Easing in the Unknown: Seven
Hints on How to Incorporate Information into Historical Fiction
(They work in other genres, too!)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article is the sole property
of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission. The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is
illegal, and will be
prosecuted at the discretion of the
Fiction Fix Home Page
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
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.