Historical Fiction Writing Process

I’m a research junkie. I love digging around in history, searching for connections, lessons learned, and fascinating stories. It’s pure treasure hunting for me. I imagine that’s why I write historical fiction. It gives me a chance to mine for historical gold and find interesting and engaging ways to share it with others.

I was recently asked about my process for writing novels (from start to finish) so I thought I’d do a basic post on the process. Now seems like a good time to reflect on it, personally, because I’ve just finished my second novel, and I’m starting research on my third. Since I’m not yet ready to share my subject matter for the third, I’ll use illustrations from the mapping of my second for this post.

I’m going to use the points of Freytag’s pyramid to demonstrate my process since I also find it especially helpful in plotting.

Inciting Moment (Inspiration)


It was at the doorway to Ernest Hemingway’s writing cottage at his Key West house that I knew my second novel would be set there. I was overwhelmed by the tour, felt his presence everywhere, and knew I wanted to bring others to the house–if not literally, than figuratively. When my obsession begins, I know I’ve found my subject and my muse.

Rising Action (Research)

Now, the delicious fun of research (READING) begins, and my husband starts sighing as the books start rolling into our house. (I like to scribble and note my books to death, so I try to buy as many books as possible.) I spend a lot of time surfing the web for pictures, videos, and articles about my subject. I join message boards and societies, and figure out how I can visit as many places significant to my book as possible.

Aside from my visit to Hemingway’s home in Key West, I was able to get permission to research at the JFK Library and Museum, which holds 90% of the Hemingway archive. Hemingway’s personal photos and letters I read during that time were pivotal in my understanding of the author and his family life.

Once I have the time period I want to use firmly in my mind, I make a timeline of actual events. I stay as true to history as possible and use societal and environmental problems as key moments and themes in my book. Then I find my angle into the story: my protagonist–the creation of my imagination to tell the historical tale, while experiencing his/her own struggles to emotionally engage the reader.

Climax (Drafting)

Once I have an excellent handle on my historical subject and my characters, I start writing. The first draft is a purge of imagination. Aside from a rough sketch of major events on the timeline and some plotting using Freytag’s Pyramid, I generally don’t know what’s going to happen to my characters. I don’t make a formal outline because much of the fun of writing for me is how my characters and story surprise me.

The Drafting and Research Phases often weave in and out of each other. From large to trivial details, I always need more information while I write. Also, research often inspires scene ideas, so I write entire scenes from different places in the story when I’m struck by certain details in my findings.

I work with a critique partner throughout the process submitting 20 pages every three weeks for review, followed by conferences on the phone or in person a week after submission. I’m also in a monthly online historical fiction critique group who I met at the Breakout Novel Intensive.  We submit 8-10 pages to each other once a month.

I generally end up writing nine or ten complete drafts of my novel.

Falling Action (Edits/Revisions)

If there is a step of the process I least enjoy, this is it.  It’s no fun for me tear up sentences, rearrange scenes, and sometimes, delete and combine characters. The domino effects of revisions throughout the manuscript based on simple or complex changes always cause problems for me.

This is also the stage where I hire a professional editor and bring in the beta readers and book clubs, and while I love to share my story, it’s actually quite terrifying to send the book out into the world specifically looking for critical feedback.

But it must be done.

Denouement (The Business of Writing)

This step is also horrifying because it involves switching function from sensitive-writer-in-the-cave mode to thick-skinned-objective-out-in-the-world mode. In this step, I craft the query letter and synopsis, develop a marketing strategy, and ultimately, try to find a publisher so readers can actually read the fruits of my labor. At the end of the day, I want to entertain, engage, and inspire readers, and keep them coming back to my future novels.

Writers, how is your process similar to or different from mine? Which steps of the process do you love or hate? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


6 thoughts on “Historical Fiction Writing Process

  1. Emily says:

    Erika–Thanks so much for the “behind the scenes” tour of what goes into your novels. All your research and hard-work is such an amazing undertaking, but certainly well-worth it in the end!

    I passed along my autographed copy : ) of Receive Me Falling to my mom, who in turn has passed it on to several of her friends. (But I keep reminding them that I want it back!!)

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    Thanks, Emily! Thanks so much for sharing my book with your friends and family!

  3. I’m different. I hardly research at all. If I do – I rush threw it, get something that resonates, and moves out.

    This may sound careless, I promise you it’s not, just a different process. Interesting!

  4. I also love the research side but keeping it organized is a monumental task in itself. Drafting w/o an outline is how my writing flowed best. I started my story with a partial outline and tried to stick to it. Definitely didn’t work. When i let go of the fences I had put up, my characters roamed freely and my story became much better.

    My next process is getting a critique partner and getting my next draft written. Sounds like you have a great system in place to make sure you have a variety of feedback.

    As always, I’m in awe of all you do and what you have accomplished. Thanks for sharing your process. So helpful!!!

    • erikarobuck says:

      Hallie, I love your comment about letting your characters roam freely! Finding a critique partner and/or group was one of the best things I could have done for my writing. I wish you all the best!

      “Kid”–I don’t think it sounds careless at all. We all approach it differently. With historical fiction I have to research, but writers of contemporary fiction or fantasy, etc., can just let the words flow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s