The Work and Pleasure of Writing Historical Fiction

With just a few days to go before the release of my second (published) novel, I’ve been reflecting on the long process—three years—from its conception to completion: the early gestation period when there was the chance of miscarriage and later when I felt I would burst with it; the relief of giving birth and effortlessly anticipating its story; its first words and as uncertain steps; keeping it alive by nourishing it and healing its ailments; allowing for its growing pains while frustrated by its rebellion to what I expected from it; meeting the challenge of all the new acquaintances, experiences, ideas, and feelings it brought into my life; and those last attempts at making it perfect until it was time to accept that it had turned out exactly as it was meant to be.

Now there is the joy of finally seeing it ready to go beyond my influence, even my protection, along with the anxiety of what that means.

I can only hope others will embrace it and love it, knowing some may not understand or care for it. Just as with my ‘first-born’, it remains my child regardless.

Writing a novel of the highest standard one can requires patience, perseverance, imagination, and the ability to use language to express emotion, engage the senses, realize characters, describe what is visible and invisible, tell a story that is credible and incredible, and transport and—at its best—transform its author and, therefore, its readers in some way.

Historical fiction asks even more of a writer’s time and resolve, inquisitiveness, attention, and literary maneuvering.

To quote Susan Vreeland, a very fine writer of historical novels: “Writing historically-based fiction is first a matter of discovery, then focusselection, and invention.”

It involves all she ‘says’—discovery, focus, selection, and invention—but, as I’ve experienced, not in such a linear way as she implies. For me those requirements are continuous and often blended. The seemingly endless research offers so much information (and, just as challenging, so little) and needs the imagination to honor that information and disregard it at the same time.

Susan Vreeland also writes: “Research itself can be a pitfall—not finding something you need as well as its converse, finding out something you don’t want to find out. When fact conflicts with what an author needs a character to do, it’s always a sensitive question. There is no universal answer. At times, one must hold one’s ground, and resist the tyranny of fact for the greater good of the narrative, if doing so does not measurably alter history.”

Authoring a historical novel is a constant challenge of creatively choosing to include and having to leave out, and like all good writing, knowing there can be as much revelation in the spirit as in the substance of what is written.

The satisfaction, even when it takes years, of mixing work with pleasure to give history—especially, for me, the most personal history—everlasting breath is immeasurable.

I can honestly say that I have “followed” Susan Vreeland’s instruction, if unknowingly until I read:

“Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don’t love a scene, then find out what’s wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details; though don’t include them no matter how delicious if they don’t contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement.”

~ I invite you to read Susan Vreeland’s complete essay on Historical Fiction here.


Copyright 2015 by DM Denton

Copyright 2015 by DM Denton


8 thoughts on “The Work and Pleasure of Writing Historical Fiction

    • Thank you so much, Christine! Tuesday is the scheduled release day (also my mom’s 86th birthday). I think it is a kind of insanity to want to write novels and, especially, Historical Fiction … but, also, so satisfying when it works (or, at least, I think it does …well, so far my publisher and a few others think so, too) The Susan Vreeland article is so excellent and SO TRUE. Her novels are superb and I recommend you check them out. Thank you again for all your support and encouragement. I’m excited that you finally get to read the sequel! 🙂 XO ❤


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