Adding Flesh to the Bone: Writing Compelling Historical/Biblical Fiction

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By Mesu Andrews

If you’re invited to my house for a quiet evening, you should hope I only serve dessert. I’m not a terrible cook, but my main dishes usually come from a box. Why?

Because the only seasonings I know how to use are salt and pepper, which makes most of my food-from-scratch taste…well, bland. When our daughter and son-in-love lived with us for nine months, he did all the cooking and used every spice in the cabinet. Much better food!

Spicing Up Facts With Fiction
Historical and/or biblical novels can get bland quick if facts overwhelm the fiction. So how do we balance the integrity of the hard-earned research we’ve spent weeks (even months) compiling with the absolute necessity of keeping the reader engaged? We must put fictional flesh on factual bones.

Adding Fiction to Facts

Nine of my author friends give advice on how they maintain the integrity of research and yet bring stories to life:

“I always include an Historical Note at the end. There I sort out the real history from the fictional story and give more of the historical landscape.” ~ Lyn Cote

“My characters become a part of the history-making events.” ~ Martha Rogers

“Facts are sacred. Motivations are not… I give myself permission to interpret why someone acted in the ways history recorded.” ~ Roseanna White

“I have grown tired of the pietistic nonsense that tries to clean up the Bible and imagine that a godly person never thinks about making love.” ~ Eric Wiggin

“I put fictional flesh on non-fictional bones by hunting down specific years within the middle ages that provide the best backdrop for my plot and characters.” ~ Tamara Leigh

“I have to know the real history in and out, same for the lives of the real people. I work to get to know them through reading their letters, their diaries (if available), newspaper accounts about them and about social events they were involved in…Anything I can do to ‘slip into their skin.'” ~Tamara Alexander

“Generally speaking, [good historical novels] stick to the facts but embroider the edges…The problem is how far you can embroider without losing the shape of the garment.” ~ Veronica Heley

“I dedicate a month to research before I start writing a novel and then–once I force myself to stop researching–I focus on the fictional story, firmly rooted in fact.” ~ Melanie Dobson
(Melanie wrote a fantastic blog post on her research process. Click here to read it.)

A Word About Series Writing

Miriam, the second novel in my Treasure of the Nile series, releases today! It’s the first time I’ve written a continuation, so I wanted to use all the spices of fiction to make this book different than The Pharaoh’s Daughter (Book #1 in the series).

I was tempted to let research from the first book fuel my writing for the second, but a seventy-year gap between storylines meant major changes in context. A few characters were the same, but many had died. Adding descendants of the original cast brought freshness to the plot but a familiarity that will appeal to readers of TPD. In the first book, Miriam was eighteen, and she lived on a quaint Nile Delta estate. In the second book she’s eighty-six; the estate has become Egypt’s capital city; and her world is turned upside down.

Fiction flesh is about emotion. Factual bone is about getting the research right. Marrying the two opens readers’ minds to history and the Bible like they’ve never experienced it before.

Mesu AndrewsMesu Andrews lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes in her worn-out recliner beside a cozy fire on rainy days. She and her husband Roy enjoy movies, football, waterfalls, and visiting their growing tribe of grandkids.

Comments 0

  1. Love this post! It is fresh, insightful, and broad in its inclusion of quotes by other writers of historical fiction. These quotes add “spice” that perfectly flavors the rest of the post. Thank you so much!


    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    Truth through Fiction ®
    The Madonna of Pisano
    Surrender to Love
    A Christmas Homecoming

    When I write, I feel God’s pleasure.

    Book 1: The Madonna of Pisano, (Now available)
    Book 2: A Sicilian Farewell (Coming Soon)
    Book 3: Return to Bella Terra (Coming Soon)

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