Writing Historical Fiction – Guidelines

Writing a piece of historical fiction may be more fun for you, and offer an opportunity to work more expansively than you would if you choose to write a standard research paper. However, if you decide to write historical fiction for this seminar you need to take into account a few guidelines:

  1. The work must derive from, and communicate to the reader, historical circumstance. In order for this to happen, you must engage in the same volume and depth of research as you would for a standard research paper. Therefore, you will need to:
  1. Conversational grammar and vocabulary may be colloquial to reflect your understanding of the spoken language of your setting and time period. However, the general writing guidelines for the course still apply.
  2. The determination for citations and writing style inevitably involve judgement, and the issues in producing fiction are more fluid than in non-fiction. In order to not compromise the fiction you produce, we can work together if we anticipate language, citation or formatting problems arising. For example, rather than having standard academic footnotes, you can write a short bibliographic essay. In this essay, you would simply establish the primary and secondary sources you used, and where you used the information from your sources. If you prefer to use footnotes, you may do so.

A book (available in Alexander Library) by Rhona Martin, Writing Historical Fiction (2nd edition, London: 1995), written in a very informal manner, with an eye towards professional authors concerned with Britain, book can serve as a very rough indication of the issues involved in writing historical fiction. However, for purposes of this class, your concerns are somewhat different than those of commercial authors.

You need to demonstrate that you have engaged in rigorous historical research and that you "make an argument" about the topic you address. The same criteria apply a project of fiction as to a standard research paper. However, to maintain the style of your writing, in two dimensions you can address the research criteria somewhat differently than in a research paper.

First, rather than having your thesis statement (statement of your argument) in the body of your paper, you can put it under the title. So, for example, if you are writing about the international tea commerce through the mechanism of constructing a travelogue, your thesis may be something to the effect that: "The newly acquired habit of drinking tea in nineteenth century Britain was instrumental in incorporating India into the British Empire and into networks of international trade." Then, your fiction can be entirely in the mode of somebody's travel experiences on a tea-boat (or, perhaps, tracing the route of a particular shipment of tea.)

In reading through Writing Historical Fiction, the following issues struck me as particularly interesting:

The intermediary steps for the research project remain: a proposal for a theme, initial bibliography, outline, draft and weekly progress reports. They are due according to the schedule presented in the syllabus.

You can still maintain a great deal of creative leeway while taking account of these concerns. I encourage you to think about your fiction first; then, we can take care of the rest. If you have concerns about how to accommodate these issues or about how to structure your work, see me. We can work out a format that will allow you to both meet the research requirements of the seminar and develop a work of creative fiction.