I'm writing historical fiction and I'm at the research stage.

My question is how much artistic license and fudging things with history do you need to do or should you do? The setting's the recent past in a Midwest town in Minnesota which is not podunk but not big city, so it's not a period piece hundreds of years ago.

I'm in the Rust Belt, so not close to the Midwest for researching it, research is done online.

I've got my characters developed and a partial outline of the story but haven't fully quite figured out how to get the historical part done.

The conflict's there; it's a female private investigator who's exposed a scandal involving a local politician, not a national one. I've not fully got the idea of the scandal yet.

The politician isn't a real one so no libel issues even with the "All persons fictitious" disclaimer.

I can't quite decide on when's a good period. The 1980s and 1990s were what I limited myself to.

This is nowhere near publishable, it's a Word document now and undergone a lot of rewrites.

My big problem is how to ensure it's not too implausible for historical fiction. This is a realistic setting, so nothing fantasy or supernatural apart from a dream sequence the protagonist has of God hitting her with lightning and a nightmare about politicians turning into foxes hunting her.

I would like some help on this.

  • What do you mean by 'fudging things with history'? You need to paint a convincing picture of what you believe it felt like to be living at that time. Oct 17, 2023 at 8:46

2 Answers 2


Just avoid the obvious. People don't have cell phones; fashions were more modest by some measures, misogyny against your hero was more prevalent and open, as was racism.

Get the music right, what people are listening too, and get the popular references right, the politics, the music, the movies, the celebrities.

In every generation the youth rebels against the establishment, get that right.

Get the drug culture right, get the sexual culture right. Get the job types for men and women right; your female private investigator is quite unusual for the time, remember The Rockford Files just went off the air in 1980. But they did have one episode with a female detective, as I recall. (looked it up, "The Real Easy Red Dog", her character was "Christine Dusseau", Oct 31, 1975).

So your protagonist is not too unusual for the 80's.

I'd strongly suggest you acquire or find a way to watch some of the best rated detective series from the late 1970's to late 1980's, to get a feel for what is portrayed as acceptable evidence, the use of technology, and the cultural references, slang and treatment of women in the period (cultural dynamics in general). The small midwestern towns were all watching the same big three broadcast channels, ABC, NBC, CBS, as the East and West Coast.

It gives you a way to vicariously live the life. Absorb, and then write your own story.


What is the aim of your story?

A story set in the 1980s or 90s isn't necessarily historical fiction. Given that a large part of your audience has been alive at that time, your setting could be considered contemporary.

If you aim to portray that specific historic period of time and how it is different from today, then you are writing historical fiction and then you need to properly do your research.

If, on the other hand, you write a political thriller or family drama that you just set in that time period for aesthetic reasons, then you are not writing historical fiction but a thriller or whatever and you can fictionalize it all as much as you want.

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