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5 Tips: Gathering Ideas for Historical Fiction

a-howardAna Howard

Developmental Book Editor  |  Book Editing Associates

Often I’m asked, “How do I come up with a good idea for a historical novel?” The answer is:  “Ideas are all around you.”orphan-train

  1. Take an event that enthralls you and create a similar one. In her novel, The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan invents a luxury liner’s demise occurring only a few years after the sinking of the Titanic.  Instead of focusing on the sinking itself, this intriguing novel focuses on the survivors in a lifeboat.  You may also take real events and create fictional characters to witness them. For Christina Baker Kline, her fascination is obviously with the orphan train legacy of the USA. Her book is called Orphan Train: A Novel.  What event in history captivates you?
  2. Choose a time period that you love and become an amateur historian of that era. Anna Davis has written two novels set in 1920s London, and she captures the tone of the times beautifully. If you want to feel as though you’re there, read The Shoe Queen and The Jewel Box.  During which time period do you wish you had lived?
  3. Is there a historical figure who fascinates you? Many of the best historical novels take what is known about a famous person of the past and then add to it via a fictional character or a little-known real one. Two historical figures that have been written about quite often are Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. Check out The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman, Sunflowers by Melodie Starkey, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, and Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. Whom do you wish you had known?thepariswife
  4. Take a locale you know and learn more about its history. If you live in this place or have lived there, it’s an easier process to go in search of something in the past that entices you. Become an amateur expert and live in the library.  Novelist Sarah Dunant sets many of her books in Renaissance Italy. She knows the nation’s history, and it shows. My favorites of hers are In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts.
  5. Last but not least, simply become curious about history. Watch the History Channel and documentary films for ideas.  Travel whenever you can and visit museums and historical sites. And finally, read historical novels, not with the idea of duplication, but with the hope that one of these novels will spark an idea of your own.

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