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Choosing An Era In Which To Set A Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

With thousands of years, hundreds of nations and empires, and countless kings, generals, empresses, scientists and artists to write about (to cite just some examples) how does a historical novelist settle on a period?

Personal interest is paramount. I first decided to write novels on the late Roman Empire because I was struck by the lonely majesty of Hadrian’s Wall that once separated Britannia from the barbarian Scottish wilds. Rome’s reach, and ultimate failure, fascinated me.

I’ve written two Nazi-based novels set just before World War 2, Ice Reich and Blood of the Reich, because I stumbled on accounts of two real-life research expeditions, one to Antarctica and another to Tibet. The Germans were idealistic strivers in their own twisted way. When I read that real-life Nazis were giving the Hitler salute to penguins, I knew I had a story to tell.

I’ve set the Ethan Gage series during the Napoleonic era because Bonaparte was an intriguing self-made man who represented the best and worse of our species. His life played out at a time when life was grand opera, with colorful costumes, beautiful ships, love affairs, conspiracies, small mercies, and wicked cruelties. There’s so much real color that I don’t have to make it up.

For the aspiring historical novelist, here are some considerations.

First, have you picked a time and place reasonably easy to research? One reason so many English and American authors focus on English or American history is because the primary documents are in English, the locales within reach, and the culture familiar. Surely Poland, Kazakhstan and Paraguay have their own fascinating histories, but learning about them is more of a challenge.

Second, does it have inherent drama? Novelists return to Henry VIII, Elizabeth 1, or Abraham Lincoln again and again because their personalities fascinate and the stakes were high, giving a story automatic narrative tension. President Grover Cleveland is no doubt interesting, but a novel about him will be a tougher sell to agents, editors, critics, and readers.

This can be frustrating. It sometimes seems the only three battles in American history apt to elicit “buzz” in the industry are Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and D-Day. Unfortunately, we like to read about what we already know. The best-read stories in newspapers? Those describing a storm, of sports game, readers have already experienced.

Consider whether your investment in time researching one novel in an era might help write another. If so, writing the first one at the beginning of World War 2 instead of its end allows you to reinvest our research. I wrote my second Roman novel at the very end of the Western Roman Empire. Oops! I’ve suggested starting over, with Romulus and Remus, so far to no avail.

Is your era well documented and famous? Many authors have been successful writing multiple novels about the same period of Roman history, the roughly 100 years between the revolt of Spartacus and the triumph of the first emperor, Augustus, and the subsequent life of Jesus. Cicero, Caesar, Cleopatra, etc. The other 1,000 years of early Rome are less known.

Of course, many writers cheerfully ignore these caveats to great success, because what really makes a great historical novel is the author’s own passion for the subject. The Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu would be an obscure corner of French history to most of us, except for the talent of Alexander Dumas.

So the final rule is: If you have fun as a writer, chances are the reader will too.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Ice Reich’ some years ago. A wonderful novel.

    I’ve always been intrigued by the sharp difference between the research needed for historical fiction and the demands of historical non-fiction. I find the ‘fidelity’ higher in the former – not just the need to be historically accurate in order to preserve suspension of disbelief, but because the kinds of details required for describing everyday life and events differ from those needed by non-fiction historians to answer the sorts of questions they pose. And yet the twain do meet in some circumstance.

    For me the point was nailed home when I wrote a war biography of New Zealand’s most famous soldier, Sir Bernard Freyberg (‘Freyberg’s War’, Penguin 2005). Historical non-fiction – which I was well familiar with from previous books I’d written. But because it was a biography I found myself delving into all the kinds of details needed to describe Freyberg’s daily life and doings – demanding, to a large extent, research into the same kinds of details needed by novellists.

    October 1, 2013

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