Historical Fiction’s Biggest Pitfalls

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions
If you’re writing historical fiction, don’t fall into the info-dumping trap. You love all those bits and pieces of info you’ve discovered, but your reader will have a hard time keeping an eye on the story if you can’t restrain yourself. Limit yourself to one or two protagonists–one, preferably. Let that person experience life as if they (and you) did not know “how it all turns out.” If you don’t do that and attempt to steer the narrative, readers will experience a drop-off in tension. Your book will not hold their interest.
boston reading room historical fiction

One of the neat experiences any writer of historical fiction can anticipate is the chance to spend time with historical documents and in library reading rooms like the one in Boston. Image from Pixabay via MonicaVolpin

Let’s start by saying that I think there are two big dangers in historic fiction. One is that your story is predetermined by events, such that you won’t be able to allow your characters much latitude. And the other is that you’ll overwhelm the reader with too many details.

Should Historical Fiction Take Liberties With the Facts?

How many of you know what you will do next week? Do you have your vacations planned two years from now? When will the book you’re writing appear on the shelves?

You can’t know these things. You can’t know how your life will turn out. And yet this element of randomness in real life can be tough to recreate if you’re writing a novel roughly categorized as “historical fiction.”

I went to Paris three years ago to finish up research for my novel called THE VERMILLION SEA, and while diving into the French archives, I thought about historical fiction a lot. Getting bogged down by the research could doom my novel. On the other hand, finding out what really happened in the protagonist’s life could give me the confidence to push through to the end.

With a novel based on real people, you can get locked up by dates and feel that you can’t deviate from “what really happened.” But, hey, this is fiction. If you’re dealing with another era and need to lay in background so the reader has some context, sprinkle it in. You don’t want to be shouting at the reader and overloading them with arcane bits of history. As I pound out more scenes in my novel, I try to remember this isn’t a history book, but a story about one young man’s bumbling path through life. My job as a writer is to bring him alive.

historical fiction suffragettes

Here are some of the founding members of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Women’s right to vote became the subject of Marge Piercy’s novel SEX WARS. For the writer, however, her big challenge was to make the characters “real” and of their era.

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Use Secondary Characters to Reveal Your Main Characters’ Desires

Just as I do when I write contemporary fiction, I use secondary characters to challenge the protagonist and help me unlock his or her secrets.

In Marge Piercy’s SEX WARS, a novel about the women’s suffrage movement, a minor character Sammy asks one of the protagonists Freydeh, “What do you want?” And for those of us who’ve read Charles Baxter’s wonderful book of essays, BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE, we know that having a secondary character pose a question to a protagonist—or even for the author to do that—is one way we can uncover the characters’ deepest yearnings. Without that, it’s hard to know what emotions are working beneath the surface of characters’ lives.

Using secondary characters in this way may help you experience the excitement of discovery. When the writer feels excited, that excitement gets transmitted subliminally to the page. It will certainly help you avoid creating lifeless, cardboard cutouts. I’m not sure Piercy was entirely successful in her vision for the novel. However, if you write historical fiction with a potentially large cast of characters, I urge you to read it. Having too many characters meant I lost track of the emotional journeys of individuals. A novelist doesn’t want to do that.

In the end, for me, SEX WARS provided a cautionary tale. Do not have so many characters the reader gets lost. And, try to forget that you know “how it all turns out” when you’re doing the actual writing. That way you can give your characters choices. Should I take the path to the left or the path to the right?

Use Your Research To Supply Those “Telling Details”

Charles Baxter’s book has another wonderful essay that talks about the importance of “telling details.” These are the two or three items the writer presents to the reader’s internal eye. Highly selective details allow the reader to conjure a picture of the scene as a whole. Sensory details allow the reader to imagine living in the long-ago time and place. (See a similar post about how Chekhov handled telling details.)

Sigrid Undset, author of KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER and the 1928 winner of the Nobel Prize, excelled at placing her characters in their time and place. That’s why her work endured.

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Her trilogy is based on the archaeological work then being done by Undset’s father. She was writing about a time long distant from her own.

They came to Hamar one dark and rainy evening, with Kristin sitting in front on her father’s saddle-bow, for she was so weary that all things swam before her eyes—the lake that gleamed wanly on their right, the gloomy trees which dripped wet upon them as they rode beneath, and the dark, leaden clusters of houses on the hueless, sodden fields by the wayside…At one great house they had silk-covered pillows in their beds; but one night they lay at an inn, and in one of the other beds was a woman who lay and wept softly and bitterly each time Kristin was awake. But every night she had slumbered safely behind her father’s broad, warm back…
Out of doors it was still dark and the weather had fallen frosty. The fog was biting cold. The footprints of folk and of cattle and horses were hard as though cast in iron, so that Kristin bruised her feet in the thin, new shoes, and once she trod through the ice on the gutter in the middle of the street and her legs got wet and cold. Then Lavrans took her on his back and carried her.

What is going on here is that experience is being filtered through the eyes of a child. We get the “telling detail,” the detail that has emotional resonance for this particular consciousness. We don’t get long laundry lists of flora and fauna, but we do begin to feel something from the description. And what is it? That this child, Kristin, feels safe with her father. Feeling, feeling, feeling. That’s what description is all about. It’s NOT about the author recounting all the little streets and alleys in a particular town or the public monuments that anyone might see; it’s about a particular icy puddle that a child steps in and that causes her to be carried.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important to use all five senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Only then can readers feel themselves immersed in the world you’re creating.

And, make sure you place your characters at crossroads. Give them real choices, and write as if you didn’t know whether those choices would be good or bad.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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