5 Steps to Compelling Historical Fiction

Civil WarHow to Keep the History from Overwhelming
(or Underwhelming) Your Story

by Nancy Campbell Allen

Most of us who write historical fiction enjoy the research part, much to the dismay (or disbelief!) of fellow writers who can’t comprehend that such a thing could possibly be fun. How do they not get it? Right in the middle of researching some amazing time or place, a detail jumps out that will make the perfect plot point! And a great way to conquer writer’s block is to jump into a bit of research and find the nugget that gets the ball rolling again.

There is a downside, though, and we’ve all seen it. There are times when we read historical fiction and get lost (not the good kind of lost) in the setting because our well-meaning author is determined  to teach us everything she learned while researching the French Revolution. Yes, there are lots of facts, and the description is quite thorough—we feel like we’re headed to visit Madame le Guillotine ourselves—but there comes a point when it’s just too much, and a beheading might be a mercy. We don’t even care what happens because the author hasn’t given us a reason to care.

Here are five things to remember when crafting a novel that requires a fair amount of research, whether dealing with historical events or unusual settings:

  1. The reader wants to connect with your characters.  True, she probably picked up your novel because she also loves ancient Egypt, but the thing that will keep her committed  to the story is the fact that she cares about your heroine, Nefersheptsutankaman. Be careful not to get so caught up in historical facts that you neglect to give the reader a believable, natural character arc within the confines of those events.
  2. Great historical fiction is a good blend of description and action. There are readers who love an occasional Clan of the Cave Bear  experience, and that’s great—I do too. But not all the time—and not on every page of the novel. After all, Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal evidence and anthropological authenticity and ethnobotanical accuracy in a “kid’s” book  . . . Whew! That can feel like having Thanksgiving dinner every day of the year. We also enjoy salads, or maybe a delightful plate of shrimp linguine. So to accommodate that differentiated menu, make a concerted effort to intersperse  description of events or setting within the character’s story.  I strongly recommend avoiding long passages of description (more than a couple of paragraphs) with nothing to break it up (relevant dialogue, character development, and other things that move the plot forward).  In my humble opinion, it’s never a good idea to leave your characters unconnected to the narrative and waiting in the wings for very long. In fact, many good editors and writers think that every paragraph should move the plot forward in some way—that the way you frame every line of setting/description should be simultaneously informing character and plot development. That’s a lofty goal, but if you shoot for it, you’re bound not to go too far the other way and lose your story to the setting. Include those historical details about this battle or that, but put your character in the middle of it so the reader is still invested. It sounds simple, but it’s done poorly all the time. New authors frequently go on for pages about an event without tying a character to it in any way. It’s not enough to tell me what happened or what the political climate was like at the time. I need to know how your heroine was affected by it, how she reacted to it, and how it will change the direction of the plot in a meaningful way.
  3. Get to know each of your characters before you start drafting, and then make sure every bit of history you share is within that character’s worldview. With any kind of fiction, an author is well advised to scribble out what I call an “individual character assessment.” You can call it whatever you’d like. Much of your plot will form itself around the nature of your hero, and when you know him well, you know exactly how he’ll react to his second week in the trenches in France. It sounds simple, but it’s crucial and often not done really well. As a reader I will travel down any road on which you want to take me, but if the way you’ve defined your character doesn’t mesh with the way he then reacts in any given setting—especially something that actually occurred in history—then I’m bound to be disappointed. And my disappointment is due in large part to the fact that your historical research has gotten in the way; it’s become more important than your character, who is left flailing around in some disconnected way. Remember: It’s all about the character.  The historical setting should enhance that character, and that character must be solidly in the moment, whether that moment is last week or eight centuries ago.
  4. Know the difference between effective historical setting and wallpaper. There’s a distinct difference between a story subtly rich in historical detail and one that uses the historical setting as a mere backdrop. If you can pull your story out of the setting and insert it anywhere else without changing a thing, then you’ve probably just pasted up some pretty wallpaper that won’t offer your reader anything she didn’t already know. In this case, we have an issue of the history underwhelming the plot rather than overwhelming it, and that can be equally disappointing to a fan of the Civil War or an armchair buff who’s read everything there is to know about the Black Plague. (Yum!) A historical setting should strongly influence the direction of the plot and what’s at stake for the characters.
  5. Never ignore aspects of history just to advance your own agenda. Here’s a good example: When I wrote my Civil War series, I went into it with set expectations about the things I would uncover as I researched. But I didn’t find what I expected. What I did find was a mix of facts, opinions, and people who were not all one thing or the other. It would have been very easy for me to preach my preferred stance and slant all of the historical material to reflect that. Now, granted, our personalities and opinions come out through our stories regardless of what we do. It’s just the nature of “voice,” and it should be that way. But it should happen on an unconscious level. However, as you research the history, you should be open to learning something new—and then letting that new insight inform your story, your own experience, and thus your voice. The message should be subtle, and it should reflect the character who delivers it. I had characters my series who were never going to be okay with slavery emancipation, and it didn’t matter how I tried to twist it—if I had written it any other way, it wouldn’t have been true to the picture I’d painted for the reader. Conversely, I had a character who so hated her Southern family that it took four volumes to get her to feel anything other than anger! The long and short of it is that the reader doesn’t want to feel like we’ve clubbed her over the head with our personal opinions on our chosen historical setting. We must, must, must  remain true to the way we’ve formed our characters within whatever historical setting they find themselves in. Our characters can’t be little mirror images of our own selves. That’s called an autobiography.

