You Weren’t There? So What: 4 Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

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Editor's Note:

When Georgia Hunter was fifteen years old, she learned that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors. We Were the Lucky Ones was born of her quest to uncover her family’s staggering history. Georgia’s blog, weweretheluckyones.com, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the extensive research this project has entailed. She lives in Connecticut.

In 2008, I set off on a mission to unearth the story of how my grandfather and his siblings, a family of Polish Jews, managed to survive the Holocaust. After years of collecting oral histories and digging up archival records, I pieced together a cohesive, bare-bones narrative, which took shape at first in the form of a massive timeline. Next came the daunting task of turning that timeline into something readable. I thought hard about penning my book as nonfiction – I’d done all of the research; the facts were there – but in the end I decided I wanted the story to feel immersive, visceral. I wanted it to read like a novel, not a history book.

Whether creating your own work of historical fiction or simply curious about what it takes to do so, here are a few things I learned along the way about blending fact with fiction.

First, set the stage.

Historical fiction, by definition, is a narrative that takes place in the past but that allows for an “imaginative reconstruction” of people and events. You can’t start to reconstruct someone (or an event), however, without first setting the scene: the geographical, cultural, political, and social climate of the time. Were the streets paved or cobblestoned? Did the men wear bowler hats or fedoras? What were the social norms? For me, creating a believable backdrop meant doubling down on my research so I could describe in detail each setting, whether a jazz club in pre-war Paris, a prison cell in Krakow, or the barracks of a Siberian gulag. I used as many sensory-rich details as possible in my descriptions in order to help readers conjure an image of what life was like at the time.

Forget your own perspective.

As you write, remember that your characters weren’t privy to the historical perspective we have today. There was no looking back for them – our history is their now. In order to convey what it meant to be a Jew on the run during WWII, I had to force myself to forget what I know about the outcome of the Holocaust, and to try to experience the events that were unfolding as my relatives might have. I asked myself constantly: What did they know? What didn’t they know?

Write in color vs. in black and white.

When we look back at a particular time and place in history, often what we see is black and white: the written word, old records, sepia-toned photographs. The characters whose lives unfold in a historical novel, however, experienced their world in color. So whether describing what it felt like for my grandfather to fall in love or for a great-aunt to attempt a harrowing escape from the Polish ghetto, it helped for me to step back in time and into the shoes of each of my relatives – imagining, to the best of my ability, what the world would have looked like through their eyes.

Choose a lens and stick with it.

It was very important to me to tell my story in as truthful a way as possible. In early drafts, however, I found myself adhering almost too strictly to the literal truth: “If I didn’t read it or hear it, I can’t include it.” This sometimes led to prose that lacked the dimension and color of human experience. In order to add that depth and richness to my story, I found that a better practice was to ask myself over and over again as I wrote: Could this have actually happened? Would he have said it this way? Could this thought have been running through her mind? If I felt sure that the answer was yes, I was comfortable including it.

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