How to write civil war historical fiction

by Andrew Noakes

How to write civil war historical fiction

In this guide, we explain how to write historical fiction in 10 steps, breaking the process down into bitesize chunks to help you get started on your journey.

Writing historical fiction can be challenging, even for a seasoned writer. You have the usual things to worry about – planning, plotting, structure, character development, etc. – but on top of that, you also have to grapple with the in-depth research and get to grips with the key considerations around historical accuracy and authenticity.

For a newcomer, it can seem a bit daunting. But it needn’t be. If you follow these 10 steps, you’ll be ready to get started in no time.

Step 1: Develop your story concept

One of the great things about writing historical fiction is that history is a wonderful source of inspiration. There are a few different approaches you can take to utilising it:

1) Tell a fictionalised (but accurate) version of a true story. This includes biographical historical fiction, where the focus is on telling the story of someone’s life. The aim here is to explore the real events and characters of history with careful attention to accuracy. Of course, all or at least most of the dialogue will be fictional, and you may not know every detail of what happened, but the key is to create a story that accurately reflects what really happened as much as possible.

2) Tell a true story with some creative license. This doesn’t mean you can blatantly fabricate and falsify key elements of history, but it does mean you can draw on gaps in the historical record, subtext, and rumours in a way that a historian couldn’t. Just be honest with your reader in your historical note.

3) Use real events as the backdrop for your mostly fictional story. The aim here is slightly different. Yes, you’re basing the backdrop of your story on what really happened, but your core story is almost entirely fictional and will usually focus more on characters who are made up than renderings of real-life figures (though that’s not to say the story can’t have any real-life figures – it certainly can).

4) Use a true story as the inspiration for your fictional story. If you want to draw on the details of real events and people, but you feel your creative juices taking the story too far away from the real history, you might consider using history as inspiration for your story, rather than making it the story itself. This could involve basing a fictional character on a real person, for example, or taking inspiration from an interesting historical episode and replicating elements of it in your story. Just be careful to avoid basing your characters on people who are still living (for obvious legal reasons).

Step 2: Start your research

As the concept begins to take shape in your mind, it’s best to start learning more about your period and the key events and figures that might feature in your story.

Your first steps should be to figure out what you need to know and compile a list of resources that can help you attain that knowledge. Our 50+ top online research resources for historical fiction writers is a good place to start. Make sure to download your copy below.

How to write civil war historical fiction

Both fiction and memoir writing have endeavored to make sense of (or even see the senselessness of) violent conflict. But writing about war can be tricky: Some readers might be sensitive about graphic depictions of war and violence; others may have a hard time understanding what’s happening if you don’t go into detail. Here’s how to write battle scenes that are accurate and effective.

How to write civil war historical fiction

Important Tips For Writing About War

Consider whether certain violent elements need to be included. Graphic, explicit scenes can become offensive when they’re overdone or unnecessary. Of course, you may be going for “offensive” in order to make a point about your subject, but violence that’s heavy on detail needs to have a point. The key is to be aware of your choices and why you’re making them.

Use a panoramic lens. Capture the vastness of a battle by showing us a wide view of the action. Allow your narrator a moment to look around at what’s going on so that your reader can also see what’s happening. However, remember that “epic” doesn’t necessarily mean emotionally engaging. If not handled properly, big battles can feel impersonal and lead to “action fatigue.”

Focus on the details. Whether you’re writing about the trenches of World War I or the Time-Space Wars of the Zygine Galaxy, pay attention to the little details of everyday life. Sometimes, the familiar smell of coffee and a campfire can be more emotionally powerful than the less familiar smell of a lit cannon fuse.

If your violence is comic, be cautious of subtext. Some people may laugh; others might be offended. If you need to make a choice about your character’s actions that happens to align with stereotypes of violence, make sure you do so with caution.

Understand your characters. Whether you’re writing about a perpetrator of violence or a victim, dig deep within your own personal capacity for empathy to tease out elements that will make all of your characters human, relatable, and real—even the villains. You might not respect your antagonist’s decisions, but by understanding them, you’ll bring depth and emotion to your work.

Get it right. If you’re writing historical fiction or even memoir, check (and recheck!) your facts. Confirm that your details are accurate. By spending the extra time and doing the research, you’ll have a story that resonates with authenticity and powerful details—especially if you’re writing military fiction.

Avoid clichés. While every genre has its tropes, be aware of choices that lead to scenes that are overly familiar. Falling back on clichés is sometimes the easy way out. If you find yourself writing a familiar battle scene (one soldier dragging another to safety, or one person dying in another’s arms), be sure to mix up the action with your own unique perspective.

