In this short column, it is my aim to offer authors and aspiring writers practical tips on how to write genuine historical fiction.

SDL Curry

SDL Curry

At a historical fiction writers' conference, I once heard an established author suggest that there is "no right or wrong way" to write historical fiction. While I do somewhat agree with this view in the sense that no writer wants to feel constrained or have their creativity stifled, I disagree in the sense that readers of historical fiction expect a certain amount of authenticity in the historical fiction they consume. Thus, the focus of my tips below effectively concern how an author can create, and instil, as much authenticity as possible in their historical novels.

To add some perspective, I will also try to give some real examples as it relates to how I wrote my recently published novel HIDDEN BY THE LEAVES - a historical fiction that takes place in 17th Century Japan.

Tip #1: Live there.

As much as possible try to live in your historical setting, or live as close to it as you can. If one of your characters is Joan of Arc, then go live in the north-east of France. Get to know the environment where your characters lived and then imagine life as it was in the past. In my case, I lived in Tokyo next to a Shinto Shrine, which brought its own unique set of unusual experiences.

Tip #2: Travel there.

‎If for practical reasons, you cannot actually live in the setting of your characters, do the next best thing - travel there. Imagination is great, but travel to the setting of your story. It will add depth and detail that you would not have been able to imagine otherwise. If your novel is a story about the Mayan Indians in the Americas, go visit Mayan ruins and spend time there. In my case, I visited Nagasaki and surrounding areas on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan. I would not have been able to pick up on the "vibe" there otherwise.

Tip #3: Collect historical things.

As much as my budget will allow, I try to collect rare Japanese maps, art and other artefacts from my historical time period. Focus on them. Pay attention to the detail. The closer you can get to objects from times past, the more you can appreciate and imagine life as it actually was.

Tip #4: Do something physical.

Try to perform physical feats that your characters did on a daily basis. If your main character is a ballerina, take up ballet. Know the physical life of your characters. In my case, I studied martial arts (Aikido) with the masters at Hombu Dojo - a world famous dojo in Japan.

Tip #5: Study.

Roll up your sleeves and study something that your characters may have studied - whether directly or indirectly. Get yourself into their intellectual and mental mind-set. If your main character is a Spanish Prince, learn Latin or perhaps astrology. Or even learn Spanish itself and try to articulate yourself as a Spaniard. In my case, I studied Japanese, but as my main character was a Jesuit Missionary, I also studied the Bible in great detail.

Tip #6: Pray.

Everyone prays in some shape or form, whether they know it or not. Try to pray or "meditate" like your characters would have done. Remember, we are all triune beings comprised of body, mind and spirit. Try to live the spiritual side of your characters. In my case, I have tried to pray as a Jesuit with all of their particular goals and aspirations in mind. I have also tried to "meditate" in the zen-like state that samurai may have done.

‎ Tip #7: Consult experts.

As much as you know, or think you know, consult experts or other experts within your time frame. Because history will always involve a certain level of academia, get to know experts in your genre. Become a formal researcher and develop academic relationships. Get to know university professors, PhD's and other experts in your historical time period. Chances are they will be equally as passionate as you are about your historical period and they will also likely show you new research or insights that you would not have been able to uncover on your own. In my case, I consulted with experts at the British Library in London and the Metropolitan Library of New York. I also corresponded with multiple museum curators in Japan.

‎ Tip #8: Make friends in your space.

While it is great to make professional acquaintances with subject experts, make sure you also make friends with others interested in your genre and historical time period. Try to help them and see if they can help you. Friends have an uncompromising way of helping each other and giving each other direct and honest advice that you may not be able to get through professional circles. In my case, I developed friendships with Jesuit Priests around the globe, who share similar interests. Having deep conversations with like-minded friends can be highly rewarding.

Tip #9: Insert historical characters into your story.

When it comes time to synthesizing your historical research into your novel, it is imperative to know who the most significant individuals during your time period were. Discover who they were and research them well. Study their physical characteristics and attributes. Try to understand their personalities, mind-sets and motivations. Next, weave all of these details into your novel. At the end of the day, including real historical characters in your novel will help properly ground your story in history. In my case, I incorporated multiple real historical figures into my work. For example, Shogun Iemitsu, Governor Mizuno Kawachi, Deputy-Lieutenant Heizo Suetsugu Masanao and Warlord Matsukura Shigemasa were all real characters in history - and quite evil ones at that.

Tip #10: Insert Historical Events.

Similar to Tip #9, inserting and weaving historical events (and related dates), into your story can also greatly help synthesize actual history into your novel. By including actual historical events, your readers will be brought back in time to learn about actual historical events that took place during your time period. In the case of Hidden by the Leaves, I inserted a whole series of actual historical events, including hideous executions where Christians were tortured and burned alive.

Tip #11: Go the extra mile in your research.

Strive to uncover something entirely new. Don't just do research in obvious places already accessible in the public domain. Go deep. Try to learn or uncover something entirely new and fascinating about your historical time period. If you're writing about the pyramids in Egypt, strap on your boots and set out to make a new discovery. New theories are always fascinating and engaging. In my case, I went right to the source. Painstakingly, I located and studied Jesuit letters that were sent from Japan to the Papacy in Rome. While my Latin is certainly suboptimal, the experience itself was highly rewarding, and I also had the distinct feeling that I was going to a place where few people had gone before.

In conclusion, research, research, and research your historical time period. In order to effectively write authentic and genuine historical fiction, it is my view that authors should live, breathe and eat the genre and historical time period they are writing about.

My historical novel, Hidden by the Leaves - Book One of the Hidden Trilogy - is available now from Amazon: