Writing Historical Fiction

Going Back in Time by Brian Gallagher

Brian Gallagher

What’s the worst part of writing historical fiction?  That’s easy - facing the blank page each morning.  (Just like it’s the worst part of writing any kind of fiction.)  And what’s the best part?  That’s easy too – the sheer fun of stepping into a time machine every working day, and going back to a point in history that you find fascinating.

How many jobs are there where you get paid to imagine that you’re present as dramatic events from the past unfold?  Not many, I suspect.  But that’s what a writer of historical fiction does.  Which isn’t to say that it’s an easy job – far from it – but it is an interesting one, where no two days are the same.  And few things beat the thrill of sitting down to plan a new book and wondering what exciting period from the past you’re going to pick.

Readers often ask me was I good at history at school, and - shocking admission – I hated history at school.  Looking back now I can see that itwasn’t actually history that I disliked, but rather the boring way that it was taught back then.  It seemed to be all about learning off lists of dates, whereas now I love history, but regard it as being about people, great and small, and what they did, and why.  And people, unlike lists of dates, are fascinating.

So when I sit down to write a new book the first thing I do is pick an exciting, action- packed period in which to set my story.  But my next priority is to populate the story with interesting, credible characters that the reader can care about.  So when writing about the past I want to know what people really cared about, but also what songs they were singing then, what kind of food they were eating, what were the hit films and books of the day.  I want to immerse myself in that world so that the reader too can travel back in time, and see things through the eyes of my fictional characters.

Writers have always used libraries to do this sort of research in the past, and today we have the internet to check up on all those tricky little facts and figures that can trip up an author.  For me though, the best research source is always people.  If I can find someone who has lived through the era I’m writing about, I know I’m likely to get the kind of telling detail that really brings a story to life.  And so, having done my research, created my characters, and worked out my plot, all that remains is to travel back in time - and start writing the book…

Brian's New Book
Brian's New Book

 5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction by Brian Gallagher

DO YOUR HOMEWORK.  That fact about 1920’s Dublin that you’re “pretty sure” about?  Check it out!  There’s no quicker way to lose a reader than to get the details wrong.IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE PERIOD.  Listen to the music, look at the fashions in clothes, find out what were the popular books and films.  Bring the period alive for the reader.

PICK A DRAMATIC MOMENT IN HISTORY.  When the backdrop to your story contains plenty of conflict you can then place your characters in jeopardy, and give them life-altering challenges – which makes for gripping story-telling.

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.   If a book is set in the past then make sure that no modern expressions slip in.  People didn’t say “no way” or “get a life” in times gone by.  Likewise a story set in Ireland one hundred years ago may have characters called Mary and Eileen, Eamon and Peadar – but definitely nobody called Wayne, Crystal, Jordan or Brooklyn!

CHOOSE AN ERA THAT REALLY INTERESTS YOU.  Fascinated by jazz, the  Suffragettes, Napoleon, hot air balloons, the Second World War?  Whatever period you decide on for your story needs to hold genuine interest for you.  Writing a book could take up a year of your life.  So pick something that fires your enthusiasm – and get writing!

Thanks, Brian for sharing your tips with us! Sarah