Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Period fiction is a surprisingly popular genre used to place stories in the time period and setting that works best for them. It’s not always completely accurate, but it does convey a spirit that’s hard to capture in any other way, and there’s a large readership out there who are ready to suspend their disbelief and dive in. Here’s how to help them.
What is period fiction?
Isn’t it just another word for historical fiction? Well, sort of. There’s a lot of crossover, but talking about the subtle differences can help us filter out what we’re not trying to do and polish what we are.
Historical fiction typically includes real historical places (London) and people (Winston Churchill). Period fiction emulates a certain period of history to create a certain feel. Maybe you just want to emulate a certain feel, maybe you want to include some anachronistic details to make the plot sing, or maybe the real history is a bit too turbulent, and you want your story to unfold without it being interrupted or upstaged by real events.
You’ll find that much of the advice in here applies to both styles, but it’s geared toward period fiction. When writing period fiction, your grasp of history doesn’t need to be excruciatingly detailed and deeply philosophical. Most people read the story for the story, not for the history lesson. (There’s always Tolstoy for that.) Still, even the average reader will notice if your Roman centurion suddenly jumps in a tank. That’s why research is so important.
Rule #1 – Research is king
Pause for a second and imagine something with me: you’re thumbing through your friend’s photo album, enjoying the candid shots of her son’s bar mitzvah, and you come across a professional portrait. The background is the sandy shore of a lake in town, and it’s clearly a perfect, sunny day for taking pictures.
Unfortunately, there’s someone in the background. Actually, there are a few people – some are really far away, part of the background, actually helping the impression of a genuine, captured moment, but one’s closer, and they’re pulling a stupid face. As much as you don’t want it to, that stupid face spoils the picture. It’s so patently obvious that they don’t belong in the photo! It’s a distraction, and you can’t imagine why the photographer didn’t wait until the interloper was out of shot, or even try to remove them from the picture later.
When it comes to writing period fiction, go and do likewise.
Details, details, details
It might feel like the details don’t matter, but when they distract from the story, you lose authenticity. If you put political criminals in dungeons during a time when they didn’t have dungeons, or dot your African landscape with cacti, you lose believability. If your 17th-century French upper-classers aren’t wearing powdered wigs, you lose your backdrop and derail your readers.
Nobody who writes period fiction knows their chosen setting inside and out. It’s easy to lapse into the kind of dialogue, clothing, architecture, etc. that’s familiar. Research is the only antidote.Period fiction depends on research.Click To Tweet
This is one reason futuristic or entirely fictionalized settings are popular: you can invent your own congruency. But that’s also what makes it difficult: you’ve got to invent something lively and coherent that’s simultaneously familiar and novel. Hogwarts, anyone?
Here’s the advantage to period fiction: it’s not only romantic (Renaissance Italy), raw (1950s in the US), and breathtaking (Victoria Falls thundering through a tribal forest) – it’s already real. A well-represented historical setting gives you automatic authenticity. Unless, of course, your details aren’t authentic. Good thing you did your research.
Rule #2 – Don’t assume your reader knows your time period
So now you’ve done your research. You’ve plumbed the depths of 19th-century Wales to the point where you feel like maybe you were there, once. It’s easy to forget that the last time your reader actually thought about 19th-century anywhere, they were thirteen and falling asleep in social studies class.
This doesn’t mean you should start your readers off with a five-page exposition and a history quiz. It does mean that you’re going to weave coal and iron industries into your account, which will have an overall feel of growth and progress. It means you get to use all that research as a framework for delectable details that bring your story to life.Period fiction may involve teaching your reader, but be subtle. Click To Tweet
Notice how the setting is not ‘just’ a setting in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See; Doerr tells us outright that we’re in France, but every other setting detail is woven in. ‘Entire streets swirl’ with leaflets urging inhabitants to vacate the town. There aren’t just bombers overhead, the reader gets an aerial view of ‘chevrons of whitecaps and… lumps of islands.’ And when Doerr wants to give us a blueprint of the city, he doesn’t dictate it; he has Marie-Laure kneel over a model of the city and, with her, we trace our fingers over the buildings and see them in our mind’s eye. How different from a history lecture. We’re getting the history and we don’t even realize it.
What motivates your details?
Details need organic motivation. You might need something to happen, or the plot needs something to be located somewhere, but that’s not a good enough reason to include it. The internal elements of the story need to be the motive. For instance, unless you’re writing first-person narrative teen fiction, you probably don’t need to chronicle your protagonist’s entire wardrobe, hairstyle, and eye color. Consider the difference between the straightforward report and Gilbert Sorrentino’s actual writing in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things:
She had long, shapely legs covered with lace stockings, a silky gray skirt and white off-the-shoulder top, and strappy black high-heeled shoes
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?
The reader actually gets less detail, but the result is more riveting and realistic. Here’s another way to frame it: imagine if this happened to you and you were later recounting the experience to a friend. You’re not going to say (or even remember!) what color the skirt was, if her hair was the color of ravens and smelled like Garnier, or what style shoes she wore. It’s unnatural. Each story, each scene, will have its own natural needs. Look for those.
Rule #3 – Story before history
Except for a handful of history buffs with a pile of David McCullough books tucked on their nightstand, people aren’t reading for period education for faultless accuracy. They’re reading for the story.
Setting facilitates story. This is a principle that applies anywhere: you don’t want to put a masterful painting in a chunky, overwhelming frame (unless you’re living in 1879). You don’t want to take a professional headshot and have the background so busy the face looks like a sardine in a can.
Let’s go back to that photograph of the boy on the beach and picture a couple of sand cranes fuzzy in the background. Nobody looking at that photo is going to think, “Wait a minute, I thought this beach was on the east coast of the United States and sand cranes only live in the Midwest of the United States! I can’t, I just can’t, look at this any more.” The focus of the picture is still the boy; the cranes fade seamlessly into a background that makes sense and serves its purpose: to showcase the boy.
What if sand cranes are central to your story? Well, then, you probably want to get them right. It’s a matter of discerning which historical facts add vivid, penetrating flourishes or reliable sociocultural structure, and which boil down to nitpicking.You’ll never get everything 100% accurate, so figure out which details matter.Click To Tweet
As you research your period, you’ll look for historical facts and literature written during your target period, of course. But don’t forget to also read contemporary fiction set in your target period. The former gives you a framework; the latter shows you how to dress it up.
The bottom line
Period fiction comes with some major perks. The framework is already believable (because, you know, it happened), the familiarity helps your readers feel at home as they settle into the story, and the flexibility allows us to use any time period that best fits the characters and story elements we’re working with. The only caveat? No shortcuts. Do your research, and you can take your readers anywhere, any time, in the world.
Who are your favorite period fiction authors? How do they nail the genre? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great tips, check out Alternate History Fiction: 3 Useful Rules You Should Know, The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Western, and Learn How To Research Your Book With This Beginner’s Guide.