Challenges of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction is a story that takes place in a world that is different – sometimes very different – from the world of the reader.

As a writer in this genre, you need to spend a considerable effort on “world building,” just as in fantasy or science fiction. However, unlike them, we don’t make up our own world. We need to learn it.

On the one hand this is an advantage. I don’t have to build a new world from scratch. I get it ready-made.

On the other hand, I need to learn what it was really like. I need to learn what people ate, how they dressed, how they thought, what their houses looked like. Holidays and customs, coinage, distance and weight measuring. I can’t just make up my own stuff.

The fear of getting something wrong is always there, though. Stuff we take for granted. I can’t put a candle on the table in ancient Rome. I can’t say that something occurred a few seconds later. A city can’t be five miles away. Instead I have torches mounted to the wall. Something occurs moments later. A city that is two hours of walking distance away (they did have hours – but not minutes and seconds).

An embarrassing example from an early draft of my book: I actually wrote that “the land was like a barrel of gunpowder just waiting for the igniting spark.” In the edit I rephrased it to saying that “the land was like a dry barley field just waiting for the torch.” Much better.

Getting the big stuff right is important. But it is when we get these small details and phrases right that the reader actually “feels” that he is in another era. It is an essential part if the world building.

In the photo: King David’s palace, excavations in Jerusalem.

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