Top 10 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

by Leanna Renee Hieber
published in Writing

Today we have an excellent guest post by Leanna Renee Hieber, author of DARKER STILL. I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with Leanna over lunch at the BEA Bloggers Conference. The minute I met her I could tell how passionate she is about historical fiction and the time period she writes about.  At the conference, she even dressed the part, wearing a modern take on Victorian Gothic style.  In today’s post Leanna shares tips for writing historical fiction and gives us some insight into how she wrote the novel, DARKER STILL. Now, without further ado, here is Leanna.

Top Ten Tops for Writing Historical Fiction

10. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is your friend.

I love etymology. Looking up when words were first in use is not only fun, but keeps you away from anachronisms. Be aware that even if a word sounds period it might not have been, and some words sound too modern even though they were in use. Example: “Okay.” It was a word in use in the 19th century, but it pulls me out every time I hear or see it in period pieces so I make the personal choice not to use it.

9. Embrace anachronisms with caution.

Sometimes you need them, but use them very carefully. Example: my heroine in Darker Still suffers from Selective Mutism due to a childhood trauma. This was not a named condition in the 19th century but I do use the term. I chose to do so because it’s preferred terminology by the modern community who deal with the condition, it’s a descriptive term that is helpful in explaining her physical capacity for speech. Most importantly, I don’t feel it has such a modern tone as to draw the readers out of the story. Choose those moments of license wisely.

8. Period maps are your friend.

There are great online resources, also, check your local library for maps, or libraries in a town you’ve set your story in, utilize the reference librarians. I spent a great deal of time in the map room of the gorgeous New York Public Library and they were magical hours. Do be aware what year of a map you’re looking at, there’s an inaccuracy in one of my books that I woefully didn’t catch until it went to print due to my accidentally using the street names from an 1840s map rather than the 1880s map.

7. Choose aspects of the time period that will add external conflict to your characters’ internal conflicts.

One of the reasons I love writing strong women in the Victorian era is that they all had to be aware of the constraints against them and find their way despite the limitations. Good drama is all about conflict, so don’t run away from conflict in your settings. History is full of it.

6. Be careful not to foist your modern voice and modern opinions onto your narrative.

Don’t treat another era as if we ‘know better now’ – yes, we no longer have the systematic slavery as it once existed but we still have racism and systems of injustice. Trafficking and slavery do exist in the world and in our country. A lot of ideas and rights we take for granted now were birthed in eras before us. Respect the era for what it was but take care not to be so “accurate” that any of your protagonists indulge in hurtful things that readers may find troubling or offensive. Make sure the sensibilities and opinions come from the characters, not your narration commenting back upon the era like an editorial.

5. How much history in your fantasy? How much fantasy in your history?

As a historical fantasy author, I have the beautiful luxury of more artistic license in my settings because I’m making up worlds within worlds. I try to create a “realistic” historical setting with paranormal elements that intrude and upend that setting. Make sure each of your worlds is as clear and established as the other one, they are equally important.

4. Know the rules before you break them.

I have a lot of characters who break the rules of society in one way or another, but it’s more interesting and conflict-rich if we know the rules and see them being broken rather than just acting as if they’re not there.

3. Stay true to and honor your conventions.

Whether it’s a magical system or a societal mores, be sure that once you establish a convention that you stick to it, you are creating a pact with the reader and they participate in the structure you create. Readers get confused and don’t feel well-guided if the structure and systems of the narrative are all over the place. Example. In my Strangely Beautiful saga my Guard of spectral police cannot hear spirits talk to them. If they did once, without a credible reason why, I would be breaking that rule just for the sake of convenience and that cheapens and betrays my own world-building. This goes for realism as well as fantasy. If you break your own rules, back that decision up by strong plot and character motivations.

2. Pick an era that you feel called to.

On a deep, even spiritual level. You have to be a medium and channel another time and place, you have to love it like it is family. The life you breathe into your book will ring more true if you are utterly devoted to the time period. I started writing my first novel somewhere around the age of 12, it was set in 1888. The 1880s are the great love of my life, and I hope it shows.

1. BALANCE your historical details with a compelling narrative and fascinating characters.

No one cares how many buttons would or wouldn’t have been on a certain dress when it’s more important if a character lives or dies. The number one thing in writing Historical fiction is balance, you’re balancing your own modern sensibilities against the realities of another time, you’re balancing details, you’re balancing hard realities, you’re balancing language and how far you want to take the vernacular of the time period, it’s all about balance. When you strike the right balance of a modern writer evoking the past, that’s when readers fall under your spell.



Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her latest novel, DARKER STILL: A Novel of Magic Most Foul, set in 1880 New York City, was an Indie Next List pick by the American Booksellers Association, a Scholastic “Highly Recommended” title and is a finalist in the 2012 Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in Mystery / Romantic Suspense in the Historical category. She is playing Deputy Kellion in Auror’s Tale, a wizarding web-series.

More at and she tweets often @LeannaRenee: and is on Facebook at

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