Game Face: Historical Fiction Gets Serious

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. For relaxation, he writes westerns. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at

Your historical fiction manuscript sits on a knife’s edge.
Falling to one side awaits epic historical fiction. The other side? Epic
historical failure.

Historical fiction owns an element that comes with
significant responsibility. It’s time to get serious.
Historical fiction
shapes views of the past.
For good or for bad, historical fiction forges images and
impressions of the past into minds. When the American gold rush is mentioned,
many minds reference Francine Rivers’ Redeeming
.  American Civil War? Gone with the Wind or Killer Angels. Many feel they know
medieval history because they’ve read Pillars
of the Earth
Use history wisely.
Because in historical fiction, history is the flour of bread.
If the wrong ingredient is added, is the recipe ruined? For some, no—they like
salt instead of baking powder. But historical fiction readers are usually
informed. They know what the pudding should taste like. And if you use skim
milk instead of whole milk, they’ll know.
Raise the history standard in your manuscript. That means reading.
And more reading. Until you don’t tell your friends how many
books read. Until you pretend you watch TV, so you can fit in. Until, embarrassed
and ashamed of your dirty little reading secret, you have three Goodreads accounts with fictitious
names just to keep track of your books.
Reading history leaves
an impression on you.
When at long last you sit and write, after reading your
fill, history dominates your head. Nothing specific, maybe—just history. You can’t
help but write history. Sweeping themes of humanity. Struggles of what it was
to live in another time.
Graduate yourself from knowing about history to living
history. Breathing it. Loving it. Writing the past.
Leave the reader an impression of what the past was really
Mr. Leavell,
where do I begin studying history? How do I get my historical fiction game face
You’re serious? Good.
A great overview of world history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World,
followed by The History of the Medieval
, and just out is The History of
the Renaissance World
In the back of her books are notes and bibliographies. These
are trusted sources. If a time period interests you, read the books she lists. Those
books list sources. It’s okay to find those books and read them. And then read the primary sources
listed. You can find gold mines in the bibliography of any historical books.
Then contact your local college history professor and ask
what she’s reading. Read those books, along with the ones she’s written. And
finally, subscribe to periodicals and journals, such as the American Historical
Review. Sure, they’ve got some bias, like taking down Christianity, but it’s
the latest in historical thought. And someday, you might be in a position to combat bias.

Keep reading until this hobby of loving history has gone
terribly wrong, taking over your life. When your manuscript falls off the knife
edge and on the side of epic historical fiction, keep reading history.
What’s your favorite historical fiction novel? Author? Time period?
Gideon’s Call is an unprecedented tale of tragedy and triumph amid the backdrop of the Civil War through the story of Tad, a very clever slave boy who comes of age as America’s war reaches the sea islands of South Carolina. Tad’s desire to better himself is obstructed by the color of his skin, until Northern soldiers force the evacuation of white plantation owners, setting 10,000 slaves free in a single day. These circumstances seem like a dream, except that the newly freed slaves have no money, no education, and little hope for the future—unless someone rises up to lead them. Based on true events, Gideon’s Call is the dramatic tale of a young man who battles the shame of his past and faces the horrors of war and unimaginable prejudice to become the deliverer of thousands of freed slaves.