When In Doubt, Read Military Memoirs And Fiction

If you’re not sure your battles have a realistic edge, read other books in the genre. Reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing, regardless of your topic. Here’s a list of the best war novels to get you started.How to write civil war historical fiction

How to write civil war historical fictionQUESTION: What do you think is one thing many battle/war scenes get wrong?

This page offers tips on how to write historical fiction. It is just one of many pages on the CWN website about the elements of fiction and creative writing techniques. At the bottom, you’ll find links to related pages, as well as the chance to take free creative writing lessons.

How to write historical fiction – What is historical fiction?

Historical fiction is a category for novels and stories that take place in past times (usually more than fifty years before when the author wrote them).

The characters and events in these stories might be completely imaginary. But the world of these stories is based, as closely as possible, on the reality of a particular historical time and place. For example, if you write a historical novel that takes place in Paris during the 1930s, you can:

  • invent a story about a real historical person at that time, for example, Ernest Hemingway.
  • invent a story about a real historical event, for example, World War II.
  • create a completely imaginary character, for example, a painter named Pierre who is in love with his landlady.

But no matter which of these options you choose, Paris in the 1930’s is Paris in the 1930’s, and nothing in your novel can go against the known facts about it. Pierre may be imaginary, but he cannot carry a cell phone or post on Twitter. And he can’t assassinate Hitler and end the war in 1940 because we know that didn’t happen (when I say he “can’t,” I mean according to the rules of historical fiction. If you want to write a new version of history, then that’s a different category of novel called speculative fiction, with its own set of rules).

It is important to note that not all fiction that takes place in the past is historical fiction. For example, Emily BrontГ« was not a historical novelist. Although Wuthering Heights takes place in the past, it was also written in the past, and as far as Emily Bronte was concerned, it was a contemporary novel. If Emily BrontГ« had instead written fiction about Ancient Egypt, then, she could be considered a historical novelist.

How to write historical fiction – is it for you?

You should consider writing historical fiction if:

  • You love reading novels set in past times.
  • You enjoy learning about and imagining life in other historical times.
  • You are fascinated by a particular historical event or period; for example, you’re a Civil War buff, or you read everything you can get your hands on about Ancient Egypt.
  • You have a novel idea that would work better in a historical time period. For example, if your story is about sea explorers in search of new continents, then you will probably decide to set that in the past.

You shouldn’t write historical fiction if:

  • You hate research.
  • You are in a hurry to finish.

Historical fiction is a lot of work and takes time!

How to write historical fiction – top tips

  • Read lots of historical fiction. The more of it you read, the better you’ll get to know how it works.
  • Choose an exact time period and place for your book (i.e., 1938, not “early twentieth century”; Paris, not France).
  • Do your research and avoid historical mistakes of any kind. If your readers notice that you’ve begun World War II in the wrong year, they’ll stop trusting you as an author.
  • Remember that the time period and place will shape your characters. You’re not writing about contemporary Americans in old-fashioned costumes. People in different time periods have different attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge.
  • At the same time, remember that your characters are individuals. A person is more than just the historical moment when she lived. Everyone also has a personal story, quirks, bad qualities, good qualities, worries, secret desires.
  • Don’t cram in information. You’re writing a novel, not an encyclopedia article. After you’ve done all that research, it will be tempting to use it all. Resist this temptation! Use only the details that naturally belong in your story. And remember to show, instead of telling, when that’s more effective. At the end of your novel, your reader shouldn’t feel as if she’s read a history of wartime Paris or medieval Spain — she should feel like she’s visited that time and place.

How to write civil war historical fiction

Photo credit: Library of Congress @ Unsplash

Events like the Civil War and the Great Depression may lie in the past, but writing historical fiction allows you to re-enact them with original plots, characters and conflicts. By fusing research with creative ideas of your own, you can mix real life and historical events with fiction to evoke authentic settings and people in your stories.

Introduce a Historical Character

Giving your main character a brush with a famous person can add realism to the story’s time and place. Have your protagonist encounter a politician, celebrity or social activist as part of your story. For example, a teenage girl in a story set in Texas in the 1950s might befriend rock and roll star Buddy Holly, while an overworked mother in the 1930s Dust Bowl might try to petition President Franklin Roosevelt for help as he passes through her hometown on a campaign stop. Research your chosen historical figure to find details you can incorporate into his behavior and appearance.

