Last week I talked about the future, so I figured that it’s only natural to talk about the past this week. These are my five most important tips for writing the past, so let’s get started!
#1: Do Make The Speech Robotic
I notice this a lot in historical fiction, and it really takes away from the book. Contractions and slang are not new by any means, nor are differences between how individuals speak. English in the past isn’t just a monotone version of English today. It is technically classified as the same language, but when writing, you can consider it another dialect. Think about how different U.S., Canada, and England vary in their use of English today. There are different contractions, slang, and accents, even within these countries. Writing in the past is similar, though depending on how far back you go, there can be many more differences. You need to study the language of the time thoroughly, as specific to the region the story takes place in as possible. Remember how difficult Shakespeare was to read? There were references and expressions in everyday speech that for somebody in our time could be incomprehensible, not to mention that the actual structure of speech differed from our own.
This isn’t to say that you have to write everything in Shakespearean language if your story is set in the 1600s. Your reader should still have a good understanding of the story and its meaning. But, you need to do enough research to decide how you will reflect the language in your novel. The language aspects you change to fit the setting should be well thought out, and they shouldn’t turn your characters into robots. Looking at examples of books set in countries with different languages can help you with this. The Book Thief is a great example, as the story is set in 1930-1940 Germany. Some German words more obvious to readers with context, such as auch (also) were used among English words. Other times, a whole sentence or two would be used, and the narrator would translate it.
#2: Do Lots of Research
You need to research more than just the language. This falls under world-building, but I feel that a lot of people writing historical settings tend to skip over this step, because they feel A: they know enough about the past to write it, or B: they assume the readers know about the setting, and don’t write the setting at all. These are both huge mistakes. If your story is taking place in this time, you need to know it so that you could write it as well as your own time. Know about the society, laws, religions common at the time, minorities and their treatments, their culture, cuisine, the technology and education they had, etc. You do not want to guess on these details, because you’re risking your credibility in the genre.
#3: Avoid Romanticizing
This goes hand in hand with research, but I feel it needs to be emphasized. I notice it a lot, to the point where it’s actually a nice surprise to find a book that is accurate to the times. People often write stories set in the past as if they are a perfect, preferable time to our own. They seem to forget how much our time has progressed, despite its flaws. For example, did you know that people used to throw their waste into the streets? Or that even royalty typically only had one outfit per season? It’s okay not to talk about all of the gruesome facts from the time, but you should make sure you are as accurate as possible. The past was never a perfect dreamland, and it shouldn’t be portrayed as such.
#4: Have a Realistic Perspective
A 16th century, English lady is probably racist, and she probably doesn’t have a problem with children being beaten as punishment. While these values today are known to be morally wrong, in that time they were usually not even something that was questionable. This means that you can’t expect a character whose society doesn’t even question an issue to find issue with it. Somebody from the 16th century will not have mostly modern values and opinions, if any. A lot of writers will make the mistake of A: having a character with completely modern values, or B: harshly judge the character(s) based on their past values. I understand why this happens. Writers have often have good intentions; they believe past opinions were wrong, and want to show they have modern, ethical values, or they don’t want to offend people. But, we can’t learn from the past if we ignore it, and we can’t treat all people in the past as horrible human beings, because society had yet to evolve to that point.
Do you think Aristotle thought women should be able to vote, or even have careers? He didn’t, and it shouldn’t be portrayed like he did (again, unless there’s some sort of modern interference and the past becomes alternate). The right to vote for women in his society was unheard of, and we can’t treat him like a horrible person for not thinking of it himself. He still made amazing contributions to philosophy and ethical thinking, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. People were, and still are, flawed. You and I probably have some values that people a hundred years from now will think are barbaric. The idea when writing past characters, or any characters, is to make them round and human, with both strengths and flaws.
#5: Don’t Skip Character Development
This falls into line with what I was just saying about making round, human characters. Your characters shouldn’t just be a brave knight, or a snobby nobleman. Research will help you a lot with knowing certain values, roles, and attitudes of the time, but you still need to develop these characters into individuals. Just as you wouldn’t have a character that was only brave and a jock, you wouldn’t have a character that is only brave and a knight. Remember that people in the past were still people, and need to be brought to life just like modern characters. Yes, even if they are a real person you’ve based a fictional story off of. We know that Albert Einstein was a genius, but we need the writer to tell us who he was as a person.
In short, be sure to do enough research that you can be accurate to the speech, customs, and realities in the past your story takes place in. Remember that people in the past were just as complex as we are today.
What time period does your story take place in? What’s a historical fiction book you loved?
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With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!