“Novelists,” wrote the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, back in 1850, convey “not just the bare bones of history, but something richer, more complete…. [they] put the flesh back on the skeleton that is history.” This month, dear writers, enter Write the World's and Facing History and Ourselves's
Historical Fiction Competition. In short story form, take your readers back in time through the eyes of a real or imagined historical character.
Perhaps you’ll write a story centered around the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a piece set in Vietnam in the 1800s, a Mayan child’s life in 300 A.D.; or perhaps you’ll research a time when your favorite author or historical figure was growing up, or ask a grandparent about their earliest memories.
The job of a historical fiction writer, says Hilary Mantel (whose own historical fiction won the Man Booker Prize) is to “unfreeze antique feeling, unlock the emotion stored and packed tight in paper, brick and stone." How does a writer go about this tremendous task? Here are some tips:
Who is Eligible?
- HISTORICAL DETAIL. Make the time period feel real to the reader through day-to-day details. If you’re writing about a 15-year-old in 1939 Paris, find out what she would likely eat for breakfast, how she’d get to school, what she’d listen to on the radio.
- PLACE. Invite the reader back in time by describing the setting. What does North Sydney look like in 1914? What does the air smell like in Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution? In 4000 BCE, how does the sound of the Indus River change with seasonal floods? Through sensory details, allow your reader to experience the physical world of your story.
- INFLUENCE. How did a historical event (or series of events) impact your character? As you develop your story, make sure your character is not only existing in this historical period, but that they are actually struggling with the surrounding world. This struggle (a.k.a. conflict!) will likely take shape internally and externally. An 18-year-old in 1943 might fret over whether to apply to university or join the war effort (internal), and this struggle may lead to an argument with his father (external). Remember that the depth of human emotion has existed throughout history—let the reader feel how events impact your character’s spirit.
- VOICE AND TONE. Perhaps the trickiest task! After you’ve sketched out the feelings and thoughts of your character, begin to hone in on a particular tone appropriate to the character, their world and the historical situation at hand. If possible, read books, articles and diaries published during the time period of your story. Alternatively, find historical fiction or a film that takes place during the same era. As much as you can, research and immerse yourself in the period before trying your hand at crafting a convincing voice. The experts in this genre over at the The Historical Quill suggest immersing yourself in the novels of the time: "For relatively modern historical fiction (i.e. 1700s onwards), novels written during your period are an excellent resource, not only for providing a sense of the social backdrop, but also for giving you a sense of how people spoke to each other. Creative works written earlier than this can still be useful (Shakespeare being an obvious example), but there are fewer of them and the English will obviously be less recognisable the further back you go." Where would we be without Jane Austen's sharp eye on the manners (or lack of manners!) in Regency England?!
- OTHER EARS. Find willing readers! Getting feedback on the accuracy and authenticity of your historical fiction story will be of great help to you as you revise your work. If you’re lucky enough to know individuals who were alive during the period you’re writing about, ask them to read your draft. Better yet, get them to share their stories, listening for interesting details, characters, and events.
- ACCURACY: This is an important one, dear writers. Historical Fiction falls under the creative writing umbrella, but it also requires research. Go down the rabbit hole… and have fun doing it! Seek out primary sources, find reputable historians who have written about the same time period and read their work, search for images to give you a visual window, call up your local librarian and ask for help finding out more! As author Anissa Gray says, “...it’s not my story I’m telling, but it’s mine to share. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make the story real with just the right balance of a journalist’s detachment and a novelist’s connection. To tell the truth. And to create it too.” For more on striking the right balance, check our Q&A with Gabrielle Wang.
Young writers ages 13-18
Daven McQueen is the author of The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones
—a YA Historical Fiction novel—which she began writing while still in high school. Daven grew up outside of Los Angeles, California and graduated from Brown University, where she earned a B.A. in literary arts and economics. When she’s not writing, Daven can be found tap dancing, embroidering, cooking, and eating dessert. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and works in education.
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
- Best Entry: $100 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the winning piece, and an interview with the author will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Runner up: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the piece will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Best Peer Review: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the best peer review and an interview with the reviewer will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
- Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
- Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday, September 14 and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
- September 7: Competition Opens
- September 14: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
- September 18: Reviews returned to Writers
- September 22: Final Submissions Due
- October 2: Winners Announced
Our Speech Writing Competition opens Monday, October 5th.
Stay tuned for more details!
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