding those events help a reader to live life that is meaningful and stands for something? How did your character find her way to a meaningful life, so many years ago? What hasn’t changed in all that time? Parallel threads can stitch your story into a unified whole.
Mary Helen Fein was born in New York City, in 1943. She attended schools in New York and began writing at the age of twelve when her mother died. Writing has ever since been an important part of her life, a way to understand and process life’s events. Mary Helen holds a BA in English literature from Temple University and an MS in computer science engineering from the University of Pennsylvania; she also studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, America’s oldest art school, for two years. Today she lives in Northern California, where she owns her own website design company, writes, paints, and teaches Insight meditation. In 2014, she published her first novel, Loss of Deliverance―the story of a young woman’s adventures in the drug trade during the 1960s. Most recently, in June 2020, she published Stitching a Life, the immigration story of a sixteen-year-old devoted to building a better future for herself and her family in New York in 1900.