Historical fiction story starters

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ridiculously easy, no? The blueprint I use for my fiction breaks those parts down a bit more. In the beginning, there’s a person in a place with a problem. In the middle, good and bad stuff happens. In the end, the biggest and baddest thing happens, and we find out who survives.

Historical fiction isn’t any different, except that the story occurs in a documented time and place other than here and now. As the creator of this fiction, you get to choose who your characters are and what they do. If you stick with the documented version of history, you’re likely writing historical fiction. Any changes you make to what actually happened will push your book into the alternate history pile. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a distinction that will save readers time when they’re looking for something new to read. Those who thrive on reliving past events generally avoid reading alternate versions.

Writing alternate history can definitely have a positive effect. Some people like to speculate about what might have happened if only… Use your imagination to see how this plays out. What might have happened if:

  • Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated
  • Henry VIII remained happily married the first time around
  • Jesus had been female
  • England won the American Revolution
  • Julius Caesar and the Romans were conquered by the Celts
  • Italy used atomic weapons in WWII

Conjuring up scenarios like these is exquisitely easy. One simply needs to look at the historical record, and alter something significant. What if the defenders at the Alamo had been able to hold out until reinforcements arrived? What if Spain had won the Spanish American war? What if… Well, hopefully, you get the picture.

The need to study the period you’re writing about doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical fiction or an alternate version; the starting point is the same, and you must get those details right.

Imagine opening your story in San Francisco. It’s a lovely spring afternoon in mid-April, 1906, the day before the great earthquake which all but leveled the city.

Your characters must deal with all the subsequent emergencies using only those tools available at the time. Will this require some significant study of the period? It certainly should, unless you’re already an expert. The more accurately you portray the era,  the more real the story will feel, and the more likely your readers will be to finish it.

Very basic questions come into play. What did people wear? What did they eat? Where did they live? What were the schools like? What sort of politics existed then? The possibilities for questions are endless.

What if you’re writing a book aimed at middle-schoolers and you decide to plunk your hero or heroine in a public school somewhere in the South — Alabama maybe, or Georgia — smack in the middle of The Great Depression? It’s not enough to know there wasn’t much that was “great” about it, except for the almost universal misery. But you’ll need to become ultra-familiar with that, because even though you’re writing for 11 to 13-year-olds, your book will inevitably land in the hands of someone old enough to remember those days. And if you get the details wrong, they’ll be only too happy to point out the errors. Publicly. In a review. That the entire world can see at their leisure.

The sound you’ll hear next is your credibility swirling down the old flusheroo.

So, where do you go for those details? Can you just Google it? Who can you trust?

Stay tuned. We’ll deal with some of that in a later installment.





About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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19 Responses to Historical fiction story starters

  1. Doris Reidy says:

    Readers, for a look at alternative history, get Josh’s book, Treason, Treason. It’s available on Amazon. Here’s the first line from the back cover: “It’s 2012 and the Union Jack flies over Boston Harbor and everything else from Nova Scotia to the Florida keys.” Sounds intriguing, yes?

  2. Susanne says:

    Speaking of details, you might still find the Union Jack in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Those roots run deep, particularly the Scottish part of the UK. In fact, their provincial flag is a nod to the Scots Cross of St. Andrew and the Nova Scotia coat of arms contains distinct references to England, Ireland and Scotland (not Wales, though) with a prominent ER and crown dominating the shield. Loyalists to the core.

  3. Susanne says:

    PS. Treason, Treason sounds like another good read, Josh. Your writing inspires me in all kinds of ways! I wrote a post yesterday that came out reading “Oh, Bits!” Think magical inanimate object.

  4. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Where did you find that photo of my elementary school classroom. Sure miss that 55-gallon drum stove. “See Spot run”!

  5. i think i’ve read both types – the historical and alternative. as i like fantasy a lot, and like a romance set in older times, i’ve read quite a few. but i like the part about Jesus being female – can’t help that, i am, after all, a woman. nice post.

  6. An-l says:

    As you know, I never was a history buff, but you are making it exciting and fun to read. Treason, Treason is one my favorite books, and Oh, Bits is now on my favorite list too. I look forward to your next one.

  7. Marlin Teat says:

    Hi Josh, I haven’t posted in a while but I’ve been keeping up with your blog. Has there been a decision on a historical fiction class?

    • joshlangston says:

      Indeed there has. I’ll be teaching a four-session class on writing historical fiction at the Booth Museum in Cartersville. Classes will run on Tuesdays from 5 to 7PM, April 3-24. I’d love to see you there!

  8. JR Langston says:

    Hey, I recently watched “Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”. If you want to see a real crazy version of alternative history, that’s one that’s really fun, and well done…………….JR

  9. Marlin Teat says:

    An interesting take by one of my favorite authors: https://www.facebook.com/civilwartrust/videos/10155951294313851/

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