Thursday, April 19, 2012

Choosing a Historical Fiction Topic, or Any Other Topic for That Matter

By Heather Webb
JH: Double the guests this week! I'd like to welcome Heather Webb to the blog today. I've noticed a lot of similarities between historical fiction writers and fantasy writers the last few months, and it's made me curious about their process. Like fantasy authors, they have to create a world, yet they have to somehow manage all the true facts and sometimes actual people as well as plot. I was very interested in how they choose where and when to write, and Heather was gracious enough to answer that for me. (and honestly, they're great tips for crafting any story)

Heather is a historical fiction writer, freelance editor, and blogger. When she’s not writing by the glow of her coffee pot light, she is chasing her gremlins, ogling kitchen gadgets, and flexing her foodie skills. You can find Heather at her blog Between the Sheets for editing services, writing tips, and the occasional slew of recipes. Twitter @msheatherwebb, Facebook, or at Pinterest. She's currently polishing her debut historical novel set in Revolutionary France and the opulent Napoleonic era. She will be seeking representation this summer.

Take it away Heather...

When Janice asked me to discuss how historical fiction authors choose their topics, it got me thinking. What inspired me to choose my own subject? How do other hisfic authors decide on the perfect story from the past? And ultimately, aren’t we all inspired in similar ways? I boiled down a history nerd’s (and other nerds) inspiration into these main categories:

Ancient objects live and breathe; they carry the ghosts of the people who once loved them. A painting, a restored ship, a broken pocket watch, or velvet ball gown—they all have stories to tell.

New places elicit a sense of the exotic. When we step outside the bounds of our normal lives, the veil of responsibility is lifted. We’re less inhibited, less bogged down. Our minds shift gears to absorb the fresh experience, the details of the new surroundings. With all of that fascinating gook swirling around in our heads, a creative idea may be born.

What could be more interesting than ourselves—our lineage, our family tragedies and scandals, our joys? The added bonus of looking into our own genealogy makes this method of finding a topic all the better.

In the case of a hisfic writer, what they know may not be about their own experiences, but about an internal database about a certain era, country, or specific theme through time. When they mix historical facts with conditions of the human spirit, and add a dash of story-telling—voila! A topic materializes.

It goes without saying that movies, songs, and old photographs are terrific sources of inspiration.

Often while digging for something else—references for a current WIP, a do-ma-thingy on Amazon—a magical, sparkling moment, a tingle of excitement creeps down your spine. This little fact about say, eighteenth century warships, sets your head ablaze with an incredible new series about a pirate captain and his feuds with the British navy. Sparkling moments are one of the most exciting ways of uncovering a book idea.

The best topics are derived from our subconscious selves, when our guard is down and our creative minds can wander freely.

You wake up one morning, go about your normal routine, and a voice starts yammering in your ear. You don’t know where it came from, but it’s there and won’t go away. Open the door and let them in. Have a few conversations with them, do a bit of research and your subject has chosen you.

Are these methods of inspiration so different from other genre writers? What inspires your book topics?

A young woman of Martinique has her hopes for love dashed when her haughty Parisian husband abandons her during the tumult of the French Revolution. Narrowly escaping death in the blood-stained cells of Les Carmes prison, she emerges to reinvent herself as the woman known as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. But Josephine’s youth is fading, and she must decide between a precarious independence and the unwelcome love of an intense but awkward suitor; a man who would become the most important man of the nineteenth century—Napoleon Bonaparte.


  1. Great post!

    While my historical/sci-fi novella's topic is really about time-travelling assassins, I chose the period setting of Edinburgh in the 19th century, as that would mean I could include real-life notorious bodysnatchers, Burke & Hare.

  2. Thanks, Gayle. Your topic sounds intriguing!

    I love Janice's point about how sci-fi/fantasy & historical fiction authors are coming from very similar places--we must create an alternate reality and draw our readers into them. So true!

    It would seem we draw inspiration for our topics from similar avenues. :)

  3. Oooh! Your blurb sounds fascinating! And I have to agree that historical fiction is sooo much fun. Both of my current WIPs are hisfic. One set in late medieval France/Italian alps. The other set in early renaissance Belgium. Both are loosely based on fairy tales for their plot arc.

    I have had so much fun researching and learning about the locations and eras...I really am a romantic nerd. Sigh!

  4. You missed the way I found my topic! I was attacked by ninjas...

    Seriously, though - spot-on description of the places we histfic junkies find our muses. I'd never thought through just how diverse the inspirations are, but history really is everywhere and in everything.

  5. Thank you, Amelia! And BELGIUM! I'm in LOVE with Bruge. Have you been? It's still set up like the Medieval city it once was, moat, cloisters, watch tower and all. The waffles...the chocolate...the boats on the river. I'll never forget the hot chocolate spiked with brandy I had there with my husband. YUMMY. But I digress...

    I love the idea of basing a medieval novel on fairy tales. :) Good luck with those and thank you for commenting!

  6. I too love historical fiction. My current WIP is based on a family story from the Texas Revolution. It also chose me because I was in the process of writing a different one set during the Reconquista (1570's Spain) when the Texas story just wouldn't leave me alone.

    Yours sounds like a great novel. Good luck in finding representation!

  7. Thanks Heather,

    I've never had the opportunity to visit Europe. :(

    And Belgium was pure Serendipity. I was trying to find a location in Europe that was known for their fruit trees (because of their importance in the vague storyline in my head a year ago). The French-Belgium border popped up. The area also fit some other criteria I was trying to find... Rocky highlands near vulnerable lowlands and plenty of rivers.

    It was a perfect fit. I shared with friends and discovered one of my BFFs had spent over a year in Belgium before she married. I've been picking her brain for good info. And YOUR description makes it even more mouthwatering.

    If my work ever gets published, I've earmarked the royalties to go toward a European vacation. :)

  8. Texas revolution! Awesome idea, scratchesonlinen. I've never read any fiction about it, but the history is fascinating. What could be more exciting than a bunch of hardened, sweaty men--cowboys, outlaws, soldiers, and Native Americans? haha. Plus the scenery descriptions would be so fun to do. Thanks for the luck, by the way, and the same to you. ;)

    Feel free to pick my brain anytime about France or Belgium. :) It just so happens I've done extensive traveling in both countries and love the history. Keep me posted about this! I'd love to hear how it unfolds.

  9. It's so nice to read a post with fresh and creative information on how to get ideas. I write historical fic also. I get my ideas by focusing on my favorite time period--the 1st half of the 20th century. I do pull on my family history, which has given me ideas for several books and short stories. My mother and my paternal grandfather had lives of particular interest. My own life history, growing up in the 1950s-60s also provides numerous ideas. I agree with "write what you know" as long as you can make it more interesting than it actually was. :)

  10. I agree that hisfic and fantasy has an overlap especially in the myth making process.

    My first attempt at fiction is hisfic and, although I read a number of books, articles and such on the topic in prep, the posts on Janice's site have been the most helpful. And I might add helpful in spite of the fact that my intended audience is adult (in the dull old meaning of the term) not YA.

    Good point about the role of the subconscious as a source of fresh ideas, and the need to give it time and rest to do its work.

  11. So, I'm curious as to role of anachronism in that initial moment of inspiration. What is the likelihood that the dramatic moment or notion that sparks your interest reflects thoughts that characters in a given historical time and place are actually likely to have, and to what degree is it likely to be a thought reflecting the culture of one's own time and place?

  12. Wonderful! A subject I know very little about so a great insight into the terrifying world of having-to-have-your-facts-absolutely-right.