Create a Parallel Story Line

In historical fiction, the fictional story line often symbolically reflects the plot’s real-life setting. In Markus Zuzak’s “The Book Thief,” for example, young Liesel’s desire for the knowledge found in books is pitted against the widespread censorship and propaganda of Nazi Germany. Choose a historical event, then craft a fictional plot that mirrors the conflict at the heart of the real circumstances. For example, the Civil War would make a rich backdrop for a story about a family that is split apart when the father and oldest son choose to fight on separate sides of the conflict.

Address an Unexplored Viewpoint

Many historical events have perspectives that are underrepresented or unexplored in literature. Write your story from the point of view of a character who experiences a side of the story’s true events that frequently goes untold. For example, you might write a story set during the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman whose husband is fighting in the conflict, or you could create a character from the Revolutionary War who is a British sympathizer. Offering a different side to the story can lend dignity to viewpoints that are often marginalized and give readers an alternate way of seeing history.

Craft a Sense of Place

Because historical fiction takes place in a different era, creating a realistic, authentic setting is a critical element of a successful story in this genre. To set the stage for readers, open your story with a description of what the setting would have been like during your chosen period. For example, a story set in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma might describe a family’s one-room cabin on a lonely, desolate prairie, while a Cold War-era plot might paint a picture of the confined space of a family’s backyard bomb shelter. Try looking at historical photos of your selected setting for visual details that can enhance its realism.

  • Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis: Helping Children Be There, Then — Historical Fiction as a Basis for Children’s Fiction Writing
  • Writer’s Digest: Five Tips for Writing Historical Fiction
  • Read Write Think: Road to Freedom — Character Motivation Brainstorming

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

How to write civil war historical fiction

How to write civil war historical fiction

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of writing and publishing historical fiction it’s that historical fiction is a genre that many people love to read and even more people love to write. There is something satisfying about taking pieces from the past and weaving them into a story, part fiction and part fact, that helps us to understand that the more things change the more things stay the same. A great work of historical fiction shows the similarities between then and now, while detailing the differences in a creative way. For some writers writing historical fiction is a matter of taking their love for a particular time and place and sharing it with others.

One problem with writing historical fiction, as with writing most fiction, is finding paying markets to submit to. Submitting historical fiction can be more difficult for the obvious reason that not all journals publish it. There are several reasons why some publications do not publish historical fiction. Historical fiction is a much-loved genre among readers and writers, but there has still not been a definition of the genre that fits for everyone. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as a work written by someone who was not alive when the events happened, but others would argue that historical fiction can be written about the past as recently as the Vietnam War if the writer uses facts from real-life events to illuminate the story. Historical fiction can be categorized under various names, sometimes era-specific such as Civil War fiction, sometimes under different genre labels such as romance fiction, inspirational fiction, or literary fiction.

Historical fiction can even cross boundaries between genres such as fantasy and mystery. There is also alternative historical fiction, which is written with a “What if?” premise: what if the South won the Civil War? There are so many ways to write historical fiction that sometimes it is hard to categorize.

Other editors simply don’t realize what a large market there is for historical fiction. The Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, has averaged over 1000 visitors a month on its website for three years. A glance over the best-seller lists, amazon.com’s top sellers and even Oprah’s Book Club picks and one will see many historical novels in the line-up, but still some editors shy away from historical fiction with visions of 800-page detail-inflicted, plot-lacking tomes heavy in their minds.

Among those journals that do publish historical fiction not all of them are paying markets but if you are among the many writers of historical fiction who would like to be paid for your time and talent, here are nine paying markets for historical fiction. As with any submission, be sure to visit each journal’s website to see their specific writer’s guidelines. Some journals are very specific about the type of historical fiction they are willing to publish.

1. Solander
Solander is the literary journal from the excellent Historical Novel Society. For accepted stories they pay $150 in U.S. dollars and £100 in British pounds. Be sure to visit their guidelines (see link above) because they have a specific definition of historical fiction that their stories must adhere to.

2. The Gettysburg Review
The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettsburg College, accepts historical short stories and novel excerpts. They pay $30 per page.

3. The Seattle Review
The Seattle Review, published by the University of Washington, pays up to $100 for published pieces.

4. Virginia Quarterly Review
University of Virginia
One West Range
P.O. Box 400223
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4223
Virginia Quarterly Review accepts novel excerpts and they pay up to $100 a page.

6. Muzzle Blasts
National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association
P.O. Box 67
Friendship, IN 47021
This magazine is very specific in its scope and all stories must be related to muzzle loading rifles or the muzzle loading era of American history. See their website for more details. Pays $50-$300 for fiction.

7. Lighthouse Digest
P.O. Box 1690
Wells, ME 04090
Lighthouse Digest is another topic-specific magazine. Stories must be related to lighthouses and other aspects of maritime history. If you have a story idea for Lighthouse Digest, contact Timothy Harrison at timh (at) lhdigest.com.
Pays $75-$150 for fiction.

