Historical Fiction: 3 Tips for Leaving the Slush Pile Behind

H

We hear it all the time:

There are no new stories!

Nowhere is this sentiment more potentially accurate than with historical fiction. But is it really true? Or is this a case of needing more out-of-the box thinking?

Here are three ways to re-imagine the research. Take one tip or use all three and leave Ho Hum in the dust.

1. If you must travel a well trod road, stay the hell out of the wagon ruts!

Historical novelists tend to cluster around a few key events and time periods. The largest of the popular zones are the cornerstone events of the 18th  through  20th  centuries. Why you ask? Well first, because there is more data available for world building and character studies. Second, because society started to change and during this time we see the origins of many “modern” social concepts. Third, historical eras grew shorter, were more clearly defined, and were exploding with fascinating developments in art, literature, and the sciences. In short, more writers can identify with these centuries. If possible, writers could explore setting their stories in lesser known time-frames.

However, I understand. You have your heart on one of these popular eras. I sympathize; I too suffer from this common aliment. So expand your research zone to include the transitional or shoulder eras for your target period. Also you could consider dumping the traditional genre for that beloved time zone. Offering up yet another Regency romance in a market flooded with them may never help you melt the slush. But maybe a Regency mystery, or a Regency horror novel might. Being in love with a popular era’s popular genre isn’t the kiss of death, but it does mean you need to work that much harder to offer up something fresh.

2. History is written by the conquerors.

For most of human history this was a pretty accurate statement. Historians practiced what’s called a top down approach to history, looking predominately at the power elite. Fortunately historians have moved beyond this stage, however historical fiction writers … not so much. Sure, throwing in some huge historical figures is fun for the writer. If it’s handled properly it can add complexity to the storyline. However, for every one writer that handles this juggling act well, many more are simply adding in famous figures for their characters to stumble over. And everyone seems to end up using the same historical characters. Too much of any notable person (no matter how important) starts to feel stale when they make a cameo in every other book. If you feel the urge to add famous people to your pages, think carefully and make sure they aid the plot.

Better still, consciously shift the focus of your story to a bottom up model. People love learning something new, so if you really want to catch a reader’s attention find history’s overlooked and forgotten people. Tell events from the perspective of someone ordinary, the people at the lower rungs of the social ladder. Give the narrative to someone totally unexpected, like an outsider, a servant, a child, or even a leper.

3. Pack up the show and take it on tour.

If I still haven’t convinced you to stay out of the historical fiction ruts, then follow those muddy groves to some place new. Stop focusing on the traditional seats of power, and focus your eyes on the horizon. Search for the far-flung outposts, the struggling colonies, or the abandon pockets of humanity. Explore wonderful new climates and harsh forbidding landscapes. Most civilizations were interested in extending their influence. They would trade, use the diplomacy of treaty, and arranged marriage. They would manipulate, spy, cause insurrection, and declare war. Even ancient empires poked their noses and weapons over their neighbor’s back fence. Find these forgotten cities, the lost battles sites, the obsolete trade routes, or the temples to forgotten deities. Give them back their teeming streets, their marketplaces and crime filled allies. Finding a lost treasure of a setting makes every novel better,  and if you uncover something truly remarkable, you’ll send everyone racing to Google, seeking some proof you didn’t make it all up.

Remember, dump the expected!  Take those sleepy well-known historical facts and re-purpose, refocus and relocate them. Who knows, you just might create the next hot new trend in historical fiction.

 

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

12 thoughts on “Historical Fiction: 3 Tips for Leaving the Slush Pile Behind”

  1. This is great. I love historical fiction, but shy away from using real events or people or places because I’m.. well, shy. Haha. But I do have a historical… short story that’s bobbing along in my trunk of unsubmitted works. It’s there for whenever I’m bored and want to work on a fix-me-upper. Really, it needs a tonne of actual, accurate research to make it into anything noteworthy. When I wrote it, I just sort of let my imagination roll and my eyes skim over Wikipedia. >83

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. The research can keep me in a happy cloud forever. I have to make myself stop and start working on the story. Hopefully you will experience the same thrill once you dig in. Good luck with the project.

  2. Those first two are spot-on. From Napolean to 1945 just changed everything. I agree with you about all that stuff – the shorter historical periods, more data, etc. Makes perfect sense that historical fiction writers would flock to that era.

    I’ll tell you a period I’d look at if I were going to write historical fiction and try to stay out of the ruts. 1618-1648. (That’s the 30 years’ war. Long enough time period to do interesting things with three generations of characters, a truly catastropic event in terms of the human and social costs, and the the treaties defined the characteristics of the modern state). Really an under-explored era, to my way of thinking.

    best of luck with the challenge! I’m keeping a page of new blogs that I visit and like enough to comment on, because what’s better than a list of 150 blogs that talk about writing that I can come back to once the challenge is over? You’re definitely getting listed under “H”

    1. You are so right Gene’O, there are some amazing lesser explored pockets of history. The negative is they are more challenging to research, but I think they’re worth the effort. Thank you for stopping by, and for including us in your revisit list. A to Z is such a great way to meet new people. And the blogs are just wonderful. I feel honored to be involved.

  3. This is great stuff, Robin. I think #1 was my favorite tip. Just because it’s the same old story doesn’t mean you have to use the same transpo. I’m looking forward to browsing more of The Sisters when I’m not trying to see a thousand A to Z blogs. I’ll be back!

    1. Oh, I know the feeling, it’s easy to spend the whole day on A to Z blogs. I’m bookmarking and following like a madwoman. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. I like your advice here: “People love learning something new, so if you really want to catch a reader’s attention find history’s overlooked and forgotten people.” I have written about the 1930s (nonfiction) and discovered some interesting trivia in the process. Have always wanted to go back and glean from that in my fiction. Thanks!
    http://shells-tales-sails.blogspot.com/

  5. I do love history. I forgot I wrote a short story based on Mark Twain several years ago! But it’s not the overdone elements or scenes from his life. My story contains some “never before seen” scenes:) I’m so excited about this. I need to put on the finishing touches and send it out. I agree, that you should look for the lesser known people of history or aim at writing about the lesser known facts of someone famous in history.

    1. Hi Jennifer, I think finding anything fresh about Twain is a major coup. You should keep working on that project. Thanks for checking out our blog. Robin

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