When (and how) to use documents in historical fiction

In historical fiction, it’s common for writers to include documents, such as letters, diary entries, and newspaper reports, in their stories.

These can be real documents from the period they’re writing about, or they can be fictional documents they’ve created themselves. Either way, documents can be a good way of enriching a story if you use them correctly.

In this blog, we’ll look at when you should and shouldn’t use documents, how to create fictional documents, and how you should integrate documents with your story.

When to use documents

Documents can be a great way of enriching your story. Here are some of the things you can use them for…

1. Leaving clues

You can use documents to leave clues. If you’re writing a mystery, or if there’s an element of mystery in your story, documents can be part of the puzzle that the characters and the reader have to solve.

Documents offer the reader an opportunity to join your characters in deciphering something, trying to pick out the crucial information, interpret the subtext, and determine the truthfulness of what they’re reading. It makes them engage with the story as if they were in it.

2. Advancing the plot

Documents can be used to advance the plot. In a romance, a character might profess their feelings for a love interest in a letter. In a murder mystery, a diary entry may provide a vital clue about the killer. In a thriller, newspaper reports might help a character uncover a conspiracy. All of these things help to advance the plot.

Characters might even misinterpret certain documents, or a document might end up in the wrong hands. The consequences of these mistakes can also advance the plot.

3. Deepening characterisation

Letters and diary entries can provide a deeper insight into your characters. They allow you to directly express your characters’ thoughts on paper, unfiltered, in their own voice. This can be especially helpful if your viewpoint isn’t especially deep otherwise.

Documents can be a useful tool for showing a character’s self-deceptions or their failure to recognise the truth. People often tell lies to themselves or don’t know what they want. Putting a character’s unfiltered thoughts on the page can be an interesting way of exposing that.

If you’re writing about a particular historical figure, you may want to include real letters that they wrote. This can be an interesting way of channelling their true voice into your story. As with all real documents, though, make sure you don’t include anything that’s still in copyright.

4. Enhancing the setting

Documents can help to enhance the setting by giving a flavour of historical authenticity. The conventions of letter writing, for example, can help to ground your story in its period. However, this shouldn’t normally be the only purpose of including documents. It’s more of a useful by-product.

When not to use documents

Here’s when you should think twice about using documents…

1. If you just want to dump information

Don’t let the inclusion of documents turn into an excuse for an excessive information dump. Just as readers will be put off by too much information expressed through narrative exposition, internal thought, or dialogue, they’ll get fed up if you use documents to overload them with details that interrupt the flow of the story. Yes, documents can provide some context, but use them sparingly for this.

2. To tell the reader more about the history

Historical fiction writers do a lot of research for their novels, and it’s tempting to share all of that information with the reader to educate them about the period. One method of doing this is to use real newspaper reports or real letters to provide additional historical background.

However, while some readers may appreciate this, others will find it tiresome. Most readers, whatever the genre, are looking for a good story. Historical fiction readers also want to be immersed in the period and learn something, but remember they’re looking for a novel, not a history book complete with primary sources.

So be careful with this. You may impress some people, but you could alienate others.

3. Just to make the story seem more historical

Yes, documents can be useful for evoking the period, but, if they have no purpose beyond just being there to appear historical, the reader may get bored. Certainly, you should benefit from the sense of history they bring, but they should have an additional purpose in your story.

4. To tell rather than show

There’s always a balance to be struck between telling and showing. As with many other forms of expression, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using documents to do too much telling. There’s a difference between using documents to help the reader unpick a character’s psyche, including their own self-deceptions and illusions, and unimaginatively telling the reader all there is to know about them.

Try to use documents to raise questions in the reader’s mind and add to the mystery and suspense, rather than answering everything for them.

How to create fictional documents

Take a look at this letter…

Dear William,

I hope this finds you well. How was your trip to Dorset? I hope your visit with Aunt Ella was okay. Poor thing, she’s so alone out there by herself. Anyway, write me back when you can to let me know how it went.

Best wishes,

Helen

Its conventions and style of language aren’t really appropriate for a historical letter. To create a fictional document, you have to make sure it’s appropriate to its period.

Your first step should be to ensure the core language is historically authentic, just as you would with a piece of dialogue. Like so:

Dear William,

I write concerning your recent visit to Aunt Ella in Dorset. Might I enquire as to her health? I do worry about her, so alone out there by herself. Please do write back to me directly so that my anxiety might be eased.

Best wishes,

Helen

We’ve changed the language so that it’s now appropriate to a Regency era letter, but now we need to change the conventions. Back then, the conventions for greetings and closings were slightly different.

Here’s our example again, using common Regency styles:

My dearest William,

I write concerning your recent visit to Aunt Ella in Dorset. Might I enquire as to her health? I do worry about her, so alone out there by herself. Please do write back to me directly so that my anxiety might be eased.

Your most affectionate sister,
H. Atherton

Regardless of what kind of document you’re writing, you need to make sure it’s true to the language and conventions of your period. A good way of doing this, of course, is to read real documents from the period to familiarise yourself.

How to integrate documents

When you integrate your documents with your story, format them so that, as much as possible, they appear in the manner in which a real document would, with the appropriate indentations and spacings.

Also ensure they’re adequately distinguished from the text of your story, unless you’re just quoting snippets from them. To do this, you should space them off from the main text, and you may also choose to italicise them.

Documents can be a great addition to any historical fiction novel, helping to ground the writing in the period and enrich the story. Just make sure they have a useful purpose, and that they’re correctly written and appropriately presented.

 

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Andrew Noakes

View posts by Andrew Noakes
Andrew is a specialist historical fiction editor based in London, UK.
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