I have a soft spot for historical fiction. There are so many stories in history that long to be told and are yearning for a writer to tell them. Unfortunately, historical fiction can be difficult to write and I’ve only found a few authors whose historical fiction is worth reading more than once. (1)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry was the book that started my addiction to historical fiction. I read it as a child and still own that same, well read copy. From there I went on to other works based around WWII and later branched out to other areas such as the Tudors, Middle Ages, Victorian, and other ages of history.
While there are historical stories that are well written, most of the online ones I find make me close the browser within the first chapter. The main issue I’ve found is that the writer did not do their research. (2) But even this can be narrowed down into specifics.
Your characters should not fit into today’s society. Segregation did exist and was commonplace; just talking to someone of a different race or social class could get you in a lot of trouble. People in the 1600’s would have been scandalized by a young woman going off to the forest for a walk with a young man. Yes, these things are common now, but you aren’t writing about now. Society has changed throughout the years, if your characters would fit in now, they wouldn’t have fit in then.
Recreation changes over time. While some leisure activities remain the same or similar in how they are used, their popularity has changed. One of the major changes in recreation over the years has been how much time is put toward it. If your story is set in the 1930’s and your main character spends all their time at the movies, I will expect them to either be very rich or very good at sneaking into cinemas.
Which leads me to work and money. When characters spend more money than they make, they end up broke unless they are rich. Just a brief mention of how your characters earn their money can be enough to make it realistic. Unfortunately, if you don’t know the time period there is a chance of getting the type of work or the amount paid wrong.
Another part of work that some writers tend to get wrong is who can work. I’m not talking about women, race or disabilities because, for the most part, they are taken into account. I am talking about guilds and unions. Occasionally guilds and unions will monopolize certain job types or businesses so that only their members will be able to work in that field. An example would be a Cobblers Guild where anyone in the town or region who opens a cobbler shop must be a member of the guild or they will be shut down. Depending on the location and time period of your story, you may have to take guilds and unions into account. (3)
Music has changed. While this note may surprise some of my readers, I have come across historical fiction that has used popular songs from the last few years. I’ve read stories set in the 1970’s that had characters singing songs from 2010. Up until that point, the story was good but I had to stop reading because I was completely thrown out. When I read stories that have music from the wrong time, I can’t help but think that the writer did no research and no editing. Perhaps they were listening to the song and accidentally wrote it in; however that should be fixed in editing. If you have music in your story, do your research. (4)
I admit that I don’t describe my characters’ clothing as much as I should. Most times I avoid it all together because it can be tedious. However, I am aware that many authors are not like me and do describe clothing. When done right, this can bring the reader back in time. Unfortunately, this tool is hardly ever done right. This is one aspect where research is mandatory in order to make it believable. Clothing can show off a character’s personality or make them an outcast in society. If you don’t know the styles in your time period and location, don’t describe clothing. There is nothing worse than reading a story set in Victorian London where the female character puts on a tank top.
While describing clothing can be left out, dialect cannot be avoided without making all the characters mute. Now, dialect should not be confused with dialogue. Dialogue is the conversation while dialect is how the characters speak. Dialect changes depending on country, region, social status and time period. At times different dialects can almost seem like different languages. For instance, within Canada the dialects differ between provinces and the different regions within each province. Fortunately, dialects are rather forgiving to writers; if you get the time period and country right, you can make mistakes on regional dialects without it being too noticeable. (5)
While these are the major research mistakes that throw me out of historical fiction, there are more that are story specific. What throws you out of historical fiction? Are you able to read through some mistakes but get thrown out by others?