Historical fiction novels allow the author to transport the reader to another time and place the way fantasy and sci-fi do, only instead of experiencing an imaginary world they delve into a real one. We can place any genre of fiction in the past, and it becomes a sub-set of historical writing. Having been a teacher for twenty-four years, I revel in the thought of readers learning something from my books just as much as I do them enjoying the characters and plot of the story. So, how do we take the imagination required for fiction and blend it with recorded facts?
There are several approaches to framing the historical novel, but they all require careful research and naturally flowing presentation of the era chosen. The most common method is to introduce a troupe of completely fictional characters into a particular setting in the past. Many authors choose an era they have a personal interest in, such as Medieval or Regency, immersing themselves and their readers in a period they enjoy. Some well-known examples include Gone with the Wind, All the Light We Cannot See, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Red Badge of Courage. Each of these acclaimed novels includes actual circumstances—the burning of Atlanta, Nazi occupation of France, the French Revolution, and a Civil War battle. These writers employ accuracy regarding the events while allowing themselves complete control over their character’s lives. In each of these tales, it is the lasting themes, the resilience and growth of the characters we remember as much as or more than the history. The novelists bring them to life in another place and time so vividly that we feel as if we know them and can relate to their situations.
Other historical fiction writing centers on actual people and the author is constrained by what chronicles have recorded. Unless one is crafting an Alternative History story, he pretty much needs to know his script well and stick to it. That does not mean the novelist has no creative freedom at all; he must interpret the various sources at his disposal in a way that grants vitality to the historic figure. For example, in The White Queen the exact words spoken by Elizabeth of York were not recorded, nor what she was thinking or feeling at any given time. Those are for the writer to assign based on his interpretation of the protagonist.
In Tribute in Blood, I have combined elements from both of these two methods of historical fiction writing. While my protagonists are both imagined characters, the villain, Vlad the Impaler, was a very real tyrant. I engaged in thorough research, relying heavily on primary sources to “get to know him.” I believe the Vlad represented in my novel is not too far off the mark of who he truly was, but being separated by five hundred years and having never met him, I had to draw many conclusions. Secondary historic figures were also included in Tribute in Blood as well as numerous actual recorded facts, but Nicolae, Maria, and the townspeople were all my creations.
A third style of historical fiction writing bases the characters and action on real events or people, but are fictionalized for storytelling purposes. When you see “based on a true story” you know that something similar to what is in the book actually happened, but it is not meant to be a pure academic account. The Nightingale and War Horse are two examples. They are founded partly on real people (and horses) and include factual events and elements, but are not literal biographies of a particular man or woman. Once again, scholarly research is required to hit every note in creating the setting and accurately describing the action presented to the reader.
Sometimes a book completely blends a fictional cast and plot with a famous individual set among them. An excellent example of this is Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel based on the acclaimed painting by Vermeer, with the artist included as a character in the book.
There are as many ways to construct a historical fiction novel as there are ways to cook potatoes, but there are a few guidelines authors should follow in order for their work to be credible. World creation needs to be consistent, avoiding the use of modern expressions and mindsets. The time period presented must be true to itself. While we love recreating the past and transporting our readers back in time, we should remember that it is our characters, their hopes and dreams, fears and trials, triumphs and failures that ultimately matter. It may be interesting to read something that is as accurate as a textbook, but if the audience never truly engages with the characters, they will come away disappointed.
To conclude, good historical fiction writing is a marriage of excellent research and quality storytelling. Choose a period that fascinates you and lead your readers to fall in love with it too through dynamic characters on an extraordinary journey straight into their hearts.
Melodie Romeo, who also writes under the pen name Edale Lane, is the author of the award winning 2019 novel, Heart of Sherwood, and the Night Flyer Trilogy. As Melodie Romeo, she has written Vlad a Novel (soon to be re-released as Tribute in Blood), Terror in Time, and others. She founded Past and Prologue Press in 2019.
Both identities are qualified to write historical fiction by virtue of a masters degree in history and 24 years spent as a teacher, along with skill and dedication in regard to research. She is a successful author who also currently drives a tractor-trailer across the United States.
A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Melodie is also a musician who loves animals, gardening, and nature.
Official Site: https://pastandprologuepress.lpages.co/
The most terrifying horrors are revealed in the pages of history.
After killing more than 100,000 people during his first reign as Prince of Walachia, Vlad has returned, ready to inflict tortuous death on anyone he chooses. Only Nicolae and Maria, drawn together through mutual tragedies both inflicted by the ruthless Prince Dracula, dare try to stop him. Can Nicolae fulfill his plan of justice and revenge while winning the heart of the lovely Maria, or will he become the Impaler’s next victim?
With heart-stopping danger at every turn, detailed historical accuracy combined with fictional characters, and a myriad of surprises, Tribute in Blood is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.