Easing in the Unknown: Seven Hints on How to Incorporate Information into Historical Fiction (They work in other genres, too!)
Victoria Grossack

One reason people read historical fiction is to learn about different times and places while being entertained by a compelling story. The author’s challenge is to introduce the information so that it enhances the story rather than detracts from it. This is particularly difficult when the people in that place and time would be familiar with the information, but where the reader needs help. How do you help the reader along? How do you make sure you show instead of tell? How do you make it all seem natural and part of the flow? Here are seven techniques:

1. Have your character go through a first-time experience.
If your main character is also learning, then the reader may enjoy learning too. For example in Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the protagonist, Rob Cole, travels across 11th century Europe in order to learn medicine at a Persian court. As Rob experiences juggling, Judaism, France and Persia for the first time in the 11th century, so does the reader.

2. Have your character teach someone else.
Perhaps your character has children or pupils; he can then show others how to do something. Note that unless there is some way to make this emotionally engaging, it may seem less interesting. An example of this (albeit not historical fiction) is when Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, explains the sport of Quidditch to Colin Creevey, a student in the class behind Harry’s. Rowling has to explain the sport, as The Chamber of Secrets is only the second book in the series and not all readers could be expected to be familiar with soccer as played on broomsticks.

3. Make the activity part of the plot.
If the activity is such that it is central to the story, specific details are easier to incorporate. For example, in James Michener’s The Covenant, the character Gumsto must hunt and kill in order to survive. This activity makes it easier for Michener to slip in information about the Bushman’s special poisoned arrows, which in turn enriches the reading experience.

4. Use the information as background for something else.
Show the information or activity as background. Perhaps two of your characters have to have a conversation. Instead of having them talk at the dinner table, have them converse while they are engaged in an activity typical for the time or place. Perhaps they are weaving, harvesting, hunting, doing laundry, or looking over cloth in the marketplace. The characters won’t concentrate on it but the details you can slip in will enrich your readers’ historical fiction experience.

5. Clarify through context.
Perhaps you just have a word or two that you can make clear from context. I ran into this problem when working on Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, when I wanted to use the word “fibula”. Although “fibula” to most people today means “leg-bone,” it has a lesser-known meaning: ancient Greek or Roman safety-pin. It’s the right word to use, but the odds are that it will confuse some readers, and distract them from their reading experience. On the other hand, when I visited the Athens Museum, I saw display cases piled high with ancient fibulae. Part of my audience would expect me to use this word. What was the solution? I decided to use the word “fibula,” but to make the meaning clear from the context.

6. Use Footnotes.
Another way to explain things is to use footnotes for words or customs that might be unknown to today’s reader. Publishers may not be keen on this, but it does happen. Footnotes will give your novel a more erudite appearance; it is up to you to decide if you and your readers would prefer this.

7. Write an Appendix.
Again, your publisher may be a little less happy about your putting in an appendix – it means more pages in your book – but including an appendix gives you the opportunity to address the reader directly. You can use the time and space to explain the details which may be unfamiliar, to relate what is based on historical fact and what is from your own invention. And, the appendix can’t detract from the story, because it isn’t part of the story. So even if your appendix reads like the driest of textbooks – although it would be better if it didn’t – a dry appendix is not a death knell for your book.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.