Monday, September 10, 2012

Pitfalls in Writing Historical Novels

Writing historical novels can be fun, particularly if you love research. There are many wonderful stories from the past waiting to be told. Not only do you have a plot ready-made, but you have background material to enhance your descriptions and allow the reader to enter a different time. Unlike the science fiction or fantasy novel, you don't have to make it all up. There are pitfalls, however.

Wooden Characters

The main characters may be real people if you're using a historical plot, or at least many of the supporting characters can be. It sounds easy, but the problem is making the characters come alive. I recently read a historical novel where the author used the characters like puppets to act out the story rather than having the action driven by their thoughts and feelings. It's not easy to get inside a character who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago in a different time with different cultural constraints. The best historical novelists do it, but not everyone has that facility.

Too Much Research

Doing research is fun. You find all sorts of facts and incidents that just have to be part of the story, but beware. You can lose the impact of the story by surrounding the plot with too much history. I recently read a historical novel in which the author threw in chapters about a secondary historical event. These chapters served to take the focus off the main plot line and dilute the impact of events on the main characters.

Too Much Description

Each time period has it's own background that makes delightful paragraphs of description. Since you're describing a previous period of history you need description to allow your readers to visualize the scenes. The pitfall is too much description. One author, whose books I've read, goes on for pages with lyrical description that makes the time come alive. The problem is that on the first reading (and there may never be a second reading) the reader becomes frustrated and skips over the description trying to find out what happens next. If the description goes on too long, the reader may close the book and not finish even the first reading.

I love well-written historical novels, but I've read too many lately, usually by first time authors, that have the pitfalls I've described. The books get published, but reviewers are savvy. They pick up on these problems. A book that could sell well gets panned and readers avoid it. If you're writing a historical novel, I hope thinking about these things helps. I'm sure it will help your sales.  

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