Lessons Learned and Seven Tips on Writing an Historical Novel

First published in The Serious Reader blog on March 31, 2015.

Recently, a new author friend invited me to share a coffee at our local diner to celebrate the publication of my historical novel, A Decent Woman. When I mentioned historical fiction, her eyebrows shot up. When I asked her why she looked surprised, she groaned and replied, “No, thanks. I know the amount of research involved in writing historical novels. I’ll leave that to you.”

My friend is correct—writing historical fiction is not for every writer. It reminds me of a line from the film version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, Eat, Pray, Love, “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.” If you are an historical novelist, you enjoy research; there’s no other way around it. You have to enjoy it and you must be committed because it’s a long journey from first draft to publication.

I love to read historical novels and I love to write them. With the first manuscript of A Decent Woman, I wrote non-stop until I finished the book and then the research began, and it didn’t stop for nearly four years. Now I write and research simultaneously. My writing and research skills have improved, resulting in fewer rewrites to smooth out the story, but I still add new and interesting historical tidbits, and resolve conflicting facts I discover in my research. I’m not an historian, therefore thorough research is critical, and believe it or not, different sources don’t always agree with the facts of a particular event.

Lessons learned and seven tips to writing a successful historical novel:

1. Don’t rely solely on the Internet for your research. I made the mistake of using an historical timeline found on the Internet only to find conflicting data in more reliable sources. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it can also include half-truths or text that has been copied from an unreliable source. Check and double check your facts with at least two reputable sources. Buy or borrow good reference books. I now have quite an extensive collection of non-fiction books and novels written about turn of the century Puerto Rico.

2. In addition to using reference books, try contacting experts in the field you’re interested in. Mine included midwives who were happy to share their expertise and experiences. I interviewed daughters of women born in turn of the century Puerto Rico. Their second-hand stories and information assisted me in creating authenticity in the novel. I also interviewed healers, mediums, and psychics because it was relevant to the book, and this added local, colorful flavor.

3. Find out all you can about the era of which you’re writing, and then be selective–don’t dump all the wonderful information and facts you glean during the research into your novel all at once. Instead, allow your characters to interact with details in their daily lives. Add historical events and your characters’ reaction to the events of their time. For example, if your character lives during a particular natural disaster, think of how it would have affected them, and how difficult it would have been to survive without modern conveniences or ideas. Place yourself in your character’s shoes.

4. If the characters happen to live during a time of natural, social, or political upheaval, allow them to question what’s happening around them. They may have a difficult time with what’s transpiring; allow them to be naïve, angry, rebellious, or mistrusting of others. You’re writing about people. If the character isn’t a real figure in history, she must appear human to reach the reader’s imagination. Don’t judge. Allow your characters to act out, question, and to make mistakes, but their reactions should ring true to the time; not what you would do in that particular situation.

5. Show, don’t tell. I always remind myself of this when I’m writing. Remember to use all the senses—how the air smells; what noises are heard; and the feel of the fabric’s texture against the character’s face and hands. Your details must disappear into the story, appearing seamless to the reader. Authors should know their time period well enough to describe it to the reader, who should be able to hear, see, smell, and taste the time or era in question. I wrote a scene with my character leaning against a palm tree and I realized I didn’t know what type of palm existed in 1900 Puerto Rico. It wasn’t enough for me to say, ‘palm tree’, I wanted to be authentic and accurate; it was a royal palm. But don’t overwrite. As a new novelist, I added most of the historical details I discovered into my early manuscript, and then I reread and removed many details. My research wasn’t a waste of time; I can use the information in other stories, and I have.

6. In historical fiction, you must strive to be as accurate and authentic as possible, while remembering that historical fiction is fiction. When possible, locate archives on the Internet for old photographs and historical maps. I found old business catalogs for examples of the dress and hair styles of the era at flea markets, book stores that specialize in old books, and the Internet is great resource.

7. And lastly, don’t provide all the facts up front, and certainly don’t answer all the questions early on in your story. Allow the story to unfold naturally; don’t explain everything with a lot of back story. I’m no expert, but I know that including a lot of back story and flashbacks can be tricky. If done poorly, your story can lose momentum and consequently, your reader may begin skipping ahead or worse yet, lose interest in the story. A little at a time. And always include enough mystery, intrigue, and excitement to encourage the reader to keep turning those pages. I also offered my last draft manuscript to early readers, many of whom are midwives, who gave A Decent Woman their seal of approval for authenticity.

Writing historical novels can take years; it took me nearly four years to write A Decent Woman. I’m currently writing my second historical novel, The Island of Goatsand well, we’ll see how long this journey takes and where it will lead me.

Thank you and best of luck to you!

About Eleanor

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time. A Decent Woman is her debut novel. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children, and she lives in West Virginia.

About the Book

Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa.

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor.

Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

Find out more on Amazon.

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