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Writing Marketable Historical fiction

Blending fact with fiction is one of a writer's most difficult jobs when attempting historical novels. You don't want to sound like an encyclopedia, but then you don't want to be able to have your setting so loosely drawn that your characters could be taken out and placed anywhere in the world and still speak and perform the same. In her historical fiction debut A Girl With A Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier strikes the perfect balance of fact and fiction. But how does she do it? If you read the first few pages of Chevalier's novel, you can see how she achieves that balance.

Metaphor and Simile
Literary devices are great tools. But if an author wants to stay true to their time period, so should their metaphors and similes. Before you begin using similes like Chevalier's, ask yourself:

Brass: has it been invented yet?
Flagon: did such a thing exist?
Buttons: were they invented?
Cinnamon: have you set your novel in a country that would have grown or had access to cinnamon?
Sea: has your character actually seen the sea, or is s/he landlocked? Before comparing something to the sea, consider where you character has lived and is currently living.
Candle: are candles in use, or would your characters have used oil lamps instead?

Evoking A Sense of Place and Time
You don't have to sound like a history book to evoke a time in history. Notice that Chevalier doesn't need to have a character say, "Wow, it's unseasonably warm for this time of year in Holland," for us to know the setting of her novel. Nor does she have to point out that the story takes place several hundred years in the past. She does all of this through conversation and light (not heavy) description.

"You will be paid eight stuivers." Stuivers was a coin that was used in the Netherlands until the Napoleonic Wars. Simply by having one character tell another how much she will be paid allows the reader to recognize the time and place. Even if you can't date a stuiver, you know it's not anything that was ever used in England or America, and that it's probably not in use today.

"On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort." Having one character give directions to another character is a clever way of telling the reader where the story is located.

"I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur." Obviously, it's long enough ago that owning a carpet, books and pearls was a sign of wealth. Today, it's a sign that you went down to Walmart and picked up a few things.

"He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar." It's the phrase lace collar that tells you we're not in the 21st century anymore, the land of mini-skirts and tube tops.

"Papists' Corner? They're Catholic?" Although religious conflict exists today, the fact that Griet is shocked that she will be working for a Catholic family dates the story. We have already been told that this is Holland, and in 21st century Holland I highly doubt anyone would be shocked to go to work for a Catholic family.

Also consider the Three Js of writing
Journey, Jeopardy and Justification

Where is the character going and how will the journey change him/her? Griet is going to become a maid for the first time in her life, and it will not only involve leaving her younger sister Agnes, it will involve moving away from her home. This journey changes her dramatically so that by the end of the novel there are times when Griet feels that her parents can't understand her anymore.

Why is the character in danger? Is it his life? Is it her reputation? In A Girl With a Pearl Earring it is Griet's reputation, her place in Vermeer's household, and her chastity in jeopardy.

Why does the character feel this way? Griet feels threatened by Vermeer's household because they're Catholic.

Read Michelle Moran's Blog, History Buff.