Are you a curious novelist exploring uncharted genres or are you a current writer of the past seeking new adventures?
Whatever your purpose, these 40 historical writing prompts, partnered with a collection of vintage photographs, are guaranteed to help you get ideas, transcend to an inspiring era and help you to write your own piece of history.
1. The Lonely Lighthouse
As a survivor of a massive sea storm, you seek safety inside of a mysterious 19th century lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall. Describe the fascinating (or frightening) discoveries that await inside.
2. Behind Enemy Lines
It’s 1864, and the United States is in the middle of a Civil War. Write a scene in which an undercover Union soldier passes through a quaint southern town brimming with Confederate rebels.
3. Fire at the Factory
Imagine you’re an Irishman working at a factory in the 1930s. It’s your first day on the job. Without having the proper training, you accidentally set fire to the plant. Write a mock report of how the fire started and how your character escaped fault.
4. The Traveling Circus Clown
It’s 1925, and the circus has come to town. Write an accident story involving one of the star performers with an ironic twist where it is up to one of the spectators to save the show.
5. The French Ruler
Write a chapter in the point of view of an English spy who attempts murder during Louis XIV’s coronation in 17th century France. How does your tyrant plan to execute their mission and are they successful?
6. Swan Lake
A group of close friends meet for the last time before going in separate ways in 1940s England. Write a scene about their last moment together. Do they make a pact to see each other again in 10 years or do they reminisce back in time to the day they first met?
7. Sailing Away
In 1950s Charleston, South Carolina, two teenagers escape the troubles of boyhood to go on an adventure of a lifetime. What conflict do they have with each other as they go on their voyage and where do they go?
8. The Dinner Bell
See what’s cooking in this 1940s California kitchen. Imagine you are a food columnist for the local newspaper. Write a mock interview and include a secret family recipe that accidentally gets leaked.
Write a story about a female archaeologist from 19th century England who meets a gentleman on an expedition who claims that he was once an Egyptian pharaoh.
10. Aerial View Beach
As an airplane pilot you are much more aware of what’s happening in the sky rather than the ground. Write a scene where the pilot flies over a beach and spots a crowd of beach-goers flocking to the surf. Do a 15 minute freewrite of what you see in the water.
11. Turquoise Waters
You are an inhabitant on a tropical Mediterranean island. One day you go out for a stroll along the cliffs when you notice a strange ship across the waters coming toward your home. Write one chapter where you describe who’s on board the ship and what they want. Are they friends or enemies?
12. Kooky Cribs
Write a story about an orphaned child in the 1970s that meets a strange family who resides in an even stranger house on the California coast.
13. He’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain
Write a scene about a family man traveling through a mountain pass in 19th century Oregon, unaware of what’s coming fast around the corner. Write a paragraph of how he connects fate with destiny.
14. Block Party
Extra! Extra! Write a scene about a group gathering in the streets of Chicago, Illnois in the 19th century. Are employees going on strike? Are women fighting for equal rights against men? Or are people cheering for the one person that could lead a hopeless village to a brighter future?
15. The Butler Did It
Write one chapter about a female housekeeper who explores her master’s study in 19th century France. What all does she discover and is it something that she rather not have wished to find?
16. The Long Journey Home
Write a story about a boy who ran from home after revealing a scandalous family secret that should have been kept jan drugs canada under lock and key. Now a man, fifteen years later, he’s returned home only to discover that there is still unrest after his plaguing mishap.
17. On Top of God’s Mountains
Write one chapter from the point of view of a 1970s mountain climber in Colorado, who discovers a brick hut on top of a mountain. Is it inhabited or is there a certain relic which transcends him to a different era?
18. The Road to Nowhere
Do a quick free write in the point of view of a homeless civilian who discovers a suspicious alleyway during 1929 of The Great Depression that leads to a grand (or horrific) revelation.
19. Buffalo Dreams
Write a journal entry in the point of view of a female pioneer of her abduction by the Sioux Indian tribe in the early 19th century.
20. Oriental Ornaments
Write a story in which an ornament on a Christmas tree tells the story of a different era in time.
21. Handle with Care
Write an outline about the adventures of four men, who meet as young postmen during WWII. What are their backstories? Give them features, disagreements, and opposing traits.
22. The Lion Tamer
Write a character profile of a wealthy 19th century English banker, who was once a lion tamer in a past life.
23. Beauty Mark
Write a robbery scene that takes place in a popular jewelry boutique in 1960s New York. Is the jewel thief a stealthy shoplifter or a glass-shattering maniac? Does the crime take place at night when the store is closed or during business hours? And how does the robber know the jewelry store owner?
24. War Hero
Write a scene where an undercover WWII American sneaks into a German radio room to send a message that could prove fatal to the enemy — if he isn’t caught.
25. Hotel of Haunts
Write a flash fiction story from the point of view of an owner of a hotel that is famous for being haunted by characters from the Roaring Twenties.
26. Let’s Shake On It
Write a story about a man who purchases a 1920 Ford Model T and discovers that the car has a life of its own.
27. Baskets, Anyone?
Write a story about a 1980s New Yorker looking for adventure, who purchases a basket from an eccentric city merchant and discovers an item inside that takes the character back in time to 15th century Scotland.
28. Poker Face
There’s no rules in this card game. Describe the high stakes for this card game in 1800s England. Does the winner wind up wishing he had lost?
