Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part I – If It Could Have Happened, It's Fair Game

Welcome on this national holiday to July featured author Stephanie Thornton, whose first book , The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, was published earlier this week.

A few years ago when I was revising my first historical
manuscript, I had a very knowledgeable author-friend point out the four key
elements of any manuscript: plot, characters, setting, and emotion.

Depending on which genre you write, those four elements can
be rearranged in various orders of importance. Young Adult tends to be heavy on
emotion, but lighter on setting whereas fantasy often delves deepest into
setting. Even within historical fiction, there’s great variation. I’ve read
some historicals where the plot was lighter than the setting and others where
the only period details included the clothing and the food on the table.

My first drafts are disaster zones not fit for human
consumption, but all I care about that first time around is one thing: what
happens next.

There’s often one place I turn to for those answers.
Fortunately for me, there are extensive historical sources for all the
“forgotten” women in history I’ve chosen to write about. Empress Theodora’s
reign was painstakingly recorded (albeit with a hefty dose of propaganda) by
the Byzantine historian Procopius, Pharaoh Hatshepsut detailed major events of
her reign on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri (also
exaggerated to make her look good), and the exploits of Genghis Khan’s wife
Borte were documented in the Secret History of the Mongols (which goes out of
its way to make Genghis look like a rock star). 

The trick then is making the known events (or at least the
recorded events) fit my novels’ narratives. For example, Procopius writes that
Theodora had a son before becoming empress, and that she hid his existence in
order to further her own career, sending him away with a servant as an adult when
he sought her out. The boy was never heard from again, which led to the
question of what happened to him. Did he return to the countryside to farm
apricots? Did he blackmail the mother he never knew, letting her buy his
silence? Or did he die some tragic death, possibly at his mother’s command?

Each of those scenarios is possible, but I get to choose
which works best for the novel, the one will keep readers flipping the pages
until 2AM.

[insert evil laugh]

My plot motto: So long as a plot line could have happened in real history, it’s fair game, at least in my

(And of course, if it makes your characters’ lives even
harder, all the better. Next week’s motto: Throw your characters under the
Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has
been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve.
She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her
next novel. Her first book,
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is
now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at

3 thoughts on “Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part I – If It Could Have Happened, It's Fair Game”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    I found your post comforting. Thanks for giving me permission to have fun filling in the blanks of what we don't know. I also write historical fiction, and I wonder if the history buffs will come after me to complain if I get things wrong. (We'll find out soon–my first book is out this fall.)

  2. Stephanie Thornton

    Lynn–Congratulations on your upcoming book! While I'm not sure we can ever make everyone happy, I do think it's perfectly acceptable to let our imaginations fill in the gaps of the historical record. After all, it's called historical fiction for a reason!

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