On Historical Fiction: Why the “w” Word Matters

The most informative session I attended at the AWP Conference last week was “Putting the Story in History II,” presented by these authors:

Ron Hansen began the panel with several tips for writers of historical fiction. These are some paraphrased highlights:

Make a basic outline of the plot before you begin writing. While plot outlining may not always be necessary for other kinds of fiction, the rigor of staying close to historical events and lives requires more conscious planning. Even if you don’t know the exact beginning and ending of your story, be sure to know the major and turning plot points along the way, and stay as close as possible to the actual lives of any historical characters.

Avoid overwriting historical details. While it can be tempting to throw in every single fascinating detail we have learned through our research, be careful not to overwhelm the reader with trivia. Choose facts and background information judiciously, so as best to support the story.

Focus less on dialect and more on the vocabulary of the region or time period. Useful resources include The Dictionary of American Slang and the Online Etymology Dictionary)

Think of yourself in the role of movie producer and cast your characters before you begin. You can do this with actors and actresses or historical photographs. I used this technique as a way to imagine the younger of Tomas’s two Lakota step-sisters in Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux. This young girl from a contemporary historical photograph was, for me, Chumani:

Dakota Girl
Her Know (Dakota Sioux Girl), 1899

One of the most refreshing aspects of this particular panel was the focus on the thrill and accuracy of researching and writing historical fiction. Nothing about platforms or social media or even getting published. As important as those other topics are for authors, without a solid writing habit and what Margaret Atwood referred to in her keynote talk as the four-letter “w” word, none of it matters much. And let’s face it—the joy is in the work of writing, not in platform building

I left the room with a bit more of my bounce in my step, eager to plunge into the next in the series of Fiction for Young Historians.

4 thoughts on “On Historical Fiction: Why the “w” Word Matters

  1. Wonderful post, Lisa! These are great tips and I’m so glad you shared them. I especially love the idea of finding pictures of my characters and letting these anchor my 19th century imaginings.

  2. I’ve recently been forced to consider the hardships, as well as joys, that writing historical fiction might bring to the writer. I just finished reading “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer, and loved every chapter of it. I realized that I never knew much about Hungary’s role in WWII, and truly appreciated how well Orringer tied together aspects of human nature, class, politics, and history (not to mention the amazing character development!) – the novel has easily become one of my favorites.

    I’d like to write about my family history one day in the form of historical fiction (my gene pool began in China, Italy, and Spain, and managed to pool together at the same time in Guatemala, which is where my parents were born, as second generation immigrants). I should probably get to work and start interviewing my grandmother and great-uncle about what they can remember as children!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: