Can You Learn to Write Historical Fiction by Reading It?

by Susanne Dunlap

Ultimately, half the joy of writing—for me at least—is reading. I love nothing better than closing a book with wonder and thinking, “I wish I’d written that,” followed by “How on earth did they do it?” and “What can I take away from it that I could apply to my own work?”

All writers should first of all be readers. Tackling the difficulties of writing anything requires a deep love of story, of the delights of sinking into the world of a book and going somewhere in your mind and heart that’s removed from your own life. It’s important to read widely, but it’s also important to read in the genre you’re writing. That’s especially true of historical fiction for a few reasons:

    1. Research: In addition to doing all the work of planning and writing novel, you have to love the research. You have to see the possibilities in it, the sources of inspiration and wonder buried in facts and documents and sometimes dry books. Reading historical fiction by the best writers and seeing where their research led them can be truly inspiring.
    2. Time: Because of the necessary research, it will probably take you longer to write a historical novel than a contemporary one—and that means maintaining your enthusiasm and forward momentum over a longer period. This varies from writer to writer. I know one who regularly takes ten years. Most others I know take at least a year and more often two.
    3. Story challenges: Wrangling historical facts or lives into satisfying story arcs is a true challenge. Contrary to what some people think, historical fiction doesn’t just give you a story and all you have to do is put it on the page. Far from it.

This final reason is probably the most compelling argument for reading—and analyzing—great historical fiction. Really digging in and figuring out how the author succeeded—or not—with a story teased out of the cracks of history and crafted into a page-turning novel can tell you so much. What was the author’s choice of a protagonist, and what is the character arc? How does that arc play out against the historical backdrop? How did they populate their world—with both historical and fictional characters? How did they handle the unknown, fill in the gaps that historians haven’t been able to fill? What did they change and why?

I think about these things whenever I read a historical novel, and I’m excited about my upcoming monthly workshop, The Art and Craft of Historical Fiction: a Reading & Writing Workshop.  I hope you will join me for this four-month journey, digging into four masterful historical novels, exploring, thinking and assimilating together, gleaning all we can learn from these amazing books and then applying those lessons to our own writing craft.

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