November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Monday, June 11, 2018

Writing Active Historical Fiction

A long-time reader of historical romance, I grew up in the literary fiction tradition. I dreamed of penning the next epic novel, a thick tome fortified by months of research, rife with details, and paced like a golden afternoon in the Victorian countryside. I scribbled many notebooks full of stories. I attended journalism school, where I learned AP style. I almost got my dreamed-of story published right out of college. Almost.

Rare post-college pic of me & the hubs
Life happened. Marriage. A job in public relations. Two daughters. Multiple moves. Editing, desktop publishing, and magazine writing from home. Then, I reached for my book writing once more. A novella came out, then a series. Yea! I was on my way. Wasn’t I?

Progress screeched to a halt as editors, publishers, and agents relayed shocking news. Writing had changed. I almost fainted when I got back my first manuscript marked in the unfamiliar track changes setting. The comments spoke an unsettling language.

Publishers like formulas, not rambling forever; scenes, not snapshots. Avoid information dumps. Start with the action. Cut the adverbs. Cut the unnecessary details. And most of all, don’t write in passive voice! What? My default setting? But wasn’t that my voice, an embodiment of old-fashioned-sounding historical fiction?

As an author, and then an editor myself, I began to open to the New Ways. Because who doesn’t want to read a historical where you can smell the horse lather and hear the gun go off in your ear and feel the swish of silk against your skin? Even stories designed as those golden afternoons in the Victorian countryside rather than nail-biters should immerse us. Here are some tips and tricks I learned to help write historical fiction with an active, rather than a passive or stagnant, tone:

       Ask yourself if each scene advances the plot by showing the reader something new, either internally or externally.
       Where possible, yes, change passive voice to active. (Her purse was stolen by someone. –to– Someone stole her purse.)
       Show with verbs and adjectives rather than telling with many adverbs. (He ran quickly and sneakily. –to– He darted.)
       Delete unnecessary speaker tags, or change to beats of action. (“I’m Sandy,” she said, flipping her hair. –to– “I’m Sandy.” She flipped her hair.)
       Search and rewrite instances of “she/he thought-felt-wondered-saw-heard-noticed.” The reader knows your character is the one doing these things.
       Use deep point of view rather than a narrator’s voice. (If Sandy is our third person heroine, and she and her friend are walking, say “they walked” rather than “the girls walked.” Relate only what Sandy would see/feel/hear/think, not what others would. Keep us in her head.)
       Add historical details rather than vague generalities (i.e. tell what type of dance, dinner service, car, dress, etc.). Here’s where your level of research shows, but keep it concise.
       Use sensory details to create historical setting—smell of wood smoke or leather, sounds of a particular song (name it), touch of a particular material or a pinching corset. Part of expanding deep point of view.

Writers, what helps you create fresh, active historical fiction? Readers, are there particular titles that do a great job of this? What are your pet peeves that fizzle out historicals? 


  1. Elizabeth Camden is one of my favourite historical fiction authors. I love the way she weaves in unusual historical details without ever letting the research get in the way of the story.

    And that relates to one of my pet peeves with historical fiction: authors who get their facts wrong. It pulls me right out of the story.

    1. For sure, Iola! Like talking about waltzing before the dance was popularized! 😊 I'll have to check out Elizabeth Camden!

  2. This was a great post. I'm working on my first historical right now, venturing a little bit out of Gothic and contemporary mysteries. I save all your posts! Thanks.


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