All of my published works are tied in, somehow, to the history of the ancient world. Two of them are directly set in the First Century Roman Empire, and the other two (about to be three) involve archeologists discovering relics from that time period. I am also a historian by trade (Master's Degree from East Texas State University in European History) and a history teacher by profession. So being both a producer and a consumer of historical fiction, I've become rather picky over the years about some of the flaws I see in that genre. That being said, I also recognize my own works aren't free of such mistakes! But I have tried to improve as I have gone along, and I am a big believer in sharing lessons learned. So here are some pitfalls you might want to avoid and habits you might want to cultivate in the field of historical fiction:
ONE: This is the single most important point - know your history! Know the time period you are writing about. Read some of the primary sources, but be aware of what modern scholarship says about them also. Study historical maps and artworks. If major historical figures show up in your work, take the time to read a biography of them - more than one, if you can. Know the political structure of the time, and portray it accurately. (I am still smarting that I had Pontius Pilate elected Urban Praetor at age twenty-six when he should have been running for Aedile at that young age!) Immerse yourself in the world you want to write about - I read multiple histories of ancient Rome as well as some of the better historical novels set in that period before I ever began writing my first book.
SECOND: Change your mindset! People in the ancient world did not think like people in the 21st century. They operated by a different values system, one that often did not place the same value on human life and dignity that we do. A medieval character would not likely be appalled by brutal capital punishments; in fact, he might well take his children to watch the next hanging. A Roman of the First Century AD is unlikely to be opposed to the concept of slavery, because it was a part of the very fabric of every culture of the ancient world. The slave might resent losing his freedom, but he was not likely to question the morality of the institution itself. Their attitudes towards gender were also very different from ours. As tempting as it might be to create a "liberated woman" in the 1100's, the fact is, unless her name is Eleanor of Aquitaine, she probably won't ring true! Many talented writers of historical fiction still manage to produce characters with modern mindsets in otherwise correct historical settings, and it always rings false when they do.
THREE: Avoid anachronisms! Make sure the technologies and instruments your characters use are appropriate to their time. For example, in THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, my second novel, one of Pilate's prized possessions is a Greek telescope. I wanted to use it in the plot of the story, but at the same time, I wasn't sure such instruments existed in Pilate's lifetime. A simple Google search showed me that a brass telescope was found in a Greek ruin dating to the first century BC, so such instruments would have been known (but rare) in the time period I was writing about. Google is your friend, use it to find information, but also be sure to check the source the information comes from and make sure it is dependable.
FOUR: Watch your dialogue! I was reading a work set in the New Testament era in 2012 and the author had the Apostle Paul, speaking to one of his companions, say "OK!" Now, I realize that Paul and his companions likely spoke Greek to one another, and that rendering their conversation in English is going to make use of words that did not exist in Paul's time. But seeing that bit of American slang in the middle of a conversation taking place in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago just took me right out of the story and slapped me in the face! Make your dialogue fit the time period you are writing about; you don't have to write in Elizabethan English, but at the same time, don't use ghetto-speak between two characters living in Elizabeth's time. One other note here: If you decide to render something in an ancient language, Google Translate is a good initial source, but you really ought to get it checked by someone who is proficient in that language before publication. In THE TESTIMONIUM, I wanted to render the first three paragraphs of the ancient Pontius Pilate scroll in Latin, so I simply typed it out in English and then translated it using Google. For 95% of my readers, that looked pretty impressive, but the handful that could actually read Latin caught a couple of real groaners in there, and did not hesitate to let me know about it!
FIVE: Artistic license is one thing, but wholesale fibbing is another! Dan Brown's monstrous stretching of the truth regarding the origins of the New Testament is a prime example of this offense. Wherever your story touches real history, try to render that history as accurately as possible. A little bending of events is fine, but unless you want to label your work as "alternative history" - a cool genre in and of itself! - stick to the script of the events as they really happened. If your story requires you to diverge from real events too widely, then include an explanation within your story itself.
SIX: Have fun! In the end, not many of us will make a living from our literary efforts (not that I have given up trying!). So don't waste time and patience and pages trying to please your critics. Write a fun historical novel or short story that you will enjoy, and chances are your readers will enjoy it too. People can tell when someone takes pleasure in their work, and your joy will be contagious. Now, sit down, open up that hole in the keyboard, and fall through to another time and place, where your story can begin . . .
AND - if you'd like to check out some of my own historical fiction, here's my Amazon link. All purchases are greatly appreciated!