If you’ve decided to try your hand a writing historical fiction, great! It’s been the best job that I’ve ever had, even better than the time we got free pizza at Snappy Tomato back in college. It’s not an overnight success story, no matter what non-writers will tell you. It will take you a while to master the basics of storytelling, and you’ll have to learn how to properly evaluate both primary and secondary historical sources.
That being said, I’ve got some hard-won advice on getting started as a historical fiction author.
There are several different ways that you can go about writing about history. Do you want to write about people who actually lived? I do, and for me it’s the best way to combine my background in historical research with storytelling. It’s constraining because many of the events are already plotted out and you can’t really stray too far from them. My mother actually fussed at me after reading one of my books, “You let her DIE!!!” I had to tell her that it was what actually happened, so I was kind of wedded to that ending.
Do you want to write about well-known people? Realize going in that many people have attachments to well known historical figures. Don’t let that scare you off, you’ll get praise and criticism no matter what you do. I prefer more obscure figures, which allows me to be a trailblazer and bring to our attention people who have previously looked over by the historical record.
But I’m not that good at grammar.
Grammar is not my forte, and even after having several people look at my manuscripts, I’ve still had reviewers find lots of errors. I’ve accepted the fact that it’s not my strong suit, and at least it’s something that I can get help with. If you can afford the few thousand dollars or so it costs, copy editors and proofreaders are great for bolstering your shortcomings in grammar.
I won’t kid you, clean copy really affects how readers respond to your work. During my first few months, when I could barely afford an editor on Fiverr, I wasn’t in a position to hire a “good editor.” I suffered for that lack, but as soon as I could scrape the money together, I got an editor worth the money.
What if I put in an anachronism and somebody catches it?
If you publish a story and no one catches any historical error you make, send me a message. You’re a unicorn and I’ll give you twenty USD. One of two things will happen to you:
You make an honest to goodness boo boo and someone catches you for it.
You got your details right and someone is so attached to being “right” because they read it from a particular source that they take you to task for writing it “wrong.” You’ll never win that argument, even with sources to back you up. Some people are determined to lecture you about “people being shorter back then,” and there’s nothing that you can do about it.
Getting comfortable with historical documents.
Yes, it takes a while to get used to reading historical documents, no matter how good you are at decphering handwriting. Luckily, there a several resources to help you get familiar with reading them. I love using Archive.org for finding out of copyright sources for my research. It takes a while to learn what constitutes a “good” or “reliable” source for your research. One quick tip is to immediately flip back to the bibliography section to see what the author used for their sources. If it’s slim, steer clear.