What are several different ways to incorporate true facts into historical fiction without just giving a massive info dump?

Whether big or little details, I want to inform the reader of facts without flat out saying "on ___, ___ happened, which was a massive development in ___, causing president ___ to say...." which seems kind of boring and info-dumpish.

Are there strategies or techniques to subtly add historical facts to a historical fiction storyline?

My story is in third person POV, past tense.

  • 1
    Kind of bummed no one else has gotten you an answer. I KNOW my strategies. I want to see what other people think. You can always self answer if you have ideas.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 4, 2021 at 20:52

2 Answers 2


A Few Thoughts:

I'm far from an expert, but here are a few things that come to mind. I struggle with short stories because I go slow, integrating facts in little dribbles throughout the story. But all this info must come in an organic, naturally-feeling way. This is far from exhaustive, and each done well is clever, done poorly is awful (and this is, unfortunately, best learned by doing and screwing up a lot). If it sounds and feels wrong, it probably is.

  • Learning with the Main Character: The classic technique of information funneling is to learn alongside the main character as they acquire the information themselves. This can be the character expressing ignorance on a topic and having someone explain it to them. It can be the character literally sitting down with a teacher who teaches them how something works (this is especially relevant if you have a lot of worldbuilding to explain, like the operating principles of a magic system).
  • Showing not Telling: The wall isn't a wall, it's a mural of Saint Kalki teaching his story-relevant details. The hotel is the same one the main character met his ex-wife Sharon at and the same chain where he committed adultery and destroyed his marriage. The dress isn't green, it's the same shade of green as the trees on the farm where she learned to become a crack shot as a child. He refuses to eat ice cream because of that day in the park where his uncle got him ice cream and then molested him. Hey, what is that you're reading? It's that magazine article about this really story-relevant fact you need to know to follow the plot.
  • Relationship building: People talk about themselves and other people. It's a bit of a cliché for two people to discuss a third and reveal an awkward truth (or possibly a story-building half-truth), but this is how many people find out things. Two people falling in love will reveal deep personal secrets to each other (sometimes with disastrous results) and we all know romantic elements NEVER creep into stories!
  • Intimate without explaining: If there are facts you DON'T need to tell the reader, figure out how to NOT tell it to them. If two characters seem to take something for granted (like why the bartender has two heads) the reader will understand that it's expected and assume it's either just how things are, OR that you will explain it more when it's needed. In the meanwhile, as long as it's a story where two heads might make sense, it becomes background. Later in the story, if two-headedness becomes relevant, you've peppered it into your story and it requires less justifying. If not, it's just cool color. This same principle can be used to reduce the need for an explanation by invoking authority. If a police officer tells Mr. Plum that Miss Peach is a master investigator, you invoke the authority to explain why Miss Peach knows about criminal procedure (Agatha Christie used this one a lot).
  • Dramatic Flashbacks: Flashbacks are overdone because they are often boring and filled with infodumps. If you are using them, make it an exciting one. The Duel's outcome affects the whole story seems like it goes one way, then you discover it goes the opposite. There are 60 seconds till the bomb goes off and the critical supporting character who's going to be blown up reveals the haunting truth that the MC keeps playing over and over in her mind.
  • Dreams/nightmares: Again, often overdone but highly effective. The Vietnam vet wakes up screaming as he dreams about the shooting of the woman whose daughter he then adopted, revealing who did the shooting. A romantic attraction to a woman appears as romance in a dream, and then her turning into a viper reveals mistrust. I used this in a story where a character had a guardian spirit who communicated with the MC through dream-memories.

ADDENDUM: Someone pointed out to me how allergic I am to dialog tags, but they ARE a great way to introduce details to the story. This doesn't need to be the usual he/she said, but a snippet of character info that tells you who is speaking. for example

If you want to say the girls are mean:

Molly thought about how cruel the others girls could be. "I don't want to go to the party."

If you want to let people know that Bob (a historic figure who got into a car crash) is a reckless driver:

He pulled up in the mustang so quickly that Sue screamed, "Are you trying to kill me?"

The city is frequently bombed by the enemy:

As Steven talked, he scanned the skies compulsively for signs of aircraft, even though the air raid sirens would sound well before he saw anything. "Did you have any more thoughts about joining the army?"


I note that your question says that:

What are several different ways to incorporate true facts into historical fiction without just giving a massive info dump?

So you want to set your story or stories in historical times and places. I note that the Historum site says that history ends and current events begin 30 years ago. And other websites and historical magazines may have different cut-off dates for history.

And on the other hand, recorded history began about 5,000 years ago about 3000 BC when then-current events like the names of kings began to be recorded.

And every place in the world today now has a written recorded history going back for decades, and usually for centuries, and often for millennia. And many of the places where history began to be recorded the most recently have oral history of varying degrees of accuracy going back generations or centuries more.

So the settings of historical fiction can include times and places where there a vast range in the amount and accuracy of history available to average persons, or to especially ignorant persons, or to especially well-educated persons, or whatever type of persons your characters may be.

