Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Here are some tips about writing historical fiction, the usual caveat being that there are no golden rules – these are just things (great catch all word that – things, although thingie is even better and a personal favourite!) that worked for me.

Bear in mind, though, that these tips are based on my experiences while writing my novel, THAT BOY RED which, although set in a particular era, is not woven around concrete historical events per se. This is a character-driven episodic novel following the exploits of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, with historical details pertaining to the era – P.E.I. in the early 1930s – woven into the story.

1) Keep one notebook for historical research, another for your fictional notes. Meticulously record your research along with sources because you’ll forget from one draft to the next whether some detail you’ve inserted has been checked and verified.

2) You don’t need to do all your research before you start to write. At least I don’t – I can’t. It would bore me to tears to do nothing but research at the start. I find that instinctive leap and connection with character far more valuable and essential to writing fiction than getting slogged in a mire of research. For me it’s essential that the connection to character be paramount so the story sings and flows with inner truth.

3) The background and research must serve the story and not the other way around. One of the biggest flaws in historical fiction is when the reader’s attention trips over a chunk of explanatory information that the author has stuck in to inform. It always distracts from the story. When you write a story, you’re spinning a thread for the reader to follow – if there are nubs and knots that the reader notices, you stall the smooth flow of the story, break the dream that you want the reader to fall into when reading your book. A work of historical fiction should never serve to showcase historical facts. Nor should you be so vested in your research that you feel compelled to stick it in just because you’ve spent so much time digging it up.

4) One way to avoid chunks of information is to include information only when your character is thinking of it – but don’t have your character gratuitously think about something that’s a given, just to inform your readers. Don’t over-explain; trust your readers to infer what they need to.

5) Despite my caveats about not needing to do all my research up front, I found I did need to do some initial research in order to start writing THAT BOY RED with a certain degree of authority and ease. I needed to know what daily life was like for a young lad in the 1930s. If I were to write about a child getting up in the morning in the present day, I’d easily be able to create the sights, sounds, smells, textures and nuances surrounding that child. With THAT BOY RED I needed some of that basic knowledge so that when I started to write I wouldn’t stumble during the heat and flow of writing the story because of gaping holes in my understanding of the era.

6) Interviewing elders and experts was a great place for me to start my research. I grilled my father-in-law, John, and his older brother Martin, and all the other elders I could pester, with questions about the five senses from their childhood. I asked them what they’d hear first thing in the morning. Smell, touch, see, taste. I asked about the most striking images/memories in their lives pertaining to the five senses. I had to be specific – for example, I’d ask about the first sounds in the morning to fit what I needed for my story. This was a huge help in colouring and texturizing my knowledge of the era. I asked questions about daily routines and made copious notes to build my own instinctive understanding of the patterns of the daily life of my characters.

7) For me, the research tends to work parallel to the spiral of successive drafts until I reach the centre, the heart of that last draft. Sometimes you don’t know what you need to know until you write the next draft.

Tips on Writing Historical Fiction -- Part II will be posted on June 24th.


  1. Great advice, Rachna. I agree with everything you say, and you say it so well.

  2. Thanks so much,Peggy. This was my first attempt at Historical fiction so I'm delighted to have you approve these tips, as I know you're well versed in Historical fiction.

  3. Your comments about not having to put everything in that you've researched are so true! It's such a temptation to stuff it all in when you've worked so hard to find it all out, isn't it? I've found a good solution is to write more books on the subject. Any more about Red in mind?

  4. Thanks, Karleen. So true and so funny about writing more books to use up the research! Oddly though, I have more glimpses and snippets of what Red might get up to that nudge me to write more of his stories. I tend to do the research I need at the time and then promptly forget it!