Guest Post: The Easy Part of Writing Historical Fiction by Roseanne Lortz

As a writer, I am frequently on the receiving end of comments from non-writers who have varying perceptions of my craft. Some people dismiss it as an effortless occupation, much easier than holding down a “real” nine to five job. Others immediately attach herculean difficulty to it: “Writing? That sounds so hard! How do you possibly think of a story to write about, and one that’s long enough to make into a novel?” Usually, I just smile and murmur something conventional, but today I’m going to let you in on the truth. Today I’m going to tell you that it is actually very easy to think of a story—if you write in the genre that I do. The story’s not the hard part….

When writing historical fiction, one benefit is that you don’t have to create your own external plot—History does it for you! The writer’s job is to find the story by doing a little historical reconnaissance in nonfiction, other novels, or even film. Eventually, you will uncover a historical event (or person) that captures your imagination, and that will become the subject of your book. The next step, creating an outline for your novel, is as simple as copying out a chronological sequence of events from the encyclopedia. If you’ve chosen a well-documented period in history, you may even have to limit the scope of your subject because you have too much story to fit into one novel. For the writer of historical fiction, finding a story is easy.

The hard part comes when you have to find the reasons behind the factual outline. Yes, history tells us that Tancred went on the First Crusade, but why did he do it? We know that he refused to swear fealty to the Byzantine emperor, but what were his motivations? When studying source material, you’ll find that historians not only provide the facts but also provide their own helpful interpretations of the reasons behind them. Unfortunately, these interpretations often conflict with each other. While writing one episode of Road from the West, I had to deal with seven contemporary accounts providing different interpretations of why the traitor Firuz handed over the city of Antioch to the Crusaders. Which reasons are possible? Which reasons are plausible? The straight facts of the story might be helpfully laid out for you, but deciphering the internal motivations the characters is just as important to creating a believable story and propelling the plot forward.

Another mixed blessing comes with crafting the dramatis personae of your novel. When writing historical fiction, the good news is that you don’t have to come up with names and physical descriptions for your characters. The bad news is that you do have to decide which characters to omit. History flaunts a large and unwieldy cast of characters (and in the medieval period, nearly half of them inconveniently share the names William or Robert). If I allowed every person who “did something important” in the historical story to enter the pages of my book, I would have a cast of characters four times as long as the one in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Sometimes, for the sake of the reader’s sanity, historical characters have to be conflated or cut entirely. Sometimes, for the sake of historical lucidity, historical comprehensiveness must be sacrificed.

There are many other difficulties a writer of historical fiction must surmount before achieving the goal of a finished novel—making dialogue authentic to the era without sounding stilted to the modern ear; avoiding anachronism in gender roles and religious beliefs; pacing the historical events correctly so that the climax is close to the end—but these are the difficulties the non-writer never inquires about. “How do you possibly think of a story to write about?” That, my friend, is the easy part. History is full of stories just waiting to be told.


  1. Great post! It's nice to get an insight into a writer's methods.

    I really like historical fiction, and after your post I can't wait to read some (:

  2. I don't know if avoiding anachronisms in gender roles is something that should be adhered to with a vengeance. Sure, we know that women were kept down for centuries, but I still enjoy reading about women breaking out of those roles in historical settings. There are far more women warriors in fiction than ever truly existed, for example --and that's okay. If the rest of the story is accurate, I'm willing to suspend a bit of disbelief for the sake of letting women take off the aprons now and then.


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