So how the characters learn historical facts, legends, and myths can vary greatly between various historical periods and various persons within the same period.

Have you ever heard about the Schleswig-Holstein question, which was important in the 19th century and was the cause of the First Schleswig War and the Second Schleswig War in 1848-1851 and 1864?

The Schleswig-Holstein question involved a lot of complex history, so complex as to inspire a famous joke:

The British statesman Lord Palmerston is reported to have said: "Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it."1


And obviously, if historical fiction is set during the period of the Schleswig-Holstein question, or one of the two Schleswig Wars, the characters on one side might ask what it is all about and be told their side's versions, which the naive may accept and the cynical express skepticism about.

And maybe someone will ask about how the other side justifies their obviously wrong stance and may be given a version of their claims.

Or the story could be set in a divided community where members of different sides proclaim their views at the drop of a hat.

When King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286, his little granddaughter Margaret The Maid of Norway was recognized as the rightful queen. But Margaret died in the Orkney Islands when sailing to Scotland in 1290, and nobody else was closely related to King Alexander III. The process of finding an heir is known as "the Competition for the crown of Scotland" or "the Great Cause".

Eleven Scottish & English nobles, one noble from the Holy Roman Empire, and a foreign king made hereditary claims with various degrees of validity to the throne.


So obviously any story set in Scotland at that time could include a lot of discussions of genealogy and succession rules as people argued about who the best heir was. Some people might propose that someone with a poor claim should be the rightful king, and then someone else might say they are only claiming that because they are closely related to that candidate and thus possibly could inherit the throne if their candidate wins, and thus mentioning more noble genealogy.

And of course, there have been many other succession disputes in history, though most were less complicated than this one.

I can imagine that during the Wars of the Roses period, for example, some kids might wonder about the claim of Richard Duke of York (1415-1460) to the throne of England. One may say they heard Richard was a grandson of King Edward III, another that he was a great-grandson, and another a great-great-grandson, and someone older might explain that Richard was the great-grandson of King Edward III on his father's side, and since his grandfather was a younger brother to the grandfather of King Henry VI, Richard was behind Henry VI in agnatic (male-only succession). But they might go onto say that Duke Richard was also a great-great-great-grandson of King Edward III through his mother Anne Mortimer, and she was descended from an even older son of King Edward III, thus giving Richard a superior claim to the crown if it can pass through females.

And of course, rather ordinary and non-royal families can have complicated family trees that someone has trouble keeping straight and needs to have explained to them.

For example, my great great great grandfather, Jabob Demuth (1779-1842), of Lancaster, PA, married three times. His first wife was a daughter of John Eberman by John Eberman's first wife, and they had a son Emmanuel Eberman Demuth (b. 1804) who has many descendants today. But John Emberman married and had children with a second wife who was a sister of Jacob Demuth. And in some times and places it was considered as wrong to marry someone related to you by marriage as someone related to you by blood - but obviously not in Lancaster PA, at that time.

John Eberman and his first wife had a son William Eberman, who married and had children with three wives. His first two wives were sisters and Demuth descendants. So William Eberman's children by his first two wives were both half-siblings and first cousins.

Jacob's Demuth's 2nd wife was, if I have interpreted the marriage record correctly, his niece, his brother's illegitimate daughter, and only 14 years younger than that brother. They had ten children, and at least one of them probably had descendants today.

A great great great great grandfather of mine, Henry Hurst (b. 1771) Gwynedd, PA, married Eva Lowman and had a daughters Anne Frances Veronica Hurst, born 1801. He moved to Lancaster, PA, and married a niece of Jacob Demuth in 1822, and had children, including Elam D. Hurst. And a few days later in 1822, Jacob Demuth married Ann Frances Veronica Hurst, who was his niece's stepdaughter and had nine children, including my ancestor.

So the nine children of Jacob Demuth and Ann Frances Veronica Hurst were the first cousins of Elam D. Hurst's mother, and they were also Elam D. Hurst's half nephews and nieces, the children of his half-sister. Henry Hurst was both Jabob Demuth's father-in-law and nephew-in-law.

So I can imagine that some kids in those families could be confused about their relationships, and an older relative might draw them a family tree to help explain it to them. Or someone might picture a family tree in their mind to figure out relationships in their extended family. And such family trees can be included as illustrations in a work of historical fiction.

And I am sure that has happened countless times in real life, often to explain relationships that are much less complicated, and so it can also happen in fiction.

Or some Roman could hear that their great great grandfather fought in the war with Carthage and say they thought that their grandfather did. And they could be told there were two wars with Carthage and grandfather fought in the second and great-great-grandfather in the first.

Or someone could be confused about which side Japan and Italy fought on during the World Wars, and someone could tell them that both countries fought against Germany during World War One and both were allied to Germany in World War two, although Italy switched sides in 1943.

Since a lot of historical information is rather confusing, it is only natural that some characters in a work of historical fiction could be confused, perhaps having heard contradictory claims, about the historical background to current events, and ask someone for more information. And that person could answer their questions and clear up their confusion and give them an accurate account - at least as accurate as that other person understands it.

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