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Pump Up Your Historical Novel

With Historical Surprises

When doing research for historical fiction, adding true-to-life surprises will keep readers turning the pages. Here, author John Winn Miller shares why you should pump up your historical novel with historical surprises.



When I was a journalist, it was “just the facts, ma’am.” As a screenwriter, it was all about the visuals and terse, often misleading dialogue. But a novel, especially historical fiction, has to be about more—a whole lot more. Of course, it needs to be historically accurate with an exciting plot and intriguing heroes and villains.

But in doing research for my debut novel, The Hunt for the Peggy C, I realized there is one thing the masters of historical fiction all bring to the table besides exquisite writing—the element of surprise. Not just in their plots, but in the often-obscure history they reveal. When I read their books, I am constantly delighted to find myself thinking: “What? I had no idea about that.”

These nuggets are not like Easter Eggs sprinkled into stories with hidden meanings or subtle references. Nor are they the jarring endings of a Roald Dahl short story or horrific twists in Gary Jennings’ Aztec (although I love them both). Rather they are fascinating discoveries that, like a mysterious umami, whet your appetite for more. That is why I love historical novels best when I learn something stranger than fiction while being entertained.

For instance, no matter how many volumes of Roman history you’ve read, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will likely surprise you. I mean, I knew that pirates had kidnaped a young Julius Caesar. But I had no idea he berated them for asking too small of a ransom for him. Or that he charmed them by joking that he would return and crucify them all. He did, some 500 of them on crosses he forced them to build. All six volumes of her deeply researched series are filled with similar surprises.


By John Winn Miller
Writers' Digest

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