Guest post by Savannah Cordova.
In the 20th century, historical fiction — with its connotations of corsets, society balls, and the sordid streets of Victorian London — was placed firmly in the “genre fiction” category. Aside from a few exceptions, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Mary Renault’s ancient Greek tales, people rarely turned to historical novels when they wanted “serious” literature. Instead, it was in the shadow realm of dystopian futures where they tried to make sense of the world.
Increasingly, however, people are returning to history to uncover the path that led us to our current state (those who don’t learn it are doomed to repeat it, and so on). We now dive into forgotten and erased histories — in both fiction and nonfiction — to learn about the many sides of our collective experience and guard against future mistakes, big and small. Books like The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka or A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee prove to be as thought-provoking, albeit in different ways, as the celebrated dystopian fiction of yore.
And the historical fiction of today’s comeback period — which arguably originated with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or stretches back even further to authors like Sarah Waters — doesn’t present the past as a prologue or a mere setting, but as a story itself. Forged in the combined fires of real archives and vivid imagination, these stories change the way we access the past and tell stories that bear on the present, capturing the way history has shaped us.
Writing this kind of historical fiction requires, first and foremost, a unique and interesting perception of a time period. But since it’s such an intricate project, a great historical fiction editor is also required (especially for authors looking to self-publish their books) — and to find one, you need to be on the lookout for three key things.
1. A historical fiction editor needs a deep knowledge of the time period
No matter how much of your book is “made up,” historical fact is at the heart of any good historical fiction book. To bring the past to life, every detail has to build the historical context in which the story takes place — which means an awful lot of research.
For this reason, it’s also important that you have an historical fiction editor in your corner who has abundant knowledge of your book’s time period(s). An experienced editor can help you improve the accuracy of your historical setting, and make sure that your characters and plot are feasible given this context. While all historical fiction editors should have an eye for details, one who specializes in the period will have the insight needed to catch finer anachronisms and issues.
An editor can also help you improve the overall tone of your book by homing in on aspects like dialogue. The question regarding the authenticity of characters’ speech is one detail of historical fiction I’ve seen way too many writers get bogged down in. But the truth (as any good editor will know) is that you won’t shatter any illusions for your readers by failing to replicate historical dialogue exactly.
In fact, it’s more noticeable (and jarring) when a writer chooses to write in a specific dialect, especially if it’s inconsistent. An editor can advise you on adding historical color with the odd word or phrase so that you don’t bend over backwards on fact-checking, and instead can focus on what’s important: the story.
2. An aptitude for storytelling
Speaking of which, despite what I’ve just said about historical context being the foundation of these novels, storytelling remains absolutely critical to the success of any novel. The challenge is to find a balance between the two — which is where a good historical editor comes in.
I’ve already mentioned Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but this genre-shattering tome is worth another shoutout. What Mantel wrote was effectively a contemporary literary novel (with non-archaic dialogue!) that happened to be cast with Tudors. Though her knowledge of the era runs deeper than we’ll ever truly grasp, she prioritizes a gripping and proximate story.
The line between truth and invention is one that historical fiction authors must be extremely wary of. To tell a complete story, writers are often required to invent lots of details — and when it comes to historical fiction, there are hardly ever enough real figures to give you a full cast of characters to work with. The blurring of fact and fiction is evident in the genre label itself, but is tampering with facts a betrayal of your readers’ trust?
The jury may still be out, but Hilary Mantel would tell you to prioritize a good story above all else. You can creatively tweak, embellish, and invent interactions, characterizations, and storylines in order to entertain a wider audience, all without compromising the realism of the historical setting.
Finding a historical fiction editor who understands what excites readers — and who knows when it’s appropriate to fudge historical accuracy a little — is therefore very important. An editor with plenty of fiction experience, and who can comment on story structure, themes, and plot devices, is far superior to an editor who’s written a thesis on the period but who demonstrates few skills in the craft of storytelling.
3. Relevant experience and collaborative skills
On the note of experience, keep in mind that historical fiction editors are likely to have subgenre specialties as well as period specialties. This genre varies wildly, from historical romance to historical fantasy, from crime fiction to literary fiction. Each subgenre has its own tropes and common practices in plotlines and tone, which you’d want to be aware of as you edit your work.
This means it’s not so simple as just finding historical fiction editors with impressive portfolios and glowing credentials — you’ll also want to look for editors with experience that’s relevant to your project. Relevant experience will always be more important than a large amount of experience (though in a perfect world you’d find an editor with both!), so read editors’ profiles carefully and contact those who have worked on books similar to yours.
As you read through each profile, you should also get a sense of their personality. If you find their voice suits your project and you think you’ll get along, definitely reach out. Editing is highly collaborative and often emotional, so your editor should always be someone you want to work with — not just between the standard lines of your book, but in emails, video calls, and frantic last-minute revisions.
You’ll get an even better idea of whether a given editor is “the one” once you’ve communicated with them. I’d recommend asking for sample edits before sealing the deal. This will tell you more about everything we’ve covered: the editor’s ability to check for historical accuracy, their flair for storytelling, and their personality. It’ll also help you to determine whether they’re excited by the way you’ve accessed the past and the story you’ve decided to tell — the all-important core of any historical fiction novel.
This is a guest post by Savannah Cordova. Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, she enjoys reading fiction (both contemporary and historical) and writing short stories.