This blog was featured on 06/13/2018
Writing a Period Piece
Written by
She Writes
June 2018
Written by
She Writes
June 2018

A classic is turning 40 this month. Grease is beloved by generations and is a fun (and oftentimes funny) look at the 50’s. Since it was actually made in the seventies, it got us thinking about writing period pieces and how to best represent a past era. So we reached out to some authors and scouted some great advice to help you write your next historical piece.

Clothing and Style

Kari Bovee, author of Girl with a Gun (set in 1860s America)

“I think what people wear says so much about them. While researching for my historical mysteries, I love to utilize Pinterest, to look at the fashions of the time period I’m writing about. If I am researching a particular person, I pay close attention to how they dressed, how they styled their hair, what accessories they wore. It gives me a clue into their personality.”

Deciding How History Involves Itself in the Story

Fatima Farheen Mirza, author of A Place for Us (family saga spanning multiple timelines)

In an interview with The Guardian, Fatima talks about her character’s culture and her choice to either embrace or disregard some of the historical elements that impact a readers view of those characters. Sometimes historical fiction can be about deciding whether or not you let history impact your characters directly.

G: We don’t see many novels exploring lives of Muslims in the west. Was that part of your motivation for writing it: to promote a better understanding of the Muslim community?
FFM: No, not at all. In fact, when I first realized that the family was Muslim, I hesitated, because I was aware that this was an under-represented voice and I didn’t want to take advantage of it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. Once I began writing about them, they became human to me, they were not capital-letter Muslims, capital-letter post-9/11. To me it was always a story about brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – they just happened to be Muslim.

The Impact on Dialogue

Diane Shute, author of Midnight Crossing (set in 1830s England)

“Local phraseology changes with time and distance. Make use of dialogue to set the tone of your story. Try combining unique colloquialisms and collective beliefs common to your setting. It can breathe life into your characters and help bring them from the page.”

Holding up a Mirror to the Modern Day World

Jenna Blum, author of The Lost Family (set between 1960s and 1980s Manhattan)

A devoted historical fiction author, Jenna Blum knows how to capture an audience with deep research and emotional tributes to times gone by. In an interview with Huffington Post, she pointed out an important element than can make historical fiction have true impact. In talking about the current political landscape and her 60s-set novel, she talked about this key ingredient.

The Lost Family is an emigration story, an assimilation story, and, I hope, a reflective story, mirroring much of what’s happening around us now.”

Sometimes the thing that can make history the most interesting is how it teaches readers about their current lives. Blum explores Nazi Germany, 60’s Manhattan and modern day politics in an emotional journey through one man’s life.

There is absolutely a lot of research involved and attention to detail needed when writing a period piece, but writers are tasked in many ways when writing a story with historical ties.  

If you’re interested in a little more history, our sister site, BookSparks, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Grease with The Summer Lovin’ Issue.


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