Although self-publishing a book has become easier and faster, writing books set in the eras bygone is still a tough game. Indeed, the historical genre, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, presents a unique challenge to the writer as it requires combining compelling stories and accurate historical facts and details.
Research plays an important role in writing historical books, as it allows writers to create an immersive reading experience that is both true to the time period and reflective of the lives of the people from the time.
Historical Fiction vs. Science Fiction
In many ways, writing historical books is a lot like self-publishing fantasy, supernatural, or science fiction. Readers get to discover and explore worlds, time periods, events, and even peoples quite different from their own. Your story’s characters are responsible for bringing life to the emotions, sights, sounds, culture, and heritage of an era that your readers know nothing about.
However, this is where the similarity between science fiction and period books end.
Because unlike science fiction, where stories, events, and settings can be entirely fabricated, historical fiction must be rooted in factual and accurate information.
What makes writing historical fiction even harder than other genres is that it requires you to adhere to factual constraints and limitations while acknowledging that you may not have access to all of them.
Why is Research Important When Writing Historical Books?
Writers self-publishing a book in the historical genre must thoroughly and extensively research. You must study the subject so well that no one can find faults in your facts, not even a historian.
Historical fiction writing research is split into two phases – primary investigation and secondary study.
The primary investigation is carried out to understand and analyze the era and gain deeper insights into the people’s life, customs, beliefs, traditions, and culture. The sources for the investigation are diaries, letters, journals, newspapers, and other firsthand accounts.
The secondary study provides a broader understanding of the period, such as exact dates, locations, and places that require to be included in the book. The sources comprise articles, books, and non-fiction resources written after the period.
This understanding and analysis can create a more original and believable historical book.
- To better understand, let us explore some examples.
If you have a character in your book kidnapped in the 17th century, you must know there weren’t any specific laws for kidnapping in the 1600s.
If you have your 15th-century knight asking the princess to meet up in the shed when the clock struck six, she wouldn’t know how to measure time, as mechanical clocks were invented in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
You also have to be careful about the vocabulary. Words like telegraph, typewriter, psychology, photography, and evolution didn’t exist until the 19th century. Characters at that time didn’t know these words.
As a self-publishing author who does not have an editor fact-checking and providing feedback on your manuscript, you must be extra careful while writing historical novels to ensure the originality and accuracy of the work.
You can also read our previous blog: Helpful Steps to Self-publishing a Book in Fiction Genre.
What is the Right Way to Research for Your Historical Fiction Writing?
The process of researching for historical fiction writing is unique to each author. You will probably discover your approach as you write more books. However, we have three useful tips for conducting research and ensuring accuracy when writing historical books to aid in your endeavor.
- Try To Research Around Your Writing. Do Not Write Your Book Around Your Research.
Your book should not be a guided tour that describes everything you have researched. It would alienate your story, making the book jarring and abstract.
For example, a poor writing would read like this: A cobbled street led to Amelia’s home, which was constructed with wattle and daub, a mixture of clay, mud, and straw. She looked up to see the roof that was thatched. The house had only two windows and was poorly lit.
To engross your readers in your world, mention the time period or the historical event casually, almost incidentally.
Instead of describing a 16th-century constructed house, let the character or action lead the story.
Example: Amelia walked down the cobbled street to her tiny house, her heart heavy as she gazed upon the holes in the thatched roof. The rainwater had seeped in, damaging the daub walls and the hanged portrait of her mamma. It was Amelia’s only memory of her mother, which her pappa had sketched before leaving for the battle. The lack of windows made it hard for Amelia to see the damage. She lit a candle and set it across the floor.
If you want a guide to self-publishing a non-fiction book, read our blog here.
- You Aren’t Writing a Textbook – Use Artistic License
To immerse your readers in your historical fiction story, subtly slip in clues, information, and reference points throughout the narrative. This will allow your readers to visualize the era you are trying to portray without making it too overt.
Be creative and use descriptive details to transport readers to a specific time – the sound of horse hoofs on the cobbled streets, the smell of wood smoke, or the shivers that run through the spine upon touching a rough-hewn stone wall.
You can also incorporate historical facts and references through dialogues and characters’ actions, providing the needed context and insights without disrupting the flow of the story.
And that said, judicious use of little artistic license has never hurt a historical fiction author, ever. It has only added depth and interest to the story.
Artistic License or Creative License allows authors to fill in gaps that historical records don’t. They offer plausible explanations for events, settings, and circumstances and help writers develop characters that modern readers can relate to.
Suppose you want to show that your 16th-century heroine is a rebel and sneaks out at night to practice swords. In that case, cleverly balance artistic license and historical accuracy to clearly articulate the fictionalized parts of the story without dishonoring the history and inspired events.
- Balance Historical Facts with Creativity
Self-publishing a book based on historical facts is tricky; not every author can nail it. But you can if you follow the above two tips and this last one.
- Conduct thorough research on the setting of your story. If your story is based on the American Revolutionary War, read everything about Great Britain, North American Colonies, battles, and key events between 1775 and 1983. Investigate people, geography, culture, society, and everything else.
Also, research the era’s customs, values, food, clothing, traditions, relationships, taboos, social norms, historical landmarks, streets, buildings, and language. Understanding these details will allow you to create more believable and engrossing plots, characters, and situations. Adding minute details, like a lesser-known street in a city, can help you transport your readers to the era and create a captivating reading adventure.
The Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon is one of our favorite historical fiction works. The series, consisting of eight novels, is a supernatural historical fiction depicting the Jacobite Rising in 1745, one of the significant events in Scotland and 18th-century Scottish society. The series is known for its perfect blend of historical accuracy and fantasy elements.
Although the book is a work of fiction, it has inspired many readers to learn more about Scotland, the Battle of Culloden, and the history between Scotland, Great Britain, and the Colonies.
In fact, the books have significantly boosted Scotland’s tourism and led fans to visit the places featured in the television adaptation.
- Research the people to write characters that are deeply rooted in the time period. Understand their customs, accent, language, vocabulary, slang, habits, and common jobs.
You must also study the roles of different classes, ethnic groups, communities, and their daily lives.
This research will help you develop believable, authentic, and relatable characters, even those laced with fictional attributes.
Understanding the era’s language, slang, vocabulary, and idioms can help you accurately depict the characters’ thoughts and emotions and write natural dialogues that sound true to the historical period.
- The changes you make to the historical facts or timeline to make it relevant to your story must be consistent with the overall context and must not challenge or contradict the original facts, events, or circumstances.
To ensure consistency and accuracy, as a self-publishing author, you should be thorough in fact-checking, refrain from using modern words, customs, languages, and traditions in your manuscript, and always cross-check both primary and secondary sources while writing.
Despite the common challenges, Historical Fiction is the most popular and rewarding genre for book publishers and readers alike.
Self-publishing historical fiction will be manageable if you harness the power of research and understand the culture, social norms, practices, and events of the time. This will allow you to create a vividly imagined plot that transports readers to the past while enjoying the gripping story you have written.
Looking for the best self-publishing platform for historical fiction? Check how Writat publishing works.