A quick guide to help history come alivePhoto by Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash
It should come as no surprise that every novel starts with its first draft. So whichever method takes your draft from inspiration to completion is perfectly valid and commendable.
However, for historical fiction, drafting requires an additional component: Thorough initial research. The knowledge which grounds a book in history should be well underway at the very onset, if not earlier.
Novelists usually learn this lesson the hard way. We write a hundred pages of the first draft before realizing the significant lack of historical awareness necessary to make it believable or even palatable.
INFUSE HISTORY BEFORE YOU EDIT
Research before you start writing. Study while you are drafting. Immediately occupy your mind with the historical background, events, and truths you’re seeking to explore. A manuscript’s relationship to history cannot simply be dropped in later on; it must be woven into the story from the beginning. Initial research can feel exhausting, but it rewards the first draft with realism, credibility, and authentic room to play.
You might be thinking: I came up with my story before I picked its historical context. I only wanted it to be a backdrop.
To such a comment, I’d say the rule still applies. Developing story-first, historical setting-second is a common and perfectly fine way to create a compelling tale. But an author would be doing their book a disservice if they merely slapped this backdrop on during the editing process.
Decide your setting and context, research them thoroughly, and build them into the first draft. Then, great ideas will arise organically instead of being forced into a specific mold later.
DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING: GUIDING QUESTIONS
You’ve finished your first draft and are now faced with the musings on the page. If you underwent comprehensive research, your book is likely teeming with historical tad-bits, events, and extrapolations to the point of excess and incoherence. But, whether you outlined or winged it, the youthful prototype before you is begging to be shaped into a full-fledged novel.
This is where developmental editing comes in. As it would with any fictional genre, this step in the writing process views your first draft as a buffet from which to craft a beautiful platter. It is a bird’s eye view, a story-building monster that every author must learn to embrace.
Now, regardless of whether you’ve hired or been provided a professional DE (I highly recommend not tackling this phase alone), you will have to incorporate the developmental feedback and strengthen your manuscript at the macro level.
Developmental editing operates best when four key questions guide your decisions:
1.) What elements drew me to this story and historical context enough that I felt compelled to write this novel?
2.) Why should other people care about my novel and its historical topics?
3.) What do I need to cut and add to create it?
4.) What is my intended purpose?
There are probably several other questions equally fit to guide your bulldozing hand at this stage, but these are the ones that help to keep the big picture on your mind. More than anything, they embody the fundamentals that apply specifically to editing historical fiction.
DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING: TAKE EARNED LIBERTIES TO CRAFT THE STORY ARC
The best way to articulate stories and convey themes is through proper storytelling techniques.
A historical novel is born, raised, and marinated in its historical context, but to fully explore its truths and purpose as a story, you will need to take earned, creative liberties that better allow you to articulate. And fill in the gaps.
In other words, your novel might fall flat if you aren’t willing to edit judiciously. Historical details should serve the story, which in turn serves that same history by extracting and articulating its messages. Picking how to use (and not use) historical details requires careful discretion. Unearned liberties cheapen a novel through lazy disregard and contradiction. Earned freedoms liberate a book from being bogged by historical detail, all in service of a decided overall story arc.
You might find yourself removing wildly exciting events during this process. Those exciting pieces of information might be nothing more. You will probably find yourself broken-hearted with scenes that end up on the cutting floor; regardless, go back to the lesson about the big picture. Despite being interesting in itself, if it adds absolutely nothing on a grand scale, the event distracts from the primary arc meant to engage potential readers.
On the other hand, you might expound upon an event that does not include the main characters but authenticates the main characters’ motivations while dissuading readers’ questions about missing plot points. For the story to resonate, you need that authenticity. It would help if you had undistracted readers.
DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING: CHARACTER ARCS
Characters are tricky in historical fiction. Some novels rely almost exclusively on people who actually lived. Other novels utilize entirely fictional characters, with accurate figures remaining exactly that: Figures who loom over the main characters from afar. Even still, there are historical novels that blend elements of sci-fi/fantasy to incorporate characters who time travel, which adds all the more complexity.
Regardless of these specifics, your major (and most minor) characters should be adhering to the fundamentals:
1.) They follow an actual character arc unless there is a justifiable reason to make them flat or static characters.
2.) They serve the overall story arc.
3.) They are interesting.
These are practically no-brainers in terms of character building, but it is surprisingly easy to ignore them if your characters are real-life individuals. Of course, for those writing with purely fictional characters, you’re more so in the clear, but here is some advice for authors with characters who are proven to have existed once:
1.) Don’t think of your characters as real-life people. They are now characters extracted from real-life people.
2.) Use the real-life person’s actions and legacy to determine the character’s motivations, values, and learned lessons. Build their character arc around these determinations.
3.) No historical figure is a monolith. Be brave about infusing personality within the confines of the character arc and proper historical adherence.
These engaging character arcs make up the story. The pair are inseparable. Once you have them configured, you can decide the book’s tone and style.
REVISIONS EDITING: EXECUTION OF DEVELOPMENTAL DECISIONS
During the implementation of developmental edits, you are re-designing your manuscript to express the story/character arcs. At the same time, you decide how to describe those critical elements; whether explicitly written or simply in your head, conscious stylistic choices guide your developmental hand.
Note: Dialogue is a significant part of writing style that requires additional attention for historical fiction authors. Not only do you have to craft dialogue that flows, sounds natural, and remains true to your characters, but you also have to strike a balance between its believability within the time period and its enjoyment and comprehensibility for modern readers.
Yikes. If that isn´t a challenging blend to get right!
Dialogue, syntax, chapter-length — these stylistic choices form a rhythm for how your novel reads. Though variety adds flavor, consistency helps the reader become attached. Nevertheless, developmental editing isn’t about enforcing these consistencies; it’s about setting the standards you intend to implement during revisions.
REVISIONS EDITING: PLAYING WITHIN A CONTEXT
Revisions editing comes next, a distinct phase in the writing process. Hopefully, after a much-needed break, revisions can begin with the novel’s structure decided and laid out before you.
The goal of revisions is not to re-edit the structure; the goal is to polish each story beat, improve each character moment, and enforce each stylistic decision. In other words, revisions editing is the accurate colloquial “editing.” You are improving the novel without significantly altering its core.
Revisions don’t adopt a particularly unique form for historical fiction. Reasonable revisions decisions might be good across the board or suitable for a particular novel; I yet haven’t discovered many genre-specific revisions techniques to impart, apart from reinforcing those shared on a developmental level.
There is the freedom to be found within your structure. You built your novel’s story structure for sound, interesting reasons, and now you can get genuine creativity inside the boundaries you set. What I will share is the opportunity for creativity at this late stage in the writing process:
Consider incorporating historical details that didn’t have a place before.Get creative about how to make them relevant to the novel.Add more fully realized personality to each character until they start to feel like living, breathing people in their own right.
Like any genre, historical fiction has the potential to become dry. Fill your novel with a purpose, entertainment, and energy. Let readers say: “You made history come to life for me.”
Historical fiction is all about embracing a passion for history and crafting its truths into stories that are together with our own. Editing makes those stories shareable with the world. Nothing is more rewarding for a historical novelist than seeing your take on history resonate with others, start new discussions, and motivate exploration and learning. Though it may be grueling, the editing process will grant your book its full potential. So champion the hard work, and never stop falling in love with history.
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How To Edit Historical Fiction Novels was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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