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The Art of Writing A Thrilling Historical Fiction Novel
Written by
She Writes
March 2020
Written by
She Writes
March 2020

This guest post was contributed by Karin Tanabethe author of A Hundred Suns, available April 7, 2020.

You know the drill. You’re reading a modern-day thriller and the main character is trying to solve a crime. They check security cameras, find secret phones, zoom in on pictures taken of their suspect in the dead of night, work with police to get DNA evidence. There are many twists and turns but eventually something clicks and voila, crime solved. That click often has to do with technology.

Which makes sense; it’s very hard to weasel past technology these days. We have internet footprints so long they practically circumnavigate the globe, phones glued to our hands and big brother in the form of security cameras on practically every street corner in major cities. In short, it is much harder to get away with murder/stealing/stalking/insert bad thing here than it used to be.

But there was a time when old-fashioned quick thinking, not technology was what one relied on to solve crimes/figure out who pocketed the gold watch/exposed scandalous affairs. And that’s really the beauty of writing a thrilling historical fiction novel.

With historical fiction, you can create a “who done it” plot without readers announcing that it could have all been figured out if your protagonist had just watched the antagonist’s Instagram stories the night of the murder. You can take readers back to the world of the landline. Where if you saw something creepy you had to run to a payphone. Where you couldn’t snap a pic of someone up to no good because you definitely did not have a camera on you. You might even have been sauntering around at a time when the camera wasn’t invented. And accidentally capturing criminals via oil painting rather than a snapshot is really a tall order.

So if you decide to travel to the land of petticoats and hidden daggers, how can you thrill an audience that is so used to technology?

First, you have to take them back and make them believe they are in your time and place. You have to create an authentic setting.

Personally, I do this through two forms of research. First, I read the bestselling books of the era to see if the language is more, “If you please, duchess,” or “Hey there old sport.” Then I deep dive into all things “fill in year here.” I look up the major global events, read the newspapers and magazines printed then and buy letters and scrapbooks on eBay. Then I go more niche and read a good doctoral thesis or two. And if I really can’t figure something out, I ask an expert (and pay an expert.) 

All this to figure out not just how people spoke but what they wore. What did they aspire to wear? What did they eat? A plate of gelatinous aspic, anyone? If these historical details aren’t spot on, your readers will lose interest before anything thrilling happens. I remember waking up in a cold sweat when I was writing a book set in the late 1800s because I had characters getting ice cream cones and suddenly realized that the ice cream cone had probably not been popularized pre-1900. (It hadn’t been.)

Once your readers feel transported thanks to spot-on language and details, it’s time to hook them with the plot, which I think is most effective if you combine a grand old time with a healthy dose of apprehension. As in I’m sipping the champagne, kissing the great-looking steel tycoon, swinging from chandeliers, but should I be? Could someone be watching me? Poisoned the champagne? Blackmailed the steel tycoon into kissing me? Cut the chandelier’s cords?

It’s a bit like speeding on the straightaways but slowing down around turns before you slam on the breaks because you realize you’re about to go over a cliff.  

While I like plot twists that bounce between fancy-free and weary, I think it helps to have a conflicted central character as well.

Conflicted characters are characters that are easy to care about. It doesn’t matter if they have a VR control in their hand or a quill pen. The inner conflict of a character is one of the best ways to build suspense in any era. Personally, as I often write in first person, I like to let the reader in on the character’s conflict and then see if their secret will be discovered.   

When superpowers are being handed out, plenty of people choose time travel. As an author, you can give out that power, and how cool is that.

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  • Karen Lynne Klink

    Your article is spot on, and I'm going to look for your book as I love well-researched historical fiction with well-developed characters. I just learned She Writes Press is going to publish mine and am looking forward to the journey.