How to Plan a Historical Novel in 3 Easy Steps

A Writer's Guide

How to Plan a Historical Novel in 3 Easy Steps
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Reading a historical novel is exciting; you get to travel back to the era you find most interesting and immerse yourself with characters from the past. I mean, what better way to escape from the horrors here in the present day? However, a historical novel is one of the hardest things to write. Unless you’re creating your own history in a historical fantasy or a science fiction, you have to make sure that every little detail is accurate. If you don’t, readers will quickly pick up on the inaccuracies, and your book will flop like a bitch!

Particularly for people who may not have written a book before, or are not used to planning in great detail, the outlining stage can be quite overwhelming. Not knowing where to start can discourage a lot of writers, so here are my three steps for planning a historical novel.

Yes I Do!

Step 1: Pick an Era or Event That Interests You

Choosing something that interests you sounds obvious and really simple, but it can be one of the most challenging parts of the historical writing process. You may know that you want to write a historical novel, but you may not know what era you want to focus on. You may be interested in the Tudor period, but you may also have a love for the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. I understand this dilemma; wanting to write everything but only having one pair of hands and a limited amount of time is stressful.

The way I get around this is pretty cliché, but it works. Follow whatever it is you usually follow when you need to make a decision - your heart, your gut, your impulse at that moment. Write down each part of history that interests you and bullet point what fascinates you about each one. Will you read any historical book about any period or figure? Are you always watching documentaries about the Ancient Romans, for example? Would you binge a period drama around the French Revolution? Would you spend money to visit an Edwardian museum? Your answers to these sorts of questions matter. If you don’t care to engage in your area of interest either by reading, watching or experiencing, you’ll probably struggle to write an 80,000-word manuscript about it.

When you’ve scribbled down all of your ideas, see which era has the most bullet points and positive answers. This technique will help you narrow your options down instantly.

Step 2: Choose a Perspective

You may have chosen to set your novel in a broad era in history, like during the rule of the Roman Empire, the Victorian Era or the Medieval Period for example, but you now need to narrow your options down even further and figure out what perspective you want to write from. Deciding this can be just as difficult as the first step, so get your pen and paper back out, and we’ll mind map together.

Let’s pretend you’ve chosen to base your novel around the Romans. Are you interested in the political side of the Roman Empire that concentrates on their rise to power and how they invaded certain countries? If so, you could write from the perspective of an Ancient Roman soldier, or a Roman emperor such as Augustus.

However, if you’re not fussed about the political side of history, you may prefer to delve into the life of an ordinary family in Britain who were invaded by Roman soldiers. What happened to them? Who survived? What became of them? Is there a happy ending? Is there a real case study in Roman history that can inspire you?

Alternatively, you may prefer to write about a one-time event, such as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 or the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, which will make it much easier to limit your options.

Let’s imagine that you want to set your story on the Titanic. Are you intrigued by the crew’s perspective and what happened behind the scenes? If so, perhaps you could show events from the captain’s point of view.

On the other hand, the 1997 film, Titanic, may have inspired you to focus on ordinary people and their lives. Maybe you like the idea of creating a Titanic love story? An Agatha Christie-style mystery? Perhaps a science fiction spin-off like the Doctor Who episode, Voyage of the Damned.

Step 3: Research, Research and Research Some More

Once you have pinpointed what interests you the most and what perspective you’re going to write from, it’s time for you to research. Many writers skip this step, but research shouldn’t be underestimated or neglected, even if you think you know everything there is to know. Exploring a topic in enough detail will make your historical novel authentic and believable, which will bring you positive reviews and more sales. If you don’t investigate the part of history you’re going to write about, you may misinform your readers and appear uneducated and superficial to the ones who have extensive knowledge of your chosen topic.

However, research doesn’t have to be boring! Remember those dreary days at school when the teacher got you to copy from a textbook or sit through a dull documentary? What about at university when you had to research and reference 30-40 different sources? Yep, me too, but due to the myriad of different methods we have these days, your own research doesn’t have to put you to sleep. Besides, the writing process should be fun, especially the creating stage.

Here is a list of enjoyable ways to research for your historical book:

Netflix, Amazon or iPlayer – watching engaging documentaries and entertaining period dramas is a great way to research for your novel. Not only are you learning the facts, but you’re visually soaking up the settings and locations, the clothes and costumes, and how the characters carry themselves in certain situations.

Podcasts – if you don’t always have the time to binge films and documentaries, listening to podcasts may suit you better. Although there is no visual aspect to podcasts, you can still gather some useful information while you’re on the go. Some podcasts may provide straight-up facts about a point in history, and others may dramatise certain events so you can imagine what is happening.

Quizzes – these days, there are so many fun quiz apps and online quizzes that can broaden your knowledge of a topic in no time, so have a look around and see which ones could help you.

Learn from others online – if you’re a writer, you probably engage in the #writingcommunity on Twitter and belong to a few writing groups on Facebook, so take advantage of that. Check out your followers and see who else writes historical fiction; you never know, they may have a blog that focuses on your chosen subject.

Pinterest – many people think that Pinterest is for women to plan their dream wedding and future home, but Pinterest is (in my opinion) THE BEST platform for research. Most bloggers use Pinterest to drive traffic to their blog, so there will be loads of resources on there that will help you with your research!

So, there we have it – my top three steps for planning a historical novel. It may seem daunting at first, but these three stages will help you achieve your goal smoothly and effectively.

Good luck, and have fun!

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Stand Corrected Editing is a literary consultancy in the UK that provides editorial services for passionate writers who want to attract a literary agent or self-publish.

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