Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: When and Where

In this first developmental installment of WHF, I'm going to cover the when and where aspect of writing historical fiction.  In elementary school, you probably learned that this was the "setting" of the story.  In the real world, there is so much more to it.

When considering historical fiction, sometimes you already have an idea of what time period you are going to use, and it's usually pretty vague.  The Middle Ages.  The Industrial Revolution.  The Civil War.  Ancient Egypt.  Things like that.  They give the reader a general idea of what to expect, but a good historical author needs to get a little more in depth, especially as you get more and more recent and records are more readily available.

You need to decide when you need to start and stop, the span of your story.  For example, Of Saints and Sinners covers roughly from 1815 to 2006, with a gap from 1855 to 1923.  That's important to know.  It really is.  Why?  Because then you have points of reference for what you can and cannot include in your story.  OSaS might make reference to an impending war, but the Civil War hadn't happened yet.  Similarly, social media in the early 00's was extremely limited and nowhere near as prevalent as it is today.

You also need to decide how much you intend to cover in that span of time, what your focus is going to be.  If your book spans only a few months, maybe detailing a particular part of a war, you are going to need ten times the information for that time period than another author who is simply passing through on their way from one year to the next.  Maybe one book needs all the movements of the French Resistance after the Nazis conquered France in World War II.  Maybe you only have to mention that World War II happened on your way from the 1930's to the 1950's.

As another example, the first book in The Hands of Time spans from about 1710 to 1963.  I highly doubt you want to read a four thousand page novel, so in that instance, there is a little picking and choosing of events, how and why and where and when the characters pop up in history.

That being said, equally as important as when your story is, is where it is.  Borders are not idle things.  They tend to change, most often with war and the rise and fall of various kingdoms.  Did your country of choice exist in the same way it does today?  Did it exist at all at that time?  Did it become annexed by another country and so it actually doesn't exist today?  Where were its boundaries?  Who were their neighbors?

All right, so you've got your when and your where.  You've got the span of time you intend to cover, and you know the borders of your lands.  It's always easier to write about a history you know.  It's easier for an American to write about American history, because we understand the points of reference given, and even if we don't remember the exact sequence of battles in the Civil War, we are vaguely familiar with them.  Similarly, it's easier for a Frenchman to write about French history, and he probably has more knowledge of Napoleon's exploits.  And a Japanese man to write Japanese history, a Polynesian to write Polynesian history, and so on.

If you intend to write about or include in a major way history that you are largely or completely unfamiliar with, don't let yourself get caught in a pile of fudge.  Don't get all the way to a major battle, then chicken out and go to black out action because you don't know what you're doing.  Don't overtly rely on generic titles like "the commander" or "the king" or whomever.  Don't rely heavily on generic geography either.

Here's a technique to help avoid "fake foreign history fudge." Add a minimum of fifty years to your intended span, both before and after.  Maybe go for a hundred, depending on what and how much you want to cover.  So if you intend to cover Slovenian history from 1830 to 1900, start reading about Slovenian history starting in 1780 to 1950.  Wars don't just happen out of thin air, and the political web is an intricate thing, built up over many years.  The more you understand about how things got to where they start in your story, the better you are able to take those threads and manipulate them.  And maybe you'll discover things you never knew before and decide to include.  As a neat little example, a little exciting tidbit to reveal about In the Hands of the Enemy, I did not fully understand the role Madagascar played in World War II.  In my history class, it was all about Europe.  But it's not called World War II for nothing, and I had to go digging.  It was a gold mine, and I'm excited for you to read about it and experience it.

Reading about what happened afterwards is just as important because it tells you where and how your characters are supposed to land.  Were the people happy and rejoicing at the war's end?  Or were they afraid of what retribution may come down upon the commoners?  Was the new leader a calm, level-headed, intelligent man of good character and integrity?  Or was he a sly snake who would shake your fist with one hand and stab you in the back with the other?  Understanding "what happened after" is just as essential to the story as the story itself.

With that, I will say that once you go digging, especially if you're truly enthusiastic about your project, it can be hard to figure out what not to include.  Sometimes you might feel guilty about not including more.  What about this incident or that person or this or that or this or that?  That's the point when you need to go back to your outline, your time span, and reevaluate your story, your plot, the whole trajectory of your project.  What needs to change?  What would make a more believable story?  What is a more natural sequence or flow of events?  If there truly isn't anything you can cut and still make a believable, flowing story, is it time to consider breaking it up into multiple books?


That was something I ran into with Of Saints and Sinners.  I could have easily made Owain's story into three books.  First book, his life in Wales and England, culminating in his escape from prison.  Second book, his voyage across the Atlantic and life in America, looking for his brother, culminating in his entrance into the cave.  Third book, emerging into 1923, adjusting to the shock and change, and his life as a Timekeeper, finally coming to a close with his adoption of Tommen.

As I mentioned before, I didn't do this because it was unnecessary and I felt it detracted from the story at large.  While it would eventually tie in to the rest of The Timekeeper Chronicles, the amount of information to get there would be unproductive.  It wasn't about a history of Wales or England.  It wasn't about the history of the United States leading up to the Civil War.  It was about Owain.  Keeping the focus on Owain for three full novels meant a lot of mischief and crime, a lot of going to jail, a lot of dull banking and business.  In a nutshell, it would be boring, repetitive, and serve no functional or narrative purpose.  We know he was a selfish, arrogant, drunk murderer.  We know he made a fortune and then lost it all when he killed six men and was sentenced to hang.  We don't need each detail to be its own chapter.


So you may find yourself having to make some tough decisions.  It's not fun or easy, and this is just considering the time span and geographical boundaries you need to cover.  Next time we'll cover the people.  Won't that be fun?

Go Back