8. icada Magazine
Cricket Magazine Group

Writers of historical fiction should never forget the children’s market for their writing. Magazines such as Cicada use a lot of historical fiction to teach their young readers about the past, and historical fiction is a popular tool for teaching both language arts and history in elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms. For Cicada, the main protagonist should be 14 or older. Pays $0.25 a word.

To have the best luck finding paying markets for your historical fiction, have a clear vision of the audience for your work. Is your work going to appeal to Civil War enthusiasts? Is it an alternative history? Can it qualify as a historical/mystery crossover or a literary work? When looking for paying markets for your other stories, keep note of the types of stories that those journals publish. Journals that publish literary fiction may be interested in your literary historical story even if they don’t specifically publish historical fiction. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent was marketed as a literary novel rather than an historical novel even though it is very much an historical novel.

When submitting your work to paying markets, be careful not to fall into the trap that many writers of historical fiction fall into. Often writers of historical fiction submit chapters of their unpublished historical novels instead of submitting short stories written as independent pieces. With historical fiction, as with any type of fiction, the work the writer submits must have believable characters and meaningful dialogue that pushes the plot forward, a conflict that is somehow resolved, and an ending that brings the story together – in other words, everything the laws of drama dictate a well-written story should contain. Submitting several pages of historical research without intention or meaning will not go over well with any editor whether they publish historical fiction or not. That is not to say that you should avoid submitting novel excerpts, but if you are going to do so, be sure that the excerpt stands on its own as a complete short story.

There are paying markets that publish historical fiction, even well-paying markets. It is simply a matter of taking the time to do the research to find journals that are open to such submissions, finding exactly the right journals for your kind of historical fiction, and making sure that your historical story is as strong as it can be.

Meredith Allard is a writer and a teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Northridge Review, Wild Mind, The Paumanok Review, Sonata, Moondance, and Muse Apprentice Guild. She is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction.

Historians like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have written successful books in recent years. These writers found topics of great interest to the public and wrote compelling narratives that were easy to read. The world of academia can shield historians and graduate students from issues that interest nonfiction readers. Before you write a historical book, you need to pursue all research avenues and view your work from the perspective of a non-historian.

Create a Compelling Historical Book

Determine the ideal reading level for your historical book before starting your research. Writers who want to focus on students and newcomers to history will need to cover broad topics without assuming prior knowledge. Historians writing for graduate students and fellow academics can delve into specific areas of research without worrying about reader comprehension.

Locate letters, diaries, newspapers, and other primary documents for your historical book. You should devote months to exhausting these resources as you try to find people, events and interpretations of history unavailable in other books.

Examine the thesis of your historical book early to determine if it is original and sound. For example, a Civil War historian may want to narrow his focus on a specific battle and its influence on the Union or Confederacy war efforts. That’s wiser than speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seek grant funding for your research to ease the financial burden of writing an historical book. Michigan State University has a list of grant organizations that fund graduate students and historians interested in original research. Many grants require historians to research at specific institutions, teach or demonstrate the importance of their projects.

Submit individual chapters from your historical book as journal articles before completing your manuscript. If your book focuses on a specific region or time period in history, you should find a journal that covers these areas exclusively. Look in future editions of the journal for letters and commentary on your chapters if they are published.

Keep your research methodology transparent by using impeccable foot notes, end notes and bibliographies. Your citation style may be limited by the publisher’s in-house style guide so focus your attention on providing as much detail as possible for every note. Include a concluding chapter on the bibliography of your topic including books contemporary to your time period and publications that conflict with your thesis.

Secure publication rights for maps, artwork and photos borrowed from libraries and collections. Historical books often use photos on dust jackets, title pages and inserts within the book to break up long chapters of text. If you are unable to find the original owner of the photo, contact the library where the photo was stored for more information.

Approach university presses and small publishing houses after your manuscript is completed. Major publishers limit their historical nonfiction to hot topics. Your chances of getting published increase greatly if you are writing about regional topics and submit to small publishers within that region.

Test elements of your historical book in lectures, seminars and discussion groups if you are a teacher. Use your book’s thesis and supporting documents at appropriate times during the semester to determine if further research is needed. Ask your students for feedback on lectures and assignments related to these chapters to inform the rest of your writing.

Prevent obvious criticisms of your work by reading major works on the topic before putting pen to paper. Search for journal articles, thesis papers and published books that cover your topic to give appropriate credit to past ideas. Dig deeper by looking for book reviews on these publications to determine if your research builds on scholarship in your specialty.