HFCN #06: What I’ve Learned From Teaching 8+ Historical Fiction Workshops


A reflection on my own learnings from teaching historical fiction workshops and some thoughts about persistent trends in the genre.

HCFN Post Header 2023
Like this? Share it on.

New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.

HFCN #06: What I've Learned From Teaching 8+ Historical Fiction Workshops


Some of you may know I taught six-week historical fiction writing workshops at Writing Workshops Dallas from June 2021 until July 2023. They started as four-week editions, but I found that participants wanted more, so we switched to the six-week structure halfway through those two years. During this period, I also did short seminars—capsule-based versions—on the topic. Later this year, I will also do one in-person at DFWCon (schedule details coming soon.)

I have loved teaching this workshop, and if it weren’t for my Ph.D. starting this month, I would still be teaching it. Not only is this one of my favorite fiction genres (the other is Magical Realism, which I’ve also been teaching via six-week workshops over the same duration) but I have also been enriched by the stories shared by each of the 75+ participants.

I plan to create a self-paced, online, module-based version of the workshop with more material in the coming months. In the meantime, I’d like to recap some of the most important highlights and trends that stood out to me. My sample size is sufficient to be meaningful enough. And due to the online and asynchronous format, these participants were also from all over the world. I should add that a majority of the participants were first-time novelists. Some had books and/or short stories published in other genres before.

The Whys and Wherefores of Teaching a Historical Fiction Workshop

Before we get to those highlights and trends, please let me share why I developed this workshop.

New to my work? Check out my books and publications.

For the last few years, I’ve been translating works of historical fiction. And I’ve been working on my own historical fiction trilogy. Even my 2020 debut short story collection has stories that veer heavily into this genre. Despite that, I struggled to find a suitable writing workshop focused on its craft. I found some university-level courses that were not accessible to me as a non-student. And a couple of independent institution-led workshops, which were more expensive for me. I took some one-off webinars, but these are not as beneficial as in-depth writing workshops.

So I had to teach myself in various unconventional ways—a longer, more challenging journey. Along the way, however, I began to systematize that learning through extensive journal notes, annotated essay excerpts, and more. This systematization approach is an ever-evolving and ongoing one.

When I felt I had enough material for at least a four-week workshop, I thought it would be a way to help others like myself. Of course, each edition of the workshop helped me refine all that material further. For example, when I found that worldbuilding, an essential craft skill in this genre, was a frequent challenge for workshop participants, I added a separate, small module on the topic.

There are two topics I would have added to a separate advanced six-week version of the workshop. I’ve developed module-based approaches to these for myself using specific tools like Evernote and Notion. I might work these into the self-paced online version I mentioned above.

  • Historical Novel Planning, Outlining, and Structuring
  • Historical Research Planning, Outlining, and Structuring

Now, if you’ve talked with agents and publishing folks about genre trends, you’ll hear how the following topics, themes, and approaches are perennially popular.

  • WWII settings and themes
  • Fictionalized biographies
  • Female-driven retellings of ancient myths and classic novels
  • Dual or multi-time narratives that appeal to readers of both contemporary and historical fiction

In my workshops, the first two certainly stood out as consistent favorites. Also, as most of my workshop participants were first-time novelists, they often had some personal connection with those WWII or biographical fictions. For example, we had many fictionalized versions of ancestors’ lives.

The latter two above were not so common because, I believe, they’re more difficult for first-time novelists. Interesting to note, however, that the market for both retellings and dual or multi-time narratives is currently healthier than ever.

And the following three aspects are true of a lot of fiction published these days.

  • #OwnVoices novels from under-represented cultures
  • Fast-paced dramas
  • Reflecting contemporary concerns

I saw a much smaller percentage of these above three in my workshops. The lack of sufficient #OwnVoices works was likely due to the demographic makeup of my workshops: mostly mid to late-career folks for whom writing a novel was secondary to their primary professions or vocations. The pacing issue was likely a craft challenge because emerging historical fiction writers do plenty of research and like to include as much of it as possible in their narratives. And the last point about contemporary concerns is tricky for most writers because these keep shifting with 24/7 news and social media.

Here are a couple more trends that I wish literary agents and publishers would give due attention to.

  • Novels set in cultures and regions beyond Europe and the US
  • Novels focused on under-explored periods (e.g., ancient, medieval, pre-modern)

These stories were my favorites. They were the most enriching because they introduced me to parts of history I had never considered reading about. And craft aside, the passion and drive of the writers working on these complex projects fueled my energy reserves too.

Looking for help? Check out my writing workshops and book consultation services.

My Top Five Reminders for Historical Fiction Writers (currently, anyway)

Throughout each workshop, there were some personal maxims that I found myself repeating. They are also reminders for me on my not-so-good writing days. These are specific to the genre and beyond all the general writing craft caveats I often revisit in my workshops.

  1. If readers want a history lesson, they’ll find a history text. What they want with a historical novel is an immersive, engaging experience different from their present world such that it helps them see both their present world and the historical one in new, enlightened ways.
  2.  The difference between story and plot, per E M Forster: “‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” A story is a journey a character makes from point A (the king’s death) to point B (the queen’s own death.) A plot is about the chain of events between those two points (all the events that cause and exacerbate the specific grief experienced by the queen such that she also dies eventually.) Story comes from character. And plot comes from story. Story and plot are the foundation, the bones, and the frame of a historical novel. Without a strong story and plot structure, no matter how good the historical research or the writing craft, the novel will not work. RELATED: The historical events cannot form the main plot; we are interested in how the characters deal with those historical events.
  3.  Weave relevant historical details into scenes seamlessly so they don’t feel like information dumps. We only need the facts pertinent to a particular scene. The details serve the story and plot, and not the other way around.
  4.  There is a difference between writing a historical novel for a contemporary reader and mimicking the voices of novels written in that era. In other words, learn from works written in that historical period but don’t write like them. (Note: Language and dialogue in historical fiction could be at least a four-week workshop in itself.)
  5.  Read extensively in your topic and period. Know your competition. This sounds obvious, but reading like a writer is a honed, lifelong skill. It is a craft in itself. RELATED: In the next newsletter, I’ll share some notable historical fiction of 2023, some of my rereads, and some perennial favorites I have used in my workshops.

In Closing, Three Questions for You

  1. Which of the above trends resonated the most with you and why?
  2. Which of the five maxims resonated the most with you and why?
  3. If you’re a historical fiction writer, what kind of craft support would help the most with your current novel project?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, and I will respond.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. Here are some ways you can support the work:

books cta
events cta
hfcn cta
kofi cta

Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

Share this newsletter.

Author picture

Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

You might also enjoy reading these. Or, browse the archives by category: WAAT; HFCN.

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

I earn a tiny affiliate fee if you buy a book using one of the links here. It goes toward funding the free newsletters. All content is the copyright © of Jenny Bhatt and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Please ensure proper linkage and attribution (e.g. Bhatt, Jenny. [Newsletter Heading], [Newsletter Name], [mmm-dd-yyyy]) and do not transform, adapt, or remix. Thank you. Contact here if you have questions.

Start or Join the Conversation.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Notify of

Inline feedback
View all responses

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

Like my work?

Recent Conversations

Like my work?

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

What do you think? Share your thoughts?x