Historical fiction is a genre that has so much potential—you can take a true story and retell it differently, make up a story and frame it within a certain historical time period, or even change the facts of history to suit your narrative. There are so many possibilities, and yet many writers seem to get stuck in the “history” part and never quite make it over to the world of “fiction.” In other words, some of the manuscripts I read have me wondering if I’m reading an original work of fiction or a history book.
The main mistakes I see with this type of writing are stories with too many historical details inorganically inserted throughout the text, so concerned with sounding authentic that the overall tone is very distant and, frankly, rather boring to anyone who’s not a diehard history fan. My guess is that the problem stems from a desire for authenticity—which I get. When you’re writing about a family in 19th century America, it would probably be best to leave cell phones out of the discussion, and certain aspects of 19th century life would likely need to be explained to readers. However, sometimes authors get a bit carried away with the history and forget the story.
I sometimes read manuscripts of historical fiction that have passages similar to something like this: “Lady Anne took up her hat, which had been purchased from Madame Beauregard’s hat shop in town. This particular hat shop was famed for being the most fashionable hat shop in the whole country, and had been founded in 1858, introducing the French style to England. The first hat shops in England were actually founded many years prior to this, such as Henrietta’s Hat Shop, established in 1832.” (I’m completely making all of this up, but you get the point.) Does a history lesson on hat shops actually further the plot? No, and on top of that, it’s boring; it takes the reader out of the story if every time a character uses something period-appropriate, you take a moment to give a dry, awkward history of said object. Relevant things should be explained, but not at the expense of coherency—remember that you’re writing a story and not a collection of facts. Besides, even history textbooks have to be coherent—you can’t just leap from one fact to another like they do in those bing commercials. History can be a great tool for a writer, but it shouldn’t crowd out the story in a work of historical fiction.
Hope this helps!