The Challenges of Historical Fiction
Writing historical fiction is arguably the most difficult of the genres to write because of how we are bound by the laws of physics and history. We either have characters or events, or both, that are already etched in the history books and we can only wield a little bit of historical fiction license to change them—if we want an accurate story.
When I first started to plan Athena’s Son, I was excited about the plot line and the characters. They were inspiring enough. Little did I know how many times I would want to “change history” to add some additional friction or excitement to the story.
I made things more difficult for myself by setting as a goal a book that was a hybrid textbook/historical fiction story. I wanted a story and characters that would engage students but at the same time keep them reading. As a writer, I am strongly influenced by Dickens and his strong character development and twist endings. But he wrote fiction; I was creating a historical fiction story.
One of the traps historical fiction writers run into is putting too much history in our books to let people know that we know a lot. It’s as if we are saying, “See this detail? That proves I’m an expert!” My first draft of the story contained many of those elements. After reading it over I realized there was too much textbook and not enough story. So I rewrote it, adding several chapters, removing quite a bit, and creating a whole new Chapter 1 to hook readers.
My students are always asking when will I write the sequel. The main sticking point is a feisty character in the book, Berenike, who was the real-life daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy. Factually, she would not run around Egypt solving mysteries with Archimedes. However, this is one of those times when I will have to use my historical fiction license to give her the freedom to entertain more readers.