Back to Basics I
Which Historical Period Do I Choose?
here we are after the brief summer hiatus, and I’d like to use this final portion of 2008 to look at some broader issues.
For the last several months prior to the August break we delved into a number of technical items: descriptive detail, historical
perspective, dialogue, voice and so on. All important, of course, but now it may be time to think about some of the basic
questions you might be asking yourself as you consider developing a piece of historical fiction.
are one of the many readers who enjoy historical fiction and have a yen to try writing some for yourself, the first thing
that usually confronts you is the question of which historical period or era should be chosen as a setting for a story. For
the purposes of this article I am assuming you are not an historian and thus have no special familiarity with any particular
era or country. I am also assuming that there is no special time, such as medieval England or early America which holds special
interest for you. Like many readers, you enjoy and type of historical fiction.
easiest way to solve this problem is to go to the history of your own region or country. It’s more than likely you’ll
have at least a nodding acquaintance with that from schooldays.
right, I can hear you saying, “But the history of my country is boring. It isn’t exciting.”
you believe it.
a great temptation to think other people’s history is always more riveting, but you don’t have to have wars, revolutions
or other such monumental events within which to set a story. The exciting thing about historical fiction is that in writing
it you can bring a past era back to life. You are able to re-create past ways of life, and provide your readers with a window
into a world that no longer exists. Through your imagination and research you can build the long dreamed-of time machine and
carry your readers wherever you wish.
are approaching historical fiction for the first time, there are good and sound reasons for keeping it local. Apart from the
fact that you will probably be familiar with the basics of your own history, researching it is often easier than departing
into realms with which you are totally unfamiliar. If you stay local you will have many sources at you fingertips. Your local
public library, city or county archives and museums are close at hand, and if you aren’t going too far back in time,
you may well be able to interview seniors who have personal memories of the times in which your story is set.
to a certain ease of research there is also the point that potential readers are often interested in their own local history,
especially if your writing gives it vibrancy and life. In addition, you may be able to bring the history into your readers’
personal experience by referring to places, buildings or the like that still exist. A fascinating link is often provided for
readers when they realize they are familiar with a place in which some of your action is set. They don’t necessarily
have to have personal experience of the places you include; even a general knowledge can provide much added interest.
this might sound as if your work will only be of interest to readers who live in your local area, but that is not the case.
The question we are addressing here is how to choose an historical period in which to set your tale, and all we are doing
is noting that staying local, at least initially, has a number of advantages. Therefore, my recommendation when you are starting
out is to look close to where you are. Delve into your local history and bring it alive. Your work will interest many more
people than those who live where you do. You may indeed have wars, assassinations or other such calamities in you local history,
but even if you don’t you are likely to find much to fascinate you and your readers in any case.