The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
If you Google "Writing Historical Fiction" (yeah, we're back to Google) you get 10 and a million returns in under a second. There's a lot of advice on how to go about it distilled into 10 steps here, seven steps there, 11 steps over at that other place; it's scattered throughout blogs for free and in books that you have to buy; it's available in online seminars and courses and workshops coming to a location near you. All this advice is organized in different ways with different emphasis, and it's all good. I've covered a lot of it this week in my own snarky, bloviating way.
Write What You Know
This is one of the oldest bits of writing advice there is. When it comes to historical fiction you do your research and you try to incorporate it into a story that's available to the contemporary reader. Someone's always going to take exception to what you include; someone's always going to find mistakes. Sometimes they'll be real mistakes and sometimes not.
I'm still burning about the fact that the History Channel had Ragnar Lothbrok at the sacking of Lindisfarne and ignored the historical fact that Æthelred was the king of Northumbria, not Ælla. The History Channel, for God's sake! On the other hand, their shield walls and fighting technique are good and their ships are beautiful and I haven't seen any horned helmets.
Your options for knowing an historical period are doing the research and wearing the clothes. If you're writing about World War II, there are still people who were alive then; they're a great resource—talk to them. If you're writing about Spanish adventurer's plundering Mesoamerica, your interview options are more limited.
Do your best to be accurate and suck it up. Be true to the interior psychology of your characters and to the external details of the period. No one can truly recreate the past, and if you could it would be boring and more often than not incomprehensible. We live in a linear universe, and we've moved on. Trying to write dialogue in the vocabulary of an historical period would at best be tedious to read and at worst be impenetrable. Writers of historical fiction are as much interpreters of the past as documentarians and that's as it should be. "Canterbury Tales" is a good read, but try it in Middle English without a glossary and see how you like it. Do your research and create a good story about interesting characters: that's all you can do.
Read Fiction Set in Your Period
There are two schools of thought about this. Some writers think reading other historical fictions set in the period is a bad idea (certainly don't rely on other historical fictions for accurate detail). Other writers read historical fiction without giving it another thought. I say you should absolutely be reading nonfiction about the period, and I further say you should be always be reading, whether it's about the period or not. If you aren't always reading, then you probably aren't a writer. As far as fiction set in the period, that's how many of us got interested in the first place. "Beowulf" is fiction.
Make an Outline
Or don't make an outline. Lots of writers get along fine without them. Lots of my stories are organized around movement, so I find it helpful to create a map of the area I'm writing about. I guess maps can function as outlines because if you know where your characters start out and end up geographically you know the territory they have to cover on the journey, how long it will take, and what the opportunities are for things to happen on the trip. I'm a big fan of maps in historical fiction.
Get the Details Right
Horned helmets. Enough said.
Avoid a Modern Voice
You should certainly avoid a modern vocabulary and you should also avoid a modern sensibility that conflicts with the cultural norms and expectations of the period, but I think a lot of what might seem to be a modern voice is acceptable if it's expressed in terms of the period (Lindsey Davis's Falco novels). There have probably always been wise-asses around. Those guys told jokes and had a sense of humor. They were sarcastic and irreverent. The mere expression of sarcasm and irreverence can't violate the period.
If you're going to make fun of someone or some aspect of the period, do it as someone in the period would do it, not as someone looking back from the 21st century. They didn't think the idea of elf shot was quaint and superstitious in the 8th century; a lot of people believed in elves and they were blamed for a lot of undiagnosed symptoms because the Church said they were malign entities and no one understood what ulcerative colitis was. But someone who'd never seen an elf might have his doubts; he'd just express his skepticism in the context of the time.
If you try to seed your narrative or dialogue with real terms from the period or with your idea of how they spoke you'll bore your reader, confuse your reader, or make your reader laugh. In any case, you take your reader out of the story.
There are No Rules
Well, yes and no. There are rules in the sense that you should avoid doing things that will pull the reader out of the story. You should create good characters and give them an interesting story because no one wants to read about uninteresting characters doing boring things. You should know enough about the period to avoid factual mistakes. I suppose those are rules.
But you can violate rules if you do it artfully, which is to say that you justify that violation in the context of the period. That doesn't mean there aren't rules; it only means that you can bend them to some extent if you do it in a way that explains the exceptional nature of the bending. Your exceptions have to be plausible, you have to prepare the reader for them, and they have to be exceptions.
So this is my theory of historical fiction. It isn't the "Poetics;" it's just a collection of opinions based on years of reading historical fiction and thinking about what works and years of researching and writing historical fiction myself. Take it for what it's worth. I trust that my horned helmet will deflect disagreeable comments.