Guest Post: How to write great historical fiction novels

I am pleased to have author, Douglas W. Jacobson, author of The Katyn Order here on Acting Balanced as part of his Pump Up Your Book virtual tour:

How to write great historical fiction novels

By, Douglas W. Jacobson
Author of, The Katyn Order

Who could ever forget Natalie? The strikingly beautiful, strong-willed heroine of Herman Wouk’s classic historical novels, Winds of War and War and Remembrance. We followed Natalie through Poland in 1939, then to Italy and her love affair with Byron, and finally, when her luck ran out after a series of nail-biting escapes, to the death camp of Auschwitz. And along the way we gained a greater understanding of the greatest human conflict in history, World War Two.

This, to me, is the wonder of well written, well researched historical fiction. We are entertained by fascinating characters and well-crafted plots, all while becoming immersed in real-life history. When I think about historical fiction—stories set in the firm foundation of real life—I’m reminded of the old saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” And it’s true. There is nothing we can imagine that is any more intriguing, sometimes devastating, and other times euphoric, than the human experience throughout history.

And what better way to experience human history than through finely crafted works of fiction. From Herman Wouk’s World War Two classics, to Charles Frazier’s Civil War masterpiece, Cold Mountain, Ken Follett’s spellbinding story of 11th century intrigue, Pillars of the Earth, or Jean Auel’s incredible pre-historical tale, Clan of the Cave Bear, historical fiction transports us through time on the wings of literature’s most compelling characters.    

We can fight the Napoleonic Wars alongside Bernard Cornwell’s, Captain Sharpe, or the Spanish Civil War with Hemingway’s, Robert Jordan. We can feel the grit of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl as we trudge along beside John Steinbeck’s, Joad family, and we can share the secrets of biblical slaves and artisans through the eyes of Jacob’s only daughter, Anita Diamant’s, Dinah.

But there is one thing that all of these marvelous authors have in common. They did their homework. They did the RESEARCH. What sets historical fiction on a pedestal is the research, the assurance that the author is accurately describing the time, place and setting of his or her story. We can make up the characters, and the plot, but the stories have to accurately reflect the time period. It's why we read historical fiction. Of the early reviews I've received on The Katyn Order, I'm particularly proud of the one from The Library Journal, which said, "Compelling authenticity and evocatively rendered detail will captivate history buffs and thriller fans alike." 

As an author, I love the challenge of creating original characters then sending them on their way though a labyrinth of actual historical events. They may survive, or they may not, they may fall in love, become consumed with rage, or shrivel away in the eye of danger. But the plot will be real. After all, it’s history.

Douglas W. Jacobson is an engineer, business owner and World War Two history enthusiast. Doug has traveled extensively in Europe researching stories of the courage of common people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His debut novel, Night of Flames: A Novel of World War Two was published in 2007 by McBooks Press, and was released in paperback in 2008. Night of Flames won the “2007 Outstanding Achievement Award” from the Wisconsin Library association. Doug writes a monthly column on Poland’s contribution during WW2, has published articles on Belgium’s WW2 escape organization, the Comet Line and other European resistance organizations. Doug’s second historical novel, The Katyn Order, which will be released in May, 2011, focuses on one of history’s most notorious war crimes, the Katyn massacre.
You can visit his website at