60 historical fiction writing prompts

by The History Quill

We’re delighted to share this list of 60 historical fiction writing prompts to inspire your creative writing. We’ve put them on a historical timeline, starting in 399 BCE and ending in 1969. They cover a range of periods, places, and situations. Feel free to adapt them in any way you like. Enjoy!

399 BC

You are one of the jurors at the trial of Socrates, who is accused of corruption and impiety. After the verdict, argument ensues about an appropriate punishment. You are arguing against the death penalty, but those around you seem determined to impose it. What happens next?

43

It is cold and raining when you land on the south coast of Britain for the first time. You left Rome months before and have been travelling ever since. On the cliff, you see a crowd gather. You’ve been warned about the Britons, but this is your first sight of them. What happens next?

61

You are among the forces gathered by Boudica, queen of the Iceni, to rebel against Roman rule. As you march towards Londinium, what are you feeling? Who are you with? What do you hope or fear will happen? Why are you there?

333

In Constantinople, the emperor Constantine decrees that Christians must cut all ties with their Jewish heritage or face execution. What does this mean for you and your family? How do you react to this new law? What do you choose to do?

992

You are walking out on the clifftop, and you see a fleet of Viking ships on the horizon. As you watch, you realise they are heading towards the coast. What happens next?

1040

You are a member of Macbeth’s household. When King Duncan is killed, you realise that everything is changing around you. What do you do? Do you stay loyal to Macbeth, or do you leave and join those who oppose him?

1141

You are with Matilda, trapped in Oxford Castle by her cousin Stephen’s forces during a bitter winter. Plans are made for Matilda to escape, and you are to go with her. How do you feel about that? What happens next? How does the escape take place?

1190

You are with the sultan Saladin’s forces in Jerusalem, and the armies of the Third Crusade are attempting to capture the city. As the fighting intensifies, what do you do? Where do you go? How do you defend the city against the European attack?

1215

You are one of the rebel barons who meet King John at Runnymede. What do you hope to achieve? Do you and the other barons all agree? What happens when you meet the king? What are you prepared to do to achieve your aims?

1250

Your son is leaving to join a crusade to Jerusalem. What do you feel about his decision to go? What are you feeling as he prepares to leave? Are you telling him how you feel, or is there someone else you’re sharing this with? What are you expecting will happen?

1349

Someone in your village dies from a sickness that people are saying is a plague that is spreading like wildfire across Europe. What do you do? Why do you think it has come to your village? What happens next?

1398

You are in Delhi when Tamerlane and his invading army arrives, determined to conquer the city. What can you see, hear and smell? How are you feeling? How do you fight back against the invasion?

1415

You are on the battlefield at Agincourt, in northern France, in the midst of some of the most horrific fighting you have ever experienced. What can you see and hear around you? Are you fighting for the French or the English? What happens next?

1462

On the west coast of Africa, hundreds of captive men, women and children are loaded onto ships bound for Spain and, later, the West Indies, to be sold as slaves. What does this look like? How do you feel? What do you do?

1499

You are on board Vasco da Gama’s fleet as it returns to Lisbon from its voyage to find a sea route to India. How do you feel coming home after so many years at sea? Are you hoping that someone in particular will be waiting for you? What happens when you land?

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Maps, language tools, and specialist blogs

1504

You are in the square outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, watching the unveiling of Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. What is your first reaction to seeing the huge figure? What are the people around you saying? Who are you with?

1517

You are in the Yucatán when Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrives, the first European to set foot there. What do you feel? What is the reaction of those around you? What happens next?

1533

You are a member of the court of Henry VIII in London and you hear of the passing of the new Buggery Act, making male homosexual acts punishable by death. Who do you tell first? What effect will this have on your own behaviour? How do you feel about this change?

1543

Portuguese traders are bringing goods from Europe to Japan, and they introduce firearms to the country. What does it feel like to see a gun for the first time? What do you do with it? Who do you share this new technology with, or do you decide to keep it to yourself?

