How to make historical fiction ring true


05 April 2018
man-32456.jpg Tiit Aleksejev
Award-winning author Tiit Aleksejev offers advice on turning the past into believable fiction
How to make historical fiction ring true Images


Award-winning author Tiit Aleksejev offers advice on turning the past into believable fiction

Tiit provides some tips on approaching historical subject matter and turning it into accessible writing.

• History may not be a science, but neither is it a fairytale.

• A historical novel is either a good novel or a failed novel. It can’t be both literature and history. It is literature, only more demanding in research.   

• Do your own research into the period you are writing about. Then forget most of what you have learned. The reader is not interested in your knowledge; but he or she cares about authenticity. Small errors kill credibility, but an accurate detail can be a cornerstone.  Check the details but don’t overload your writing with them. There is a good story about Antti Tuuri who needed to shoot a machine gun for his novel The Winter War. He doesn’t describe the gun in the novel. But he needed to feel how it functions.    

• Read as many resources as you can: chronicles, accounts, battle reports, songs, poems etc. Most will be biased or distorted, they are written in favour of someone or something. For example, the medieval conception of truth and veracity is completely different from ours. But you may find authentic fragments and voices. It is all about voices.

• We don’t know how the ancients spoke. We know how they wrote, but this writing was done by a limited social group. So, you have to reconstruct - to invent in most cases - spoken language. Avoid anachronistic speech. It was probably not “O thou noble boy, hand me over this golden chalice!” Distinguish between everyday talk and ceremonial talk. Do your characters speak like priests or beggars? Or do they speak like people you know? If you are not sure how they really spoke, go for brevity and laconic dialogue.  

• Speech is only one possibility. In a battle or in a storm words may not be used at all. But somehow they communicated. Find out how.  

• You don’t deliver speeches while in action. Neither did they. The speeches were written later and added to the deeds.      

• Most of them believed in something, in God or in gods. Even when they were blasphemous or cursed or denied.   


• Find original names for your characters which immediately sound right to you. Chronicles may offer possible options. Or tomb stones if you are not afraid of the dead.   

• Visualize space: a room, a house, a street, a city. You need to see what is in the room. There may be pieces of furniture we ‘re not used to e.g. shelves for scrolls. Maybe the room is empty. Then you have to see it empty.   


Tiit Aleksejev is a historical fiction writer and playwright from Estonia. He won the European Union Prize for Literature for his novel The Pilgrimage, about the First Crusade. Since April 2016, Aleksejev has also been the chairman of the Estonian Writers´ Union. Estonia and the Baltic Countries are the Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair (10th-12th April). Find out more about the other authors and books involved here:



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