Captain Peter Blood.
What do these characters have in common?
They are swashbucklers who fight for noble causes and wield swords and wits with equal aplomb. They are also people from the past who are better known to us because of their portrayals in historical fiction.
Readers love the nostalgia and safety associated with these novels. Not that there isn’t danger; the fear of thwarting undesired advances, surviving an hostile incursion, or navigating treacherous landscape is real, but it occurs within the book’s pages, rather than in our daily lives. But to a novice author, who yearns to craft a story set in the past, those two words – HISTORICAL FICTION – can seem as daunting an endeavor as climbing Mount Everest. Why? This genre is one of the more difficult ones to write because it requires extensive research in order to fully recreate a world in a time that no longer exists with social norms very different from own our. Historical fiction also requires the author to weave history and culture into the fictional narrative so that the real never intrudes or eclipses the imaginary.
Easy to say. Not so easy to accomplish.
To fully achieve this seamlessly interwoven tapestry set in the past, authors must delve into all aspects of the period until its history and way of life become second nature to them. This research phase of writing historical fiction is like a scavenger hunt. One resource leads to another, each one plunging you deeper and deeper into the past. When this newly acquired knowledge fits as snuggly as a well-made glove, authors begin crafting their stories. They write and revise so that less than one-tenth of their research actually makes it into their stories. This process is akin to an iceberg, where the visible portion floats above the surface. The bulk of this frozen mountain lies beneath the story, subtly defining a bygone event so that readers are eyewitnesses to what occurs instead of viewers sitting on the sidelines. Rafael Sabatini was a master at this. The first time I read Captain Blood, I enjoyed the story and felt as if I accompanied the physician in his tumultuous journey from practicing his profession to his conviction and enslavement to his escape into piracy. Many years later, after expanding my knowledge of history and piracy, I reread Sabatini’s novel and discovered how much I had failed to grasped the first time through and how rich in history his tale truly was.
Loving this genre plays a key role in whether an author’s endeavor succeeds or fails.
Any visitor perusing my library shelves will notice two distinct aspects to my collection of books. Histories and other nonfiction titles take up the majority of space – not just because I’m a writer, but because I’m also a librarian. I love to research and learn new facts, especially those that stir a story idea or two. Books are also tangible objects from the many places I’ve visited. These souvenirs allow me to return to these sites without having to spend more time and money traveling to get there.
The other noticeable feature of my library is that while the fiction shelves hold a variety of genres, the preponderance of my keepers and to-be-read books are historical novels – be they historical romance, steampunk, time travel, or mainstream. From where did this fascination with the genre come? I place the blame totally on my mom. These were the types of stories she loved to read and when I first wanted to try reading a book with chapters and few pictures, she recommended a favorite from her childhood, Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure. This story of Norwegian children smuggling gold bullion past the Nazis to a freighter bound for Baltimore introduced me not only to historical fiction but also to World War II. In high school, after watching QB VII, I read the novel on which the miniseries was based, which compelled me to read other books Leon Uris had written about this war and the Holocaust. These, in turn, led me to read histories on these subjects, which weren’t covered much in my social studies classes. (Although several decades have passed since I first read Armageddon, Battle Cry, Mila 18, and QB VII, these novels are among nine Leon Uris titles in my collection today.)
What defines a historical?
Some readers, especially those of my age and older, may take exception to my classifying these stories as historical novels. This may seem strange, but there is logic behind how they define what is and is not historical fiction. The general “rule” for this genre, especially in the traditional publishing world, is that the story be set prior to 1900. I hold a different view. For me, if the story takes place prior to my birth, it is historical fiction. Having been born after World War II, I consider the events between 1900 and 1954 fair game for settings. One of my works-in-progress takes place in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and, therefore, I consider it historical fiction. But stories about the Vietnam War will always be contemporary novels to me because I grew up in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies.
The exact date for what is or is not historical fiction may be elusive, but the history and makeup of the story are not. It’s not enough to say that a book takes place in 1438 or Viking Scotland or the characters wear different clothes and live in castles. Good historical fiction brings to life the time, place, and culture, and the historical novelist must entwine these into a credible tale populated with unforgettable characters and a series of obstacles to culminate in a satisfactory and believable climax that can take place in only that particular setting and period. Those are the earmarks of a great historical novel.
Interested in learning more?
My upcoming workshop – Researching and Writing Historical Fiction (starting May 7) – is a stepping stone for writers who want readers to experience the past without actually living in the past. I share tricks librarians know to answer research questions and introduce a variety of resources you can consult to recreate a past world that is as vibrant and real as the present. Rather than focus on any single facet of this genre, the lessons, discussions, and exercises refresh your investigative skills, spark story ideas, and inspire character and plot development. If you seek additional feedback, I offer a free chapter edit that focuses on plot, characters, setting, dialogue, point of view, pacing, and conflict – areas that fall under the umbrella of “the big picture,” as well as spelling/grammar/punctuation, emotion, style, word choices, rhythm, time, clarity, tone, and historical details and whether their inclusion intrudes into the story. If you’re in search of a nudge to get your novel started or polished, please join me in this online workshop about researching and writing historical fiction.
A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar is a historical novelist and member of the Historical Novel Society. She is also a freelance editor and for seventeen years, she’s penned “The Red Pencil” column for their Historical Novels Review. As the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, she writes monthly articles on the history of maritime piracy. Dark Oak Press recently published her historical fantasy, “Rumble the Dragon,” in its short story anthology, A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She invites you to visit her award-winning website, Thistles & Pirates to learn more.
A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder Banned from his home after answering a wizard’s riddle, Rumble must live in the dangerous world of men. He forms an uneasy alliancewith exiled Northmen to retrieve a sacred chalice stolen by their fiendish arch nemesis, Ivan Skullsplitter. “Rumble the Dragon” is one of twenty-four amazing tales of bravado, daring, and dastardly deeds committed by the legendary pirates. Travel the High Seas and the far reaches of the galaxy in this collection of tales that explore the past, present, and future of our favorite scallywags. Good luck, and may the wind be in your favor, blowing you toward good pickings, and a safe harbor.