Writing history in a double sense: Historical novels are often a special experience for authors as well as for readers. They offer the opportunity to immerse oneself in historical events and to experience them up close and personal, without coming across as boring as school lessons.
But historical novel is not historical novel. What a good book in this genre, you can find out here.
Facts and fiction
It is clear: historical novels are not history books. Some are closer to reality than others, but in each, adjustments are made to the story the particular author wants to tell. The reason is clear: the author wants to write a story that is more than a lyrical rendition of a history book. But all archaeological finds and records from the past are no more than key data and reports, brief glimpses of a bygone era. But a novel must offer more than key data. In order to write a good story, the author must bring a complete world to life and create it around the historical key dates. It’s a bit like a coloring book: the historical key data is the blank drawing, while the author has to take his paint box and fill in the white areas.
Research is necessary
To be able to write a historical story, a lot of research is necessary. The more "real" the story is supposed to be, the more. In the end, only a few percent of the results make it into the actual book – no reader wants to know how the stitching technique of medieval beaked shoes works, but the author needs to know what these shoes are all about in order to be able to set the scene appropriately with one or two subordinate clauses.
What makes some historical novels terribly dull are too many descriptions from research. In this case, the author has been researching for so long that he wants to put all the results too. Then it’s no longer just about seams in beak shoes, but also about leggings, tunics, the differences of different headdresses – and before you know it the whole novel is overloaded with background information that has nothing to do with the actual story.
On the other hand, too little research also does harm. Many readers who turn to historical novels are well versed in "their" era. If an author doesn’t know his facts, he will quickly alienate those readers.
Writing history or making history?
Sometimes authors fall into the trap of writing about the historical period of their book but not developing a story of their own. As a result, the book is filled with great historical background, insights into political shenanigans and social mindsets. But the protagonist is missing, acting out of his own motivation and telling his Hero’s Journey must complete.
The protagonist then degenerates into a spectator of historical events, through whose eyes the reader can also experience "live" what happens in a particular era. This is exciting for those who really have a fable for a certain period, but terribly boring for all other readers. Who wants to read for 300 – 500 pages that a character experiences something without having his own motivations?
The closer the book sticks to the historical truth, the greater the danger that an author will fall into this trap. The end of the book is known, since everything has already happened and is recorded in history books. So the classic unknown of other books does not exist. In a historical novel about Cleopatra we already know on the first page which role Cesar or Mark Antony will play.
The challenge is to try to write a gripping story with this known material. If an author manages to make Cleopatra a multi-layered woman who has a goal and has to fight to achieve it, he can give the reader the illusion that history might turn out differently than we know from history books after all. Then it’s no longer about rattling off world historical events, but about the wishes and dreams of Cleopatra’s wife and the obstacles she has to deal with.