Writing historical fiction presents its own unique delights and difficulties. The delights, for those who love history, are obvious. You get to immerse yourself in a particular time period of the past--or many different ones, if you are prolific.

The difficulties? You need to be as comfortable in your chosen time period--Medieval France, Ancient Rome, England in World War II--as you are in your own time. This requires a lot of research. You need to know everything: what people wore, what they ate, what they sang, what they read, how they traveled, how they communicated… For instance, what if an author of a Civil War novel had President Lincoln communicating with his generals by telephone? Ridiculous, obviously, and yet authors often make less obvious mistakes which are sure to be caught by some gimlet-eyed reader. And once a mistake is found, the “willing suspension of disbelief” so necessary for the enjoyment of fiction is lost, never to be regained.

Most difficult of all is understanding what people in the past thought and believed. What they thought and believed in regard to women, for instance, is obviously something you will need to know. Feisty heroines populate dozens of historical novels, but in real life, in the past, feisty women often ended up shunned, ridiculed, and at worst, burned at the stake as witches. The exceptions were usually women of wealth and power like Elizabeth I or Lucretia Borgia.

Of course you could avoid the whole problem of understanding the condition of women in the past by writing your historical novel with an all-male cast, but that would be pretty dull, wouldn’t it?

FAQ

Q. How much research should I do for my historical novel?
A. You should research until you find that you are “discovering” facts that you already know.

Q. Isn’t it dangerous to start to write before I have completed my research?
A. It is dangerous not to start. Some people enjoy their research so much, they never get around to writing their novel. You should research until you feel fairly comfortable in your time period; then you should start to write, skipping over details and keeping a list of them to look up later. What is the name of that particular kind of carriage or that particular fashion item? You don't need to know immediately; move on, keep writing, and look it up later.

Q. I've spent months--years--researching, and I’ve gathered a lot of material. Shouldn’t I put it all into the book?
A. No. Many historical novels sink of their own weight, because the author couldn’t bear to leave out all that research and her editor didn't know enough or didn’t care enough to edit her.

Q. So less is more?
A. No, less is less. If you research too little, it will show also. You have to write from a position of strength, which, as noted above, is that you are as comfortable in your chosen time as you are in the here and now. The reader will know if you haven't done your homework; you don't have to put it all on the page.

Q. Why do most Americans dislike history?
A. This has always been a forward-looking country, a place where people came--and still come--to start over. Unfortunately, as George Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past [or who never knew it] are condemned to repeat it. Also, history is often badly taught in the schools, a dull agglomeration of dates and names presented in written-by-committee textbooks. But what history really is, is stories about people, and stories about people are always interesting. Some excellent teachers--and there are many!--are able to convey this.

Q. I've heard that a lot of folks get their history, right or wrong, from historical fiction.
A. I think that's true. I'm sure that a lot of people have their interest piqued by reading a historical novel, and then they go on to read up on the factual material. Not a bad way to be introduced to history.

Q. Is it wiser to fictionalize, say, the lives of real historical figures, or to think up fictional characters and place them in some historical framework?
A. In general, writers don't “think up” their characters. Characters come to them, and if those characters lived in the past, they bring their time and place with them.

Q. What are some good historical novels?
A. Take a look.

Q. How about historical mysteries?
A. In addition to those mentioned in the “Historical Fiction” list below, you might try historical mysteries by: Bruce Alexander (Eighteenth Century London), Lindsey Davis (Ancient Rome), Dorothy Dunnett (Renaissance Scotland and Italy), Anne Perry (Victorian London), and Ellis Peters (Twelfth Century England).

The problem with writing mysteries set in the past, of course, is that not only do you have to get your mystery right, you also have to do all the historical research. On the other hand, you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t enjoy it, would you?

Some Favorite Historical Novels

Marian Zimmer Bradley. The Mists of Avalon
  The King Arthur legends told by the women in the story.
  "Reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience."
  --The New York Times Book Review

Alan Furst. Kingdom of Shadows
  One of the best of Furst's World War II-era thrillers.
  "Highly recommended"--Washington Post Book World

Diana Gabaldon. Outlander; Dragonfly in Amber; Voyager
  The first three volumes of her time-travel series set (mostly) in 18th Century Scotland.
   "Triumphant"--Publishers Weekly

John Galsworthy. The Forsyte Saga
  Set in Victorian England, the granddaddy of family sagas.
  "A work of art"--The New York Times

Robert Harris. Enigma
  Spies and codes and a World War II love story.
  "Spectacular"--The New York Times Book Review

Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Light Years; Marking Time; Confusion; Casting Off
  An enchanting series set in World War II England.
   “Dazzling…[The Cazalets] have earned an honoured place
  among the great saga families”--Sunday Telegraph

Joseph Kanon. The Good German
  Berlin in July 1945. Vivid atmosphere, heartbreaking love story.
  “A superb thriller”--Booklist

Karleen Koen. Through a Glass Darkly; Now Face to Face
  Love and treason in 18th Century England. Fascinating and beautifully written.
  “Magnificent!”--Cleveland Plain Dealer

Robert Lewis. Michel, Michel
  A Jewish boy brought up as a Catholic to save him from the Holocaust.
  "The work of a master storyteller"--Denver Post

Margaret Mitchell. Gone With the Wind
  Political correctness aside, this is the Great American Novel.
  "A spectacular book"--Chicago Tribune

Zoe Oldenbourg. The World is Not Enough
  Twelfth-century France and the Third Crusade.
  The greatest historical novel ever written, period.
   "Brilliant"--Boston Herald

Josephine Tey. The Daughter of Time
  Solving the mystery of Richard III.
  "One of the best mysteries of all time."--The New York Times

Kathleen Winsor. Forever Amber
  Restoration England and much more.
  "Every ounce sizzles"--Time