Ever wanted to write a historical fiction novel, but have no idea where to start?
Well, we’ve got your back: introducing our new set of Toolboxes on writing Historical Fiction, with a very special guest host—Eleanor Herman, NYT bestselling historian AND author of the forthcoming LEGACY OF KINGS!
Each Friday for the next 10 weeks, Eleanor will share her insight on one area of writing historical fiction—and these are the secrets that made LEGACY OF KINGS great.
Take it away, Eleanor!
#1: Building Your Lost World—the Essentials
So you want to write historical fiction? Great! It’s the closest thing to time travel we’ve got and loads of fun, but it’s also twice as much work as regular fiction because in addition to writing the story, you must have an excellent grasp of the historical time and place. You will need to know about several topics for both rich and poor alike to create a nuanced, three-dimensional world for your characters in inhabit.
- What do the buildings look like? In creating the settings for Legacy of Kings, I started with envisioning the physical structures: the houses, palaces, and temples. What were they made of? Wood? Stone? Mudbrick? How were they laid out? I saw the family farm of Jacob and Kat as a rudimentary wooden courtyard house. The walled Pellan palace had gardens, breezy marble rooms, military barracks, a training pit, stables, a blacksmith, a jail, kitchens, and a laundry. The Persian palace of Zofia was even more luxurious and had harems staffed with eunuchs!
- How do they light and heat their world? Many historical novelists overlook the difficulty of simply starting a fire or lighting a candle (and Alexander the Great’s world didn’t even have candles; they had oil lamps.) Look for an entire post on this important topic coming soon.
- What do they eat and drink? Meat was generally for the wealthier classes, and since it had to be fresh to avoid food poisoning, animals were slaughtered in the kitchen, in the street, wherever. But each time and place had its own food-related idiosyncrasies which you will need to discover. For instance, ancient Egyptian priests were forbidden to touch fish and all ancient Egyptians thought that beans were disgustingly unclean. In the Renaissance, wealthy northern Europeans felt that vegetables were low-class and avoided them while wealthy Italians loved them, and just about everyone believed that tomatoes were poisonous (because tomato acids on pewter plates gave people rip-roaring stomach aches.)
- What do they wear? You need to know not only the styles of the time, but the materials. In researching Legacy of Kings, I found that silk wasn’t widely available until the adult Alexander the Great opened up major trade between east and west, and before that the few pieces of silk from China that made it to Greece were worth more than gold. So I couldn’t drape my characters—even the royal family—in silk! Finely combed, bleached wool and fine-woven linen were my options for the wealthy, and unbleached, coarse-woven cloth for the poorer sort.
- What did they believe about god/gods, ancestors, justice, slavery, the poor, people from other nations, and the role of women in society? The answers will influence both who your characters are and how the plot evolves!
Next week: How to do your research, from learning about lifestyle basics to convincing university professors to help you!
LEGACY OF KINGS is available for pre-order here! (And anyone in the U.S. or Canada who pre-orders and emails proof to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a special signed bookplate from Eleanor herself!