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Humber IFOA Author Talk- Historical Fiction

The Humber School for Writers just ran its first workshop right inside the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. What a rush to have a workshop nestled within a festival - we had an embarrassment of riches. Here is a transcript of one of the talks given in the afternoon by Tom Taylor, a Canadian novelist who specializes in historical fiction. See in Particular his numbered points near the end of his talk. 

Historical Fiction – I assume you know what fiction is but what is history?

Not every view of the past is an historical one. The Globe and Mail writes about the past but there is no history in the newspaper. An example: General Isaac Brock rode the trail from Fort George to Queenston maybe fifty times – true but trivial. However, one time, about 5:30 am  on October 13, 1812 he was riding to the Battle of Queenston Heights and that’s the ride historians write about. They select their facts from the past, justifying what’s critical and what’s trivial – that’s history. Montaigne wrote in his essay Of the Education of Children “teach  them  not the histories but rather how to judge those histories.” Why was Brock riding? Who was he going to see? What difference did it make? Judgments about what’s important and why – history.

Think of your own life. Perhaps you had several dates but one time you meet someone special and that date leads to marriage and gigantic change in your life –an historical event – a turning point. This idea applies to society, individuals, and to your fictional characters.

So what is historical fiction? I call it a lie that tells a truth. The best historical fiction tells the spirit of the times and we will always separate from  known historical fact. We don’t know the dialogue, for instance so we have to make it up. also, we get to use commonsense – something “Official Historians” can’t do.

An example: Sir Isaac and sex – There are no records of him ever having an affair for the ten years he was in Canada. But we know he’d just turned forty three when he died. He loved parties, was good looking, enjoyed dancing, President of the Executive Council, Supreme military leader – he might as well have been King! And remember that this is the Regency period of low cut sexy gowns – it’s not the Victorian period.  So raise your hand if you think the man was celibate for the ten years in the Canadas. Now raise your hand if you think he had an affair and was too much a gentleman to write about it!

Historians will not say that he had affairs but there is no written record of it. So in Brock’s Agent, it is implied that Sir Isaac has an affair – he has a sleep over - and the reader can decide if he is a lucky general. The lie that tells the truth.

Historical fiction writers often invert the importance of their fiction over the history. Their fictional arc is the big story supported by the pillars of history underneath.

Some examples:

Brock’s Agent is a story about the redemption of Upper Canada’s first secret agent in the War of 1812 – my fictional arc. But did you know that the American gov’t forgot to tell their commander, Robert Hanks at Fort Mackinac, that war had been declared. They mailed the Declaration of War to General Hull in Detroit. Of course, the Post Office sent it to Cleveland. Both of these crazy facts form part of the story in Brock’s Agent. To make this clearer, Gone With the Wind isn’t about the Civil War – it’s about Scarlett’s determination. It culminates with the burning Atlanta – historically. Brock’s Agent culminates with the Battle for Detroit – historically. Of course, the fictional arc culminates in a different way. Gone with the Wind is also a wonderful example of upping the stakes on Scarlett – scene by scene. Thou shalt not be boring!

For your fictional arc, it helps immensely if you have a central idea or theme. In Brock’s Railroad I put it right on the back cover. “Is an escaped slave truly free, waking each morning seething with hatred for a former oppressor? If not, then what is freedom and how does one attain it? So obviously, freedom is the discussion in my fictional arc about the thirty-six former slaves that fought beside the British 41st Regiment at the Battle of Queenston Heights. No one knows when the Underground Railroad began – it reached its peak in the 1840’s and 50’s – but when did it begin. I thought it would be fun to offer its founding to Sir Isaac and those thirty-six former slaves. Brock’s Railroad culminates with the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Brock’s Traitor is about honour and how that word surprisingly changes meaning according to the circumstance. It opens with the line, “The Americans were coming to kill him.”  One million bushels of grain and beef were shipped from the New England states to Wellington in the peninsula while he was fighting Napoleon. The farmers of Upper State New York fed the British Army in the Canadas by smuggling from Ogdensberg across to Prescott and throughout the St. Lawrence River Valley. Brock’s Traitor culminates with the burning of York. Again, the fictional story reaches its peak a little differently.

Some suggestions on how to write historical fiction:

1] I get an idea of what I want to write about: redemption, freedom, honour. Then  make the story as big as you can make it;

2] I decide what historical pillars I’m going to use to support the fictional arc. This is the selection of historical facts that are key to my story, very similar to what an historian does. This selection will in many ways shape your plot;

3] I write the last scene first and then go backwards a few scenes, then jump to the opening. Once I know where I’m going and I’m set for my journey. I write a type of historical thriller;

4] Get your facts straight – it’s called historical fiction;

 5] Respect the dead people you’re writing about – they deserve it;

6] I often use letters from someone important. The dead General Brock sends my protagonist his secret mission in Brock’s Traitor. [Stops the story from being too boring. ]

7] The first five pages and even the first page has to not only hook the reader but also set the promise of what kind historical fiction this book will be;

8] Right from the start, try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Remember that you have characters to fill the fiction arc, but you will also require characters to cement the historical pillars;

8] Tell a story that brings to life the past while maintaining historical integrity – a lie that tells a truth.


A] Ass in the chair! Set a goal to write so much everyday. You decide how much, but do it!

B] Don’t turn the TV on and then you won’t have to turn it off!

C] Always thank the Humber School for Writers in your acknowledgements. Spread the word and support the school!