1545

You are on board the Mary Rose. It is your first voyage as a soldier for the king, and you are working alongside the gunners. As battle begins, what happens to you and to the ship? What can you see, hear and smell?  How do you and others react?

1566

The Netherlands is rising up against Spanish rule, and the Catholic monasteries and churches are becoming targets. A crowd bursts into the church, pulling down statues of saints and defacing paintings. What do you do?

1596

You are a student attending the first public dissection of a cadaver in the new anatomy theatre at the University of Leiden. Why are you there? What are you hoping to see and to learn? What do you feel when it starts? Who are you there with?

1612

Twelve people from your village, near Pendle Hill, are facing trial on charges of witchcraft, and you are going to testify against them to the court.  What would you like to happen to them? Are you afraid – or angry? Do you believe they really are witches?

1627

You are on board Captain Henry Powell’s ship as it lands in Barbados, bringing the first English settlers and enslaved Irish workers to the island. What do you see when you get there? Who are you with? What are your hopes or fears? What happens next?

1643

You are a friend of Kandahari Begum, the first wife of Shah Jahan and mother of his first child. You see the newly completed Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s monument to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. How do you react? What do you do?

1660

You are at the theatre in London, and Peg Hughes comes onto the stage. You have never seen a woman acting in a play before, the female roles previously having been played by young men. How does the audience react? How do you feel about this new development?

1666

You’re living in London, near to St Paul’s Cathedral, when the Great Fire begins to take hold. As the sky fills with smoke and the streets fill with people fleeing the flames, what do you do? What do you take with you? Where do you go? What do the streets look and smell like?

1773

You are in Boston Harbour and board a newly arrived ship. You and a group of like-minded friends begin throwing chests of tea from a shipment by the East India Company overboard into the sea. Why are you doing this? What happens next?

1778

You are at a party, and a man called Franz Mesmer demonstrates something he calls ‘mesmerism’. What happens? How does the person behave? Do you volunteer to let him ‘mesmerise’ you? How does it make you feel?

1783

You were in the crowd in Paris, watching the flight of the new invention of the Montgolfier brothers, the globe aérostatique – or hot air balloon. Now, a few short months later, you are making your own first trip in a balloon. What happens next?

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Advice on how to balance accuracy with creative license

Useful research tips to help you avoid historical howlers

1788

You are on board one of the eleven ships in Captain Arthur Phillip’s fleet arriving in Sydney, ready to establish the first penal colony there. What is it like to go ashore after so long at sea? What can you see? How do you feel? What happens next?

1789

You’re in Paris and part of the crowd gathered around the infamous Bastille prison shouting to be let in. What brought you to this point? Who are you with? When you see the white flag raised above the walls, what do you do next?

1792

You are one of the hundreds of formerly enslaved people who had fought for the British in the American War arriving in Sierra Leone after a long and arduous sea voyage from Nova Scotia. What can you see? Who are you there with? What do you do next?

1798

You are an Irish rebel, fighting for your life against loyalist forces at Vinegar Hill. What can you see around you? How are you feeling? What happens next? What are you prepared to do for your cause and your country?

1804

Haiti is fighting to gain its independence from French colonisation. You are determined to fight alongside your fellow Haitians and to free yourself from foreign rule. What happens next?

1812

You are a French soldier in Napoleon’s army marching across Russia. The weather is ferociously cold, the snow is deep, and you are a long way from home. Who are you with? How are you feeling? What will you do to survive?

1816

Four hundred enslaved people, led by Bussa, are rising up to fight on Bailey’s plantation in Barbados. The call comes to join the rebellion. What do you do? How do you feel as the fighting begins? What do you hope will come of this?

1837

You are working in the household of the Duchess of York when the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham arrive to inform the young Victoria that she is now queen, following the death of William IV. What happens next? What are you asked to do?

1847

You are a student at Harvard when the college admits Beverly Garnett Williams, the first Black student in its history. What conversations do you hear or take part in around campus? How do you feel when he walks into your classroom? How do the white professors and students react?