A good historical novel is, quite simply, one that seamlessly and subtly merges events and setting with characters that will bring it to life, give it richness, and provide a human element that the reader will relate to. And when it’s done well, the reader learns a few things along the way without realizing it. She’s reading a story about people, not a dry history book. And as an author, making that impact is the most rewarding part of all.

Do This Now

  • Give yourself a set amount of time to do some research before you start to write, but stay true to that time limit! Make your time limit as short as the subject will allow. Don’t get so pulled into research that you forget you have a book to write. Also, be aware of the fact that you’re not going to become the world’s greatest expert on your topic, and allow yourself not  to be. When you feel like you have enough under your belt to get started, get started; start to write, knowing that you still have your books close at hand and can refer to them at any time.
  • Get to know your characters! There are a multitude of books and websites dedicated to crafting memorable characters; here are a few to get you started:

Top 10 Questions for Creating Believable Characters
Serra Catholic School characterization worksheet
Gotham Writers’ Workshop character questionnaires

  • As a general rule of thumb, when you write a scene that includes research details, make sure you keep your characters connected to it by not going more than a paragraph—maybe  two—without tying it to your story.  More than one consecutive paragraph of historical detail tends to lose the reader. Try to be sure that you see as much of the history through the eyes of a character as possible, and your reader will love you for it!

Your turn. What do you do to bring historical fiction alive? What are examples of good historical fiction?

Nancy AllenNancy Campbell Allen is the author of eleven published novels that encompass a variety of genres, from contemporary romantic suspense to historical fiction. Her Civil War series, Faith of our Fathers, won Utah Best of State in 2005, and two of her historical novels featuring Isabelle Webb, a Pinkerton spy, have been nominated for the Whitney Award. She served as Teen Writers Conference chair in 2011 and 2012, and has presented at numerous conferences and events since her initial publication in 1999.

Nancy loves to read, write, travel, and research, and enjoys spending time laughing with family and friends. She lives in Ogden, Utah, with her husband, three children, and one very large Siberian husky named Thor. Visit her blog for more on her various projects and activities.

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  1. Adrianne

    How timely! I’ve just been convinced by my writing buddy to take another look at a historical-cultural project that I’d shelved. I appreciate the perspective on keeping it character driven– because we’re still aiming for engaging, page-turner fiction, after all. I want my protagonist to grab my hypothetical readers in spite of broad cultural gaps and a differences of a few centuries. It’s nice to be reminded that consistent attention to character is the way to accomplish that.


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