7 tips to writing authentic historical fiction

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Historical fiction novels frequently top bestseller lists because readers love the chance to time-travel. A good historical fiction book allows the reader to escape and immerse themselves in a setting which is more glamorous, more dangerous or just more interesting than their own. 

It’s safe to say author Kirsten Alexander is an expert at writing about specific, faraway times and places; her first novel Half Moon Lake (titled Lost Boy Found in North America) was set in Louisiana between 1913 and 1916, while her second novel Riptides was set in Queensland in 1974. She’s shared with us her 7 top tips for making sure your historical fiction is authentic.

1. Use Google ngrams, and other tools like it 

Google ngrams is a targeted search engine which searches printed material for how frequently specific words or phrases have been used throughout time, going back to 1800. Because it only covers printed material, it’s not foolproof, but it’s still incredibly useful, Kirsten says. 

For Half Moon Lake, Kirsten cut out the words ‘peppy’ and ‘uppity’, because both had low usage in the 1910s: they didn’t become popular until 1930 and 1945, respectively. 

When Kirsten was writing Riptides, she found other sources – like contributor comments in the online Macquarie Dictionary, and the Australian National University’s dictionary of Australian slang – more helpful to figure out appropriate language, like whether the term ‘bogan' was used in Brisbane in 1974. 

2. Technology matters, long before you think it would 

The invention of the lift was a significant consideration when Kirsten wrote Half Moon Lake; she was relieved to find they had become a useful and common thing before 1913, when the story began. Once they became commonplace it enabled buildings to be considerably taller and changed the way property was valued, with the top floors suddenly becoming more desirable and expensive, Kirsten says. 

“It’s worth looking at the things that were invented around the time your story is set because they could be life-changing and story-changing,” she says. “It's more a question of what we take for granted. I took so much for granted thinking ‘right, if one looks out a window, one sees this in a city’, but it simply isn't the case. You have to question all your assumptions about even the simple act of getting dressed: elastic, zippers, when was stainless steel invented, when was plastic invented, when were refrigerators invented.”

3. Look at what people were reading, but don’t feel obligated to use their language

Bestseller lists from the time can be very enlightening, as can newspapers and photos of old signage, but Kirsten is cautious about her use of language which may not sit well with modern readers. 

“I’m not suggesting whitewashing history or shying away from using words if they tell us something important about a character or the times,” she says. “In 1910s Louisiana the n-word was commonly used on signage, in newspapers and presumably in speech. That is important, but I chose not to use it in my manuscript.

“In 1970s Queensland a whole swag of words were in common use to describe physical disability. I did include one of those, and had a drunken patron at a bar use a colloquial word to describe indigenous people. These words do play a role in telling readers about social mores, power structures, the politics of the times, but think carefully about whether you want to shock a reader away from continuing with the story you want to tell, just to be authentic.”

4. What people listened to can also be enlightening 

Listening to popular music, and radio broadcasts if you can find them, is a great way to understand social mores and sentiments. Kirsten advises reading the lyrics closely too.

“It’s a great way to hear what was acceptable slang, what popular sentiment might be about an issue (the title alone helps with the 1915 American song ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier’), and who was allowed a voice,” she says. 

5. Food is more than just fuel

An army marches on its stomach, and so do your characters. What and how people eat is hugely indicative of the time period, and Kirsten is careful to think about both the food itself and the impact on her characters’ lives. 

The diversity of Louisiana’s culinary culture helped develop the setting for Half Moon Lake, Kirsten says, while for Riptides she worked in technological advancements in food production.

“In the 1970s there was an awful lot of processed food. People thought this was great and it was a sign of modernity and advancement that you could get your pineapple in tins, and that it would free up women a little bit from having to do the 1950s style laborious preparation – you could get prepared, fast food, manufactured food. 

“But it didn't necessarily free up women at all, it just changed the food that was on the table, and it's not as healthy for you. So we ended up eating food full of sugar which affected again, the character's mood and the way that children behaved and all those things just had, like a low buzz effect in the back of the character's behaviour, they might not be in the forefront, but they certainly will see the same effects.”

6. The clothes maketh the man – or woman

Clothes are both the result of social positioning and can help enforce that social positioning. This is particularly true for women, with upper-class women throughout Western history often limited to corsets or hobble skirts: this was particularly important in Half Moon Lake. 

“It constrains and confines you, and that was really important in the story,” Kirsten says. “It's a signifier, as always, of class and money. Are you comfortable in your clothing, does it itch, is it hot and sweaty? Do you have to wear the same thing day after day? Do you have to sleep in your clothes? 

“All those things about fabric, I think change the way a character responds in the world. When you're physically uncomfortable. It affects your mood and your behavior and maybe you don't literally want to put that in, but it's worth keeping in the background that physical comfort or discomfort can change the way you respond to situations.

“I think class is incredibly important and when stories don't acknowledge that it's, it's an elephant in the room because money does affect everything the characters do.”

7. Every era has inconsistencies

While, as an author, you might have certain themes or ideas you want to communicate, and a resulting desire for consistency, it’s important to remember that humans have never acted entirely rationally.

“In Australia in the 1970s there was a popular environmental movement,” Kirsten says. “In 1976 (just after Riptides is set), the Leyland Brothers and conservationist Harry Butler were on prime-time television, telling viewers about why we should respect the wonders of the Australian bush and value the uniqueness of our flora and fauna. 

“At the same time, cheese slices came individually wrapped in plastic. Everything was wrapped in plastic! There was no kerbside recycling until the 1980s. People commonly threw rubbish out their car window, into our wondrous bushland. One of the popular tshirt slogans of the mid-1970s was ‘Save Water, Shower with a Friend’ and yet no one seemed to consider turning off the tap when they brushed their teeth, and sprinklers were left on for hours to green lawns…”

So don’t stress too much or try to force everything to fit together ‘just so’. Embracing those contrasts and those inconsistencies will help create a much more rounded, realistic historical world. 

If you’re looking for more guidance on historical fiction writing, the Australian Writers’ Centre’s History, Mystery and Magic course is the perfect place to learn. You’ll be taught about research, storytelling, voice, suspense and so much more. Alternatively, our Creative Writing Stage 1 is extremely popular amongst writers of all genres, and will help you find your narrative voice and create memorable characters.

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