Writing historical fiction can be exciting, but it is not always simple. Besides the necessary research about your chosen period, you also need to consider the assumptions your readers make about that period. Modern thought and conveniences often skew our idea of what other periods were like. You can balance your readers’ assumptions with historical facts by taking three steps.
Learn the Common Conventions
The first step you can take is learning the conventions fictional authors use for the historical period you want to write about. You can research in books and on websites about writing fiction to find information and examples. It is also helpful to read a lot of historical fiction so that you can see the conventions in action and how they affect the novel. You can apply these conventions to your manuscript as you recreate your chosen period and, possibly, introduce new facts to your readers.
While you are considering historical fiction conventions, you should remember that you need the appearance of historical accuracy even though you will have to bend the facts to make them work for modern fiction. The most common example is language. If your manuscript is placed far back in time, you won’t be able to accurately portray the language in a way that readers will understand. On the other hand, some words feel too modern and will stand out to readers, even if those words were used in that period. Authors work around this problem by word choice and sentence structure to give their novel the feel of another time. Whatever you do write needs to have the illusion of historical accuracy so that it doesn’t provoke skepticism or bog down readers with too many facts. Readers that don’t believe you or find your book difficult to read won’t finish it.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
The second step you can take is choosing your battles wisely. As I mentioned before, you don’t want to annoy or inundate your readers with too much information. That is why you need to choose what things you are going to include carefully. You are telling a story, not lecturing about history. You can inform readers about accurate history without overwhelming them, especially if you are subtle with how you introduce it. You shouldn’t be afraid to introduce historical facts either. Many readers like learning new things while they read a novel, especially if it fits nicely within a good story.
The quantity of information is one potential problem, but so is the type of information. Some things are easier to add than others. Even though most readers will expect a Victorian woman to ride a bicycle just like men, they probably won’t mind if she has a lady’s tricycle instead. Readers will be more divided about something such as a mother in the 1910s sending her baby through the post office to visit his grandparents. Some will find it funny; some will find it horrifying; and some won’t believe it at all. Both are historically accurate, but one is more likely to strike a nerve than the other. When you include facts, they need to be believable for a modern audience. That means you either need to introduce things that readers will easily match with a modern equivalent or use the story, especially the characters, to give the fact believability.
Talk with an Expert
The third step you can take is having a beta reader or a historical fiction editor look at your manuscript. Their reactions will give you a definite answer on what readers will probably think of your novel. You know what you know, which makes it is harder for you to judge what your readers will think about the subject. A beta reader or editor can fill that gap for you and help you know what to expect. The editor can even help you correct any parts that don’t work well or won’t receive positive responses.
Accuracy is important, but you need to consider what readers will expect. You don’t want to jolt your readers out of the story with unexpected details or bore them with too much information. You can strike a balance between assumptions and accuracy by researching the common conventions, choosing your battles wisely, and working with a beta reader or editor.