This post, by Suzanne Tyrpak, originally appeared on the Historical Fiction eBooks site on 12/31/11.
When I write historical fiction I look for the holes in history, because that’s where I can fill in the gaps and allow imagination free reign.
Writing historical fiction is similar to writing fantasy, except, when writing historical fiction, there are limitations. To some extent, we know about other times, places and people of the past. To some extent, history has been documented. But, as well as creating boundaries, these limitations serve as jumping-off points for story and can fuel the imagination.
World building is essential for historical fiction and fantasy—the writer must create a world and sink the reader into it. In historical fiction, unlike fantasy, readers often have preconceived ideas about the world the writer is creating. For example, if I say ancient Rome, images will probably populate your mind. You may have gleaned these images through reading, movies, television, travel—but you have some knowledge of that time, and I don’t have to build the world from scratch. As a writer, it’s my job to draw those images together for the reader and paint a picture which serves as the context of my story.
This involves a lot of research. And the research can be overwhelming. I’m not a historian. I write fiction. I do research so I can highlight details which will serve my characters and my story. Selecting these details is key. Too many details and my story will be boring, too few and it will lack authenticity. Deciding which details to put in and which to leave out is one of the great challenges of writing historical fiction.
Rather than war and politics, I’m interested in the daily lives of ancient people, especially the roles of women—a lot of that has not been documented. In order to create that world, I steep myself in fragments of writings, jewelry, household goods and my imagination.