Five Ways Famous Quotes Can Supercharge Your Historical Novel

Sandra Saidak is a high school English teacher by day, author by night. Her hobbies include reading, dancing, attending science fiction conventions, researching prehistory, and maintaining an active fantasy life (but she warns that this last one could lead to dangerous habits such as writing). Sandra lives in San Jose with her husband Tom, daughters Heather and Melissa, and two cats. Writers she counts as her greatest influences include Jean Auel, Spider Robinson, Zena Henderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Ursula Le Guin. Sandra loves to hear from her readers, so feel free to post a comment on her Author's Page, or her website at

All writers want their characters to come alive for the reader.  But historical novelists have one advantage over the rest: real people who can be turned into characters.  Whether protagonists, secondary characters, or just walk-ons, historical figures afford readers a special connection with your book. Here are five reasons why you should let these characters speak for themselves:

1. It’s Easy!

Thanks to the internet, your characters’ actual words (or, at least words we think they said) are literally at your fingertips.  Google a famous person’s name, and chances are “quotes” will follow it before you finish typing.  Once you read them, and decide what works for your story, you will have small bits of the novel already written.  These characters’ words were spoken in a particular time and place, and to a specific audience. You now get to decide whether to use those quotes in their original context, or to repurpose them into a new context.

2. Quotations help you get to know your characters better

Reading quotations is a fast way to learn about this person: What did they believe?  What were they passionate about?  How did they relate to others?  Were they modest?  Arrogant?  Funny?  The kind of person others would follow?  Do you want to follow them after hearing what they had to say?   Once you know the answers to these questions, you will know how your real-life characters will fit into your story.

3. When you get stuck, your characters can literally talk you out of your writers block

Reading things people have actually said can take your writing in that new direction you were looking for.  Lesser known quotes are especially useful for this.  The reader may not recognize them as quotes, but they make your historical figure feel real.  In my current project, Butterflies of Gettysburg, Sitting Bull is an important character.  While writing a heated argument between Sitting Bull and my fictional protagonist, I discovered I lacked the confidence to put my words into Sitting Bull’s mouth.  So I chose some truly outstanding things he said, and let him speak for himself.

4. Dialogue sounds much more real…when it actually is

When you insert famous quotations into a character’s speech, you take dialogue to a whole new level.  This technique also makes the words you have to make up easier to find, and flow more naturally.  While working with Thomas Edison in Butterflies of Gettysburg, I discovered I could construct good, believable dialogue by having his speaking parts start with quotes, and letting my imagination take over.  Soon, his words—actual quotes and new ideas I had—were all flowing together.

5. Quotes Help With Character Development

Developing a character from your own imagination is wonderful, despite the hard work.  But when you’re working with someone real, he or she can bring that development to you—with all the complexity of an actual person.  Quotations can tell you what a person was like in different phases of his or her life—and allow you to build the action around what most appeals to you.  This was helpful to me when I was writing “From the Ashes.”  The protagonist is the fictional grandson of Paul Joseph Goebbels—Adolf Hitler’s real-life Minister of Propaganda.  Living inside the head of an actual Nazi was hard enough.  Coming up with phrases and expressions my character would have grown up hearing, in just the right cultural voice seemed impossible.  Until I looked up his grandfather, and let him do the actual talking.  I received a special bonus with this character: writing believable bad guys is challenging.  Their own words can make them believable, three-dimensional and even sympathetic.  But more on that later J

Subscribe to our book recommendations