Many readers of my books have asked me about my process for writing a historical fiction novel. So, I thought I would take some time and share with you how I come up with my stories, and in turn, how those stories eventually become a novel. This post will focus on the first steps in the process: researching historical fiction and outlining your book.
Before I go any further, let me just start by saying that this is my process. It might not work for you, and that’s perfectly fine. With that caveat now said, let me dive in.
Researching Historical Fiction
So far, I have only written books that belong to a series. Knowing that the creation of that series will be a multi-year process, I do a lot of research to investigate whether the series a) will be entertaining and b) can grow in excitement from one story to the next. If it doesn’t have those general qualities, I skip the idea and move on to the next idea.
What I am looking for primarily when researching a historical fiction novel is an interesting person who has lived through a series of gripping events to get to some goal, e.g. the throne. Fortunately, my stories so far have come from the pages of the Old Norse/Icelandic sagas, and there is a wealth of interesting characters just waiting to be brought to life in a novel. So once I land on a character whose story I want to tell, I run it through the criteria above. If he or she fits the bill, I start the outlining process. If they don’t fit the bill, I scour the pages for the next interesting person, and so on.
Developing the Outline
Some authors like to outline. Some don’t. Some create intricate outlines. Some create general outlines. There is no wrong answer or way to outline – it is what works best for you. I create two outlines when writing historical fiction stories – the first maps out how a character’s story will progress when told across several books. This is really high-level stuff. For Hakon’s Saga, it looked similar to this:
- Hakon fights his brother Erik for the throne of Norway
- Hakon, a Christian, struggles to keep his grip on his pagan realm
- Erik’s sons return to fight Hakon for the throne of Norway
Note how similar these look to the high-level descriptions I use on my website and on the books themselves.
Confident that there are three or more good novels in the overall story, I then dive into a detailed outline of the first novel. This outline is richer in terms of detail, both fictional and historical, but not by much. I break it up by chapter so that I know roughly what will happen in each. Like this (taken from Forged by Iron):
963 AD – Torolv’s home. Trygvi and his family are there. Olaf and Torgil playing. We learn of their relationship and personality through action. A messenger arrives.
The messenger brings gifts. Invites Trygvi to raid with them. Trygvi accepts.
Preparations. Torolv left behind to guard Trygvi’s family. He is Trygvi’s oath man and he swears an oath to protect Trygvi’s wife and son. Boys go to see the ships off.
Harald betrays Trygvi. Torgil/Olav escape.
Blending My Research and Outline
It is in the story outlining process that I endeavor to blend the research I’ve done on the saga story with other sources and known historical facts to create a plausible, yet entertaining story.
For instance, I also build out a chronology of historic events. Some of those events I can use as backstory or references I can interject into my novel to add some flavor to it. Some could be woven more intricately into my tale. For instance, in the above outline, we know from Heimskringla that the father of Olaf Tyrggvason (named Trygvi) is betrayed by the king of Norway. So that becomes the main catalyst for the plot – the Rising Action – in the story. Or, while researching Olaf Tryggvason and his time in the land of the Rus, I can across the Siege of Kiev. As it was plausible Olaf was in the area at the time, I used it as the starting point for Sigurd Swords.
My stories come from sources that were often written centuries after the events occurred, so the process of researching historical fiction stories and outlining them is really the process of putting meat on the bones of the story. For that, I turn to a multitude of sources. In addition to some of the earlier sources, such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes or The Russian Primary Chronicle, I primarily stick to historians who have written books on the Viking Age or research papers from the site, JSTOR. Some of my favorite books include:
By Jones, Gwyn
By Ferguson, Robert
The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (Hist Atlas)
By Haywood, John
Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat
By Short, William R., Óskarson, Reynir A.
Unlike other time periods, there is little written information that survived the Viking Age, making the process of developing a detailed historical accounting of a character’s life trickier than in other periods. But that’s OK – it leaves more to my imagination, which is how I like it.
It is a back and forth process, where one bit of information I glean from my research may change the outline. The opposite also occurs. Sometimes, there is no information and I am left to my own devices to outline a plot that might be plausible, yet also exciting. In the first book of Hakon Saga, God’s Hammer, we know from the sources that Hakon returned to Norway as a teenager after being in England for roughly six years, but we don’t know much about the time between his arrival and his interactions with his brother. These questions I attempt to answer in the outlining process.
Using the Outline
As I mentioned previously, some authors stick closely to their outlines. Others don’t outline at all. My outlines act as my guides, but it is important to note that they are flexible guides. If a new idea comes along in the course of my writing, I compare it to my outline and see what else might be affected by the potential change. That is crucial for me. I learned the hard way that if I don’t do that, I can go off half-cocked and write two or three chapters before realizing my idea was crap and it throws the whole story off. By comparing it to my outline before the writing, I at least have a way to contemplate the change before making it.
Just remember, there is no so hard, fast rule to researching or outlining your historical fiction. The only rule I follow is to tell a good story that is as historically accurate as possible. Do what works for you. Much like writing the book itself, you’ll get better at it over time.
Happy writing! Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for my Readers Club.
Sign up to have new blog posts and other free content delivered to you monthly!