Writing Historical Novels

Why do some historical novels become our favorites? The judgement, “It’s good,” is not analytical enough to help aspiring novelists. When you find a book you like it helps to figure out why its formula succeeded.

Here are three guidelines. Make it personal. Make it evocative. Make it novel, meaning it’s a view of history we haven’t experienced before.

Two American Civil War novels illustrate the first idea. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is loosely based on the Battle of Chancellorsville, but the reader is never told exactly where or when we are. It is a view of war solely through the eyes of Private Henry Fleming, who flees the first day of fighting but returns to become a standard bearer on the second.

The 24-year-old author had never seen battle, but his psychological exploration of fear and courage transcended any particular history. By making the novel internal, instead of…

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