1851

You are a Quaker, living in Maryland. One night, a woman and her child knock on your door, begging for your help as they flee their slave-holding state on the ‘underground railroad’. What do you do? How do you react? What are the implications for you and your family?

1861

You are a new soldier, facing your first battle at Bull Run in Virginia. Why are you there? What made you become a soldier? What are you fighting for? Who are you with? What can you see, hear and smell? What happens as the battle gets underway?

1865

You’re at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, watching a performance of An American Cousin, and you’re excited to see that President Abraham Lincoln is seated with his wife in one of the boxes. A shot rings out. What happens next?

1905

You are a sailor aboard the Battleship Potemkin. News reaches you of the uprisings in St Petersburg and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’. What will you do next? What are your fellow sailors talking about and planning? Does everyone agree, or are there arguments?

1913

You are spending a day at the races, watching the Epsom Derby, when a woman with a banner in suffrage colours is trampled by the king’s horse. What happens around you? What are other people saying? How do you feel? What do you do next?

1916

You are a nurse at a medical station behind the lines in northern France when casualties start arriving from the fighting along the Somme River. What is it like as the number of injured rises and rises? What do you do? How do you feel? What does the station look and smell like?

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1923

You are in Yokohama when the tremendous Great Kantō Earthquake shakes the city, followed by rapidly spreading fires. What can you see, hear and smell? Who are you with? Where can you go? What do you do next?

1923

You are one of the twenty appointed witnesses to the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen. What can you see? How are you feeling? Are you concerned about the talk of a curse? What are you expecting once the tomb is opened?

1930

Marchers arrive in your village, led by Mahatma Gandhi, on their way to the coast. What do you hear and see that makes you join the march? What conversations are going on around you? Is anyone else coming with you? What happens next?

1938

You are living in Berlin above the shop you own. You are woken in the night by the sound of shouting and shattering glass. What do you do? What happens next? How do you try to stop the destruction of everything you’ve worked for? How can you protect your family?

1940

You have just arrived in Glasgow, ready to start your army training at the Maryhill Barracks. You’re 18, and it’s the first time you’ve been away from the farm where you grew up. Who do you meet when you get there? What happens next?

1947

Midnight, and the border between India and West Pakistan comes into force. Which side of the line are you on? Is it the ‘right’ side for you? Where is your family? What do you do next? What can you see and hear? Where will you go?

1949

You arrive at a refugee camp, having fled your village in Palestine during the ‘Nakba’. What can you see and hear around you? What did you have to leave behind? Who are you with? What are your hopes for the future? What happens next?

1950

You are a soldier in the South Korean army. Forces from the North are crossing the border, and the promised American forces are yet to arrive. What happens next? Have you had to fight before? What do you do? What do you see and hear as the fighting starts?

1955

You are taking the bus home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, when a Black woman refuses to give up her seat for a white man. What happens? How does he react? How do the other passengers react? How do you feel? What do you do next?

1960

You are in the crowd gathered outside the Sharpeville police station to protest the apartheid pass laws. You can hear the police threatening to break up the protest, telling the people there to go home. What do you feel when the shots start? What happens next?

1961

You are working on the Soviet space programme and are waiting for Yuri Gagarin to return to Earth from the first manned space flight. What are you and your colleagues feeling? What are you talking about while you wait? How certain are you that the landing will go as planned?

1961

You wake up to learn that your city, Berlin, has been divided, with streets torn up and barbed-wire barricades manned by the military. What do you do? What can you see? Who do you look for? How are you feeling about this new reality in your city? What happens next?

1968

You are living in Biafra when the federal Nigerian government imposes a blockade on the ports. Food is running low, and there are reports of starvation from nearby towns. What happens next? What do you do?

1969

You are sitting at the bar of the Stonewall Inn, having a drink with a friend. Suddenly, there is shouting and screaming, and you realise that there are police officers pushing through the doors. What happens next? What do you do? Who is there with you?

1969

You are a young, unmarried man living in rural America and receive your call-up papers for the Vietnam War in the first round of the draft lottery. What do you do? What does your family want you to do? What happens next?

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