29. The Diner
Write a story about a drifter passing through only to stop at a lone 1940s diner to get some lunch, but unintentionally ends up staying much longer than expected.
30. A Man’s Best Friend
Write a story about a boy and a stray dog and their many adventures as a famous motor racer in 1920s America.
31. Dear . . .
Write a letter from the point of view of a solider writing to his family during the Vietnam War.
32. Once Upon a Time
Write a story about a contemporary novelist who physically appears into his Victorian England drama and falls for his female protagonist.
33. The Kiss
Write a love story about a female WWII veteran who saves a fireman from a burning movie theater in 1940s New York.
34. Cabin Fever
Write a story of a pioneer family from the city starting their new life on the Organ Trail in the 1800s.
35. Under the Weather
Write a story about an underrated scientist that turns out to have better ideas than most of his colleagues in 19th century Germany.
36. Summer Dreams
Write a story about five teenagers who first meet at a summer camp, and how their lives continue to intertwine throughout the years in 1950s Florida.
Game on. Write a scene in which two enemies learn to become best friends in a game of golf in 1920s Virginia. Are there any bets being made? Why do the two boys appear so mischievous?
38. Fort Knox
Write a diary entry of an infantry solider in the Revolutionary War who is on guard at his post when there is a sudden attack on his fort.
39. The Rogue
Write a character profile of a wayward Englishmen who treats the rules of proper Victorian England society like it’s a game.
40. The Highwayman
Write a scene in which the passengers of this motor car are stopped by a mysterious rider in the 1920s English countryside.
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Creative WritingFictionHistorical FictionHistorywritingWriting Prompts
This week we’re lucky to be featuring a guest post by author and historical fiction blogger M.K. Tod ofA Writer of History.Mary provides valuable insights into the particular research required of the historical fiction writer, along with practical advice for sourcing the factual material that will help bring a bygone era to life in your novel.
One way to examine fiction, either as writer or reader, is to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. Every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements; however, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life within each element.
Research is key. What are readers looking for? Where do you start? Below is an explanation of the seven elements of research in the context of historical fiction followed by a series of tips on researching material for your historical novel.
Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to find sources that will reveal the people of the past.
Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period without weighing down the manuscript and slowing the reader’s pace. Be careful, as many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.
Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences:
“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.” Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl
“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.” Elizabeth Chadwick, The Summer Queen
“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris, Enigma
Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.
Theme – most themes transcend history, yet theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of typical themes: “Ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5th century China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century?
Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about a famous historical figure. When considering such historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.
Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices may lead to conflict.
World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”
“And where do I find all that?” you ask.
You could spend forever researching a particular time and place. The following suggestions come from personal experience plus a range of ideas from other authors of historical fiction:
- Read memoirs, literature written in your time period, old songs, sermons, out-of-print books, diaries and letters. These provide information on all elements: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, meals, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality and so on. Project Gutenberg and Fullbooks offer interesting selections of out-of-print books.
- Make sure you cover primary sources. As Elizabeth Chadwick says: “The primary sources will give you an idea of the mindset of the time – the thoughts behind the world in which your characters live – politics, social attitudes.” They illuminate your historical backdrop including wars, revolutions, major events, prominent people, and the news of the day. Find primary sources online, in libraries and in archives.
- Secondary sources include non-fiction accounts, biographies, academic papers, interviews with historians and experts. These too add understanding to the world of the past.
- Local sources, local historians and newspapers allow you to capture localities and neighbourhoods, to understand how much things cost, how long travel took, how international events affected local citizens, the things people worried and gossiped about, politics and scandals of the day.
- Old maps situate the streets and buildings of your setting and help ensure accuracy in your story. Remember, a street or building from long ago may no longer exist. What was once a footpath may now be a major roadway. For example, I consulted maps showing WWI trench locations to add authenticity to two novels, Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence.
- Personal travel offers a feel for the landscape your characters inhabit. Such personal physical connection is compelling. If that’s not possible, guidebooks and tools like Google maps and Internet photo searches are virtual ways to travel. Remember the land changes with time, so check your facts.
- Paintings give perspectives on clothing, class differentiation, social preoccupations, physical geography, architecture and other matters.
- Financial accounts help you understand what things cost.
- Transcripts of old court cases provide interesting ideas to enhance your plot, while also providing insights into the legal system and laws of the time.
- Weather records enhance the accuracy of your story with details about floods, extremes of hot or cold, monster storms.
- Museums are incredible sources of information and there are museums for just about anything. Even if you cannot personally visit a museum, some offer online exhibits, research papers, and search capabilities.
- Military records and museums are a rich trove of details.
- Newsreels are more relevant to historical fiction set in the 20th century.
- Movies about historical figures and times are a wonderful way to see and hear history. Most are carefully researched and offer ideas on fashion, morality, diversions, travel, politics, war, and home life, as well as the sounds of chariots racing, cannons exploding, the guillotine dropping. Be sure to check their accuracy.
- If you are writing about more recent times, vintage magazines, postcards, cookbooks, and brochures can also be useful.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the internet. I have purposely listed this source last, however, as I would encourage you to use it in conjunction with all of the sources mentioned above or as a means to access these sources.
A final word of advice: don’t forget that the purpose of research is to immerse yourself in the past, not overwhelm your readers with copious and irrelevant detail. Dig deep, but incorporate sparingly.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from all major online retailers. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.