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How Do I Write Historical FICTION?


My grandmother in Philadelphia - early 1920s

One of the things I love about this genre is that it is rooted in historical fact and the characters and their actions are pure fiction. It is the best of both worlds for a writer. I get to create fictional characters and their lives and insert them into historical periods and events as if they were actually there.


In the case of Ruth Reid and her family, they actually lived in Philadelphia during the time period I write about. I make up everything they are doing and saying. The suffragists were real and the events I delve into actually happened. How do I do that?


Research for me is critical in writing a compelling story. I have to know as much as possible about what was going on in life in those moments. I read newspapers to understand the details as portrayed to the public. We know that newspapers aren't 100% correct. Even journalists sometimes get the facts scrambled or wrong. But this is what the public was reading - the common knowledge. I look at advertisements too. What is popular? What are people attracted to wear, eat, and experience? This helps me understand something about their daily lives. I read books and watch videos on the history of the place. For me, I want to know what the city was like, what the politics of the day were in terms of conflict and concern. My themes are politics and social justice. I want to understand how people interacted with the government, what are the big issues the city faced, and the contours of people's suffering. These issues are important in shaping my characters - even if they aren't suffering in my book.


I like to find a few key issues that might compel my characters within the lives they are leading. In "No Time For Regrets" I included mention of the 1918 Spanish Flu and how it affected my characters. In the next book, I include details about corporate and bank failures prior to the depression and how my characters get caught up in that. I'm writing book three now and it is set in the 1960s. I've learned quite a bit about race relations and politics - going back to the 1920s. Revision ideas for book two are already in my notebook so that I can continue it in book three with a look-back. I promise it will be worth the revisions to book two as there are some juicy politics to include!


My great uncle from Philly, during WWI

Writing allows opportunities to include some detail and exclude other detail. Just because something happened during the time period doesn't mean it must be included. This is not a documentary or history book! But a familiarity with the time period is crucial. If I write about 1918 and don't include the first World War or the Spanish Flu, even in passing, it would be disingenuous. I leave some issues out of the book because they are not germane to the story as I am telling it. Some historical fiction writers are meticulous about the setting and events and actually tell a historical tale with some characters thrown in to link historical events. Others are more like me and write about the characters, using the historical period for context and to dip the characters into and out of events. The good news is that the rules are not hard and fast. It's about creativity and hopefully, pleasing the readers.



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