Saturday, May 31, 2014

Game Face: Historical Fiction Gets Serious

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing's Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. For relaxation, he writes westerns. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter's books, research, and family adventures at

Your historical fiction manuscript sits on a knife’s edge. Falling to one side awaits epic historical fiction. The other side? Epic historical failure.

Historical fiction owns an element that comes with significant responsibility. It’s time to get serious.

Historical fiction shapes views of the past.

For good or for bad, historical fiction forges images and impressions of the past into minds. When the American gold rush is mentioned, many minds reference Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love.  American Civil War? Gone with the Wind or Killer Angels. Many feel they know medieval history because they’ve read Pillars of the Earth.

Use history wisely.

Because in historical fiction, history is the flour of bread. If the wrong ingredient is added, is the recipe ruined? For some, no—they like salt instead of baking powder. But historical fiction readers are usually informed. They know what the pudding should taste like. And if you use skim milk instead of whole milk, they’ll know.

Raise the history standard in your manuscript. That means reading.

And more reading. Until you don’t tell your friends how many books read. Until you pretend you watch TV, so you can fit in. Until, embarrassed and ashamed of your dirty little reading secret, you have three Goodreads accounts with fictitious names just to keep track of your books.

Reading history leaves an impression on you.

When at long last you sit and write, after reading your fill, history dominates your head. Nothing specific, maybe—just history. You can’t help but write history. Sweeping themes of humanity. Struggles of what it was to live in another time.

Graduate yourself from knowing about history to living history. Breathing it. Loving it. Writing the past.

Leave the reader an impression of what the past was really like.

Mr. Leavell, where do I begin studying history? How do I get my historical fiction game face on?”

You’re serious? Good.

A great overview of world history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World, followed by The History of the Medieval World, and just out is The History of the Renaissance World.

In the back of her books are notes and bibliographies. These are trusted sources. If a time period interests you, read the books she lists. Those books list sources. It’s okay to find those books and read them. And then read the primary sources listed. You can find gold mines in the bibliography of any historical books.

Then contact your local college history professor and ask what she’s reading. Read those books, along with the ones she’s written. And finally, subscribe to periodicals and journals, such as the American Historical Review. Sure, they’ve got some bias, like taking down Christianity, but it’s the latest in historical thought. And someday, you might be in a position to combat bias.

Keep reading until this hobby of loving history has gone terribly wrong, taking over your life. When your manuscript falls off the knife edge and on the side of epic historical fiction, keep reading history.

What's your favorite historical fiction novel? Author? Time period?

Gideon's Call is an unprecedented tale of tragedy and triumph amid the backdrop of the Civil War through the story of Tad, a very clever slave boy who comes of age as America’s war reaches the sea islands of South Carolina. Tad’s desire to better himself is obstructed by the color of his skin, until Northern soldiers force the evacuation of white plantation owners, setting 10,000 slaves free in a single day. These circumstances seem like a dream, except that the newly freed slaves have no money, no education, and little hope for the future—unless someone rises up to lead them. Based on true events, Gideon’s Call is the dramatic tale of a young man who battles the shame of his past and faces the horrors of war and unimaginable prejudice to become the deliverer of thousands of freed slaves.


Lori Benton said...

Preach it, Peter. :) I'm partial to most of James Alexander Thom's books. His novels set during the late 18th century. I trust his research (though even he admits that some of his earlier work is a bit outdated because of changes in accept historical fact). Still, he makes that time period come alive for me.

When readers get a look at my research bibliography, which I keep meticulously for each novel I write and post as an "extra" on my website for each book as it's published, I usually hear, "Wow, that's a lot of books!" while I'm thinking, "Not half the titles I wish I'd had the time and energy to read." I choose the best, but eventually I'll get to the rest. Because, as you said, this love of history has overtaken me.

Ane Mulligan said...

There's nothing worse than reading a historical novel and finding big mistakes or holes in the research. I applaud those of you who do it well. :)

Peter Leavell said...

Thom is a fantastic writer. Have you read his 'Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction' put out by Writer's Digest? It's pretty insightful. Keep up the great work, Lori!

Peter Leavell said...

It's like a clean house, many people only notice if it's dirty :)

Lori Benton said...

Yes, and I liked his thoughts on the River of Time. It's a must read for historical fiction writers, imo. :) If anyone is interested, I reviewed Thom's writing craft book here:

Pamela S. Meyers said...

Reading....that's exactly what I'm doing now as I prepare to plot a WWII homefront story for a proposal. It's what I should be doing right now instead of reading this blog and commenting on it! LOL

Pamela S. Meyers said...

I agree, Ane. That's why I meticulously reviewed and researched so many details for my Love Finds You in Lake Geneva book. At least it was 1933 so I could use microfilmed copies of the local paper from then. Now I've been in 1871 and it's a whole lot harder!

Jocelyn Green said...

Peter, I love that you mentioned Susan Wise Bauer's books on history, which I may very well use in our home school curriculum. Reading history is absolutely imperative to writing historical fiction, I agree. Even reading ancient history with my second grader was really helpful this year, since so many people in my time period (Civil War) reference Greek and Roman history. Thanks for these great thoughts!

Peter Leavell said...

Thanks for sharing the link, Lori!

Peter Leavell said...

You do a great job with research, Pamela.

Peter Leavell said...

Whoa, a WWII from you would be awesome. Can't wait to see what you put together!

Peter Leavell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jocelyn. I've always thought her school books make a great way for kids to learn history. Her larger books I have on audible, and listen to them while I run. Keeps history fresh!

Jocelyn Green said...

Ooh, great idea! Will have to do that! Except for the running part, I'm not going to do that. But I can listen while I.... clean the house? Oh wait not, I don't do that either. Bwahahahaha (yes I do, just not, um, all the time)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I agree, and it's such a fine line for the histfic author...not boring the reader to tears with details from that period that read like a history book versus a fictional story. And yet we want enough details to make it authentic and, like you said, an accurate reflection of that time (lots of historical manipulations going on these days). There is SO MUCH we could share, and yet the key is boiling it down to what needs to be shared about that time. I know that's what propelled me to write about Christian Vikings who sailed to North America--most people aren't aware they exist or that they actually DID sail over here.

Peter Leavell said...

Sweet! I love Vikings from studying the explorers. They made Columbus look like a level beginner in the explorer category. Can't wait to read what you come up with, Heather!