Author Describes Techniques for Crafting Historical Fiction

April 07, 2011

Once author Ron Hansen visited a museum and gleaned details about clothing and boot sizes he was later able to weave into a novel based on the life and death of outlaw Jesse James. To research a story about a real crime set in Manhattan in the 1920s, he purchased on eBay the 1925 Sears Roebuck catalog, realizing the source would allow him to describe correctly the appliances that would have been found in homes of that era. And he regularly consults specialized dictionaries to ensure that the dialogue he crafts for his characters accurately reflects the speech patterns of the time.

Author Describes Techniques for Crafting Historical Fiction And those are just some of the duties of a writer who specializes in historical fiction, Hansen told an audience of students, faculty, and community members Thursday evening at University Campus. “You probably didn’t think all this goes into writing a novel,” Hansen said. But he feels a duty both to the readers, to reflect the time and place of his novels accurately, and to the memories of the people he chooses to become characters in his works, he said. “I think that when I meet them again in the other world, they’ll be happy with me.”

Hansen wrote about outlaws from the Old West in his novels Desperadoes, and in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The novel about James was later made into a popular film starring Brad Pitt. His forthcoming novel about a 1920s murder is called A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion.

The author also teaches writing at Santa Clara University, a Catholic institution in northern California. Hansen is an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and has written fiction about the lives of Catholic clergy, as well.

Hansen shared from an extensive list of tips for those who want to try writing historical fiction, and then read passages from his own works as examples before answering questions from an admiring audience.

Saint Leo’s Daniel A. Cannon Memorial Library sponsored Hansen’s presentation for the university community and the public. The presentation was also recorded for later viewing. For more information, contact Carol Moon, outreach librarian, at or at (352) 588-8261.