Last spring, the Roman Baths Museum in Bath, England, approached my MA program and asked the students to write short stories about the Beau Street Hoard—a real live treasure hoard discovered across the street. The museum wanted to make the discovery exciting for kids, so they turned to us to come up with short stories about how the hoard came to be buried.
I was super excited about this project. I love historical fiction and I love the Roman Baths.
But when I sat down to write a story in no more than 2000 words, about a time period I didn’t know well, that was targeted at children and meant to be educating and entertaining…
Well, here are some things I learned about surviving [short] historical fiction:
1) Make the History Real (For Yourself)
Go to the historical site if you can manage it. Walk around pretending to be your character, and imagine what might happen.
I spent countless hours at the Roman Baths looking for inspiration. Oddly enough, my muse struck on my last day in the city, while I was sitting outside the museum. A huge flock of pigeons flew over my head, and in the rush of their wings I suddenly felt like Sulis-Minerva had brushed my shoulder. It was that wing-throb sound that make the story come to life in my head.
Find something small and vivid that makes you excited about the story, and hold tight.
2) Read, Read, Read
The museum gave us guidebooks from their old training materials, and I highlighted everything that might be relevant to my story. I also spent some time with Roman Britain, getting acquainted with the larger history of the time and looking for more details I could use about Bath. If I hadn’t been under such a tight deadline, I would have liked to read more Roman era historic fiction in similar genres (children’s and YA).
When it was time to sit down and write, I kept my resources close at hand for easy fact-checking. But I also tried to let the history seep to my subconscious. It’s very hard to write fiction if you’re crammed full of facts!
3) Write, Revise, Repeat
As with all stories, the first draft is for discovery—it’s only as the draft goes that you’ll find and tune into the theme. Sometimes this feels particularly difficult to do in short fiction, because you have so little space to work in. But press through to the end. Then you’ll be able to hone into what’s important, and trim the fat.
With historic fiction, I use my subconscious to fill in the landscape as a backdrop for the story. As I began to revise, I worked harder at seeding in interesting tidbits from history. I also did several revisions looking only for things that needed to be double-checked (like: What sort of shoes is he wearing? What is the floor made of?).
4) Find Timeless Themes
One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction—especially for young audiences—is making the time period relatable. The trick is to go back to the basics: What are universal themes that you want to explore?
I love to write about disability and family dynamics, and this is what filtered into my story. Once I started focusing on my main theme, translating it across centuries became less overwhelming. People are people, no matter the time period, and there is plenty of character motivation and conflict that hasn’t changed in 2000 years.