10 July 2019

Writing Historical Fiction: Where to Start!?

A few weeks ago, my friend, freelance writer Angela Tague raised some interesting questions regarding my writing process for historical fiction, which in turn prompted me to write this article. Thank you, Angela for the inspiration!

When I first conceived the notion to write THE COUNTRY GIRL EMPRESS series, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to cover the entire lifetime of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi), set in 19th century Vienna. While I was quite familiar with her life story and the setting already, I knew there was still so much more I needed to research about this timeframe. The question was: Where should I begin?  Why...with the characters of my book, of course!

Creating Characters

All the wonderful ideas for a grand story wouldn't do me any good if I didn't have people, fictional or real, to play a role in my narrative. However, before I put pen to paper or more accurately, fingers to the keyboard, I had to determine who my main character is and what he or she plans to accomplish in the story. Since my main character, Empress Sisi, was a person who lived in the past, I needed to learn all I could about that her status, lifestyle, and personality. Although historical fiction allows room for interpretation, because it's fiction, after all, it still needs to ring true.

Researching the Era

Once I had a good idea of who my characters  (main as well as supporting)  were going to be, I needed to define the setting of my historical fiction novel clearly. Here are several questions that helped me: What year(s) will the story take place? Will it span over many years, or will it be restricted to one year or maybe just one season? Where will the story take place?  

For my Country Girl Empress series, these questions were reasonably simple to answer, since I had planned to span Sisi's entire lifetime, which in her case was 1837 to 1898. As for the location, it was also rather easy (or so I thought in the beginning): The Austro-Hungarian Empire. Little did I know that the Empress was quite a world traveler, and I had to, therefore, incorporate a lot of her travel adventures into my stories. 

This is when historical research is essential. I borrowed books from the local library, purchased some, and read many articles about the subject matter online. Once I had immersed myself in the setting, I was able to create mental images of the physical landscape and the buildings. Of course, it also didn't hurt that I had visited many of the locations.

Learning About Fashion 

My next step was to research the style of clothing people wore at the time. Learning the names of clothing items and the fabrics used was particularly fascinating to me. Authenticity is, after all, found in the details where historical fiction is concerned, and they are definitely found in fashion.

Studying Architecture

Architecture plays a significant role in writing historical fiction, from the most magnificent cathedral to the tiniest dairy maid's cottage because these buildings reflect the ideals of the people of that given period. Learning the names of some of these structural features and the raw materials used was essential to give my stories an authentic feel. Again, it is all about the details!

Learning About Warfare

Although my book series is not predominantly about war, warfare dominates history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved in many conflicts as well as significant wars throughout the timeframe I chose for my stories. I felt it crucial to study the art and nature of warfare in 19th century Europe, as well as the various weapons soldiers used and the armor/uniforms they wore. 

Researching the Social Status of the Characters

The social status of an individual was of great significance, even though things were beginning to shift within society in the 19th century. Status defined a person's lifestyle and how he/she dressed. There was little fluidity or moving upwards, the betterment of ones' situation. If you were born a peasant, you were, more than likely, remain a peasant for life. In Empress Sisi's case, she was born to royalty, and she couldn't escape her destiny no matter how much she might have wanted to get away from the strict protocol that governed her daily life.

Writing Historically Accurate Dialogues

Once I had written my outline and done my research, it was time to write my first book in the series. Of course, the characters needed to interact with each other.  This is when I felt I could take some liberties with my writing. 

People in 19th century Austria spoke predominantly German. Of course, there was no way I would have my characters converse in German in my story since I was writing for the American market. In my series of novels, they would speak English, sprinkled with the occasional mention of German names. Although this aspect could technically be viewed as an inaccuracy, I don't think it would have done my books any good to write them in German for the American marketplace. Yet, I felt obliged to be mindful of the historical timeframe in which my characters existed. So, they would "speak" a form of formal English, not inundated with 21st-century slang. 

Accuracy is definitely king in historical fiction. That's what makes writing a historical fiction novel so challenging. However, thoroughly researching the subject matter definitely helps. For more tips and tricks, read Writing Historical Fiction: Balancing History and Fiction and Writing Historical Fiction: Chronological Errors and How to Avoid Them.

I hope you enjoyed this article! Since this list of tips and tricks is not all-inclusive, please feel free to  add yours in the comment section below.

Piper is the author of several non-fiction books, and recently added three historical fiction novels to her ever-expanding collection of published writings, In the Shadow of Her Majesty , The Country Girl Empress. and A Life in the Shadow of the Crown. When she isn't busy typing away on her computer, she can be found chasing after her furry children or holding on tightly to a good cup of coffee. Follow her on LinkedInFacebook, and Goodreads.

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  1. Hi Piper! Oh, this is so fascinating! I love to read all genres, but have only written in a handful professionally, including journalism and marketing. I read fiction often, but have never given much thought to the level of research involved in historical fiction. You sure are diligent in getting all the details right. And, then I love the liberty to use your creativity to make the story play out. Such a fun niche you've chosen! Thank you so much for sharing! ~ Angela

    1. Hello Angela and thank you for stopping by! I apologize for not replying to your comment sooner, but for some odd reason my website did not notify me that I had a comment pending.
      I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! I take great care when researching a specific era or historical person; I find it quite fascinating. And while I'm not a historian, I do like to write my stories close to historical events as possible...unless, of course, I write about an alternate timeline. =)