Writing History for the Modern Reader

How do you make a story of the past appeal to people now? Simple. Focus on the characters and their human frailties.

People are people, no matter when they live. They love, they suffer, they go to war, they raise children, they seek meaning. Focus on your characters and your readers will relate. Give your characters universal problems—greed, jealousy, rivalry, a desire for revenge, a yearning for love— in a story set in their unique time and place.

Use active description
You’re likely to have trouble describing things your characters use, wear, or eat, that are different from modern experience. If you stop to explain, for instance, what a trebuchet is or how it works, an editor is likely to scrawl RUE (resist the urge to explain) in the margin.

Rather, show the object in use:

Rulf hoisted the basket of stones to his shoulder and stared at the massive trebuchet making slow progress up the hill. A dozen of the king’s men strained at its side, sweat running down their backs as they pushed at the groaning timber frame. Finally the foreman called a halt. The men braced the wheels and pulled the bucket down to the platform, then one of them motioned to Rulf and the others who waited with their loads.

Rulf lumbered forward, scanning the city wall as he approached. When loaded with stones and boiling oil, the trebuchet might inflict some damage after the first launch, but he was willing to bet that he’d be climbing this hill many more times before sunset. A wall like that wouldn’t crumble easily.

After reading the above, you may not know the dictionary definition of trebuchet, but I’ll bet you’re visualizing one of those medieval machines that flings a bucketful of rocks and boiling oil over a city wall. That’s all you need to know—and active description is better than stopping the story action to insert a dictionary entry.

Stay with your characters
The same holds true for historical events. Don’t halt the story for a history lesson, a genealogy, or backstory. If you’ve made us care about your characters, don’t cheat us out of a minute with them.

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein writes: “In fiction, when information obtrudes, the experience of the story pauses. Raw information comes across as an interruption, the author filling in. The fiction writer must avoid anything that distracts from the experience even momentarily. A failure to understand this . . . is a major reason for the rejection of novels.”


Angela Hunt writes historicals, contemporaries, and whatever else she wants—but always writes about characters. Visit her online .

Photo credit: Tom Curtis

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