8 Tips for Writing a Historical Short Story

By Alyssa Mackay

Many authors find ideas by looking to the past. Fictionalising a historical event, person or a period in time allows a writer to draw on reality as a starting point, then use their imagination to create an original story.

After reading about the history of the Bustard Head Lighthouse on the central coast of Queensland, I decided to write a short story set at a fictionalised version of that lighthouse in 1887. But once I had an idea of the story I wanted to write – a historical mystery – I began to worry about accuracy and believability. How did people behave in 1887? How did they live? I didn’t know.

Thankfully, I’m a nerd for research. Which brings me to my first tip.

  1. Begin with some light research

I trawled through Trove for news stories published at the time  – a great source of information on how people spoke, what they wore, current affairs of the era, even advertisements for popular products of the time. I also made a Pinterest board for inspiration, including photos of the old lighthouse, the surrounding bushland and vegetation, and pictures of clothing from the late 1800s. Anything you can think of that might spark your creativity.

  1. Tap out a first draft

How much research do you need to do? I did enough until I felt confident to write a first draft, focusing on the story and characters rather than the historical detail and setting (that can come later).  

  1. Fill in the gaps with focused research

I was lucky to find a book called Lighthouse of Tragedy by Stuart Buchanan, about the history of Bustard Head Lighthouse. I used Google for my other questions (e.g. what diseases were common in Queensland in the late 1800s?) – but make sure you use trustworthy websites and cross-check information for accuracy. You could also speak to an expert, or if possible, visit the site where you’re setting your story.

  1. Don’t put all your research into the story

Something I’ve learnt from other authors and my own writing is that most of your research won’t make it into your final story. Especially not a short story, where you have less opportunity for detail. But being well-read on your subject matters helps you to write with confidence, and also helps you to recognise which details to leave out.

  1. Use only enough details to paint a picture

Once you’ve got your plot and characters worked out, you can focus on making the historical setting feel authentic. But remember – the reader’s main priority is reading an engaging story. They don’t want to be distracted by historical or technical details. When I first started writing my story, I thought I’d need to explain how a lighthouse operated in 1887. But I didn’t end up describing the lighthouse much at all – just enough detail for the reader to be able to visualise the characters moving through the space.

  1. Write from your character’s experience

Instead of listing historical details from my research, I tried to write through the eyes of my main character. I asked myself, how would she respond to her surroundings? How does the time period frame her attitudes and actions? For example, she is in awe of the lighthouse’s prism light. She has an admiration and respect for the remote landscape, aware that it is beautiful but also dangerous. As a new settler in an unfamiliar location, she is cautious of the wildlife, viewing it as strange. I’m hoping these details will serve multiple purposes, by giving the reader information about the time period and setting in an interesting way, contributing to the mysterious tone of the story, and revealing things about character.

  1. Have others read your work

I was lucky to have a lighthouse aficionado read my work. They pointed out where I’d labelled rooms incorrectly, and where my descriptions could be tightened. Beta-readers also let you know where your story becomes slow or confusing. (And the bits they liked so you can give yourself a high-five!)

  1. Edit, edit, edit

As with all your writing, keep editing and refining, rewriting, editing and refining, until you’ve got a story you’re proud to call your own (especially because you’ve just done so much work on it!)

I’m pleased to say my short story, The Sound the Sea Makes, has been published in Lighthouse – An Anthology, a unique multi-genre collection of short stories that celebrate lighthouses. From sci-fi and fantasy to romance and crime – and everything in between – Lighthouse features exciting voices from emerging and established Australian writers.

Lighthouse is now available to purchase. Secure your copy now or find out more here.

This article was written by guest author, Alyssa Mackay. Alyssa is a mystery writer with an excellent track record for guessing whodunit in Midsomer Murders. Her novel
has been shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Competition and her short story published in Stringybark Stories Tales with A Twist. She lives in Brisbane with her husband, son and cat. You can connect with Alyssa via www.alyssamackay.com, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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