5 Tips for Writing About Dark Times in History


“The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them a light has shined.”

Isaiah 9:2

  I’m now working on writing my third book set in first-century Rome when the early church was severely persecuted under Emperor Nero. There’s no doubt this was a very dark period in history. This was when the Christians were killed in some of the most horrific methods imaginable for entertainment

   And I’ve written dozens of blog posts and shorter pieces about the early church, World War II, the transatlantic slave trade, and other dark times in history. 

   So why do I write about these dark periods in history? It’s not because I think things like persecution, the Holocaust, and slavery are good, because I certainly don’t. It’s not just because I like the drama these settings create for stories (although I confess I do). 

   There is a much more important reason. I have noticed that it is in the darkest times that the light shines the brightest. Maybe that sounds cliché, but it’s true. It is in times of danger, suffering, and risk, that hope, courage, and sacrificial love gleam the most brilliantly. I don’t write about dark times in history merely for the sake of writing about darkness. I write to point my readers to the light.

   Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life,” (John 8:12). He is the light that has shined upon us who once dwelt in darkness. Ephesians says, “Walk as children of light,” (5:8) and “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them,” (5:11). So when we write about dark periods in history and darkness in general, our goal should be to expose it, to show that it is bad, contrast it with the light, and share the infinite treasure of hope we have as followers of Christ, no matter what trials befall us or how dark the world around us. 

   Here are five tips I have learned through my writing journey, and I hope they’ll be beneficial to you as well!  

1. Don’t sugarcoat evil and suffering. Suffering and evil are real, and we shouldn’t deny that or try to make things sound as though they really weren’t so bad when they truly were. The Bible contains plenty of examples of writing about evil and suffering. 

2. That being said, this doesn’t mean you need to share every detail. I mentioned that the Bible contains plenty of examples of darkness. It includes graphic details at times, too. However, I’m sure there are a lot of details it doesn’t mention. And a big difference I see between the way the Bible records events opposed to how many novels do, is that the Bible usually just states the facts. Novels give you the characters’ emotions and use your senses to try to transport you into the scene. This can be a good thing. I enjoy good, vivid descriptions. But when we’re writing about sin and evil, we must be careful. An article I read recently made a good point: we must be careful that the way we expose a sin does not become a sin in itself. Of course, people will have varying levels of what they’re comfortable reading about, and how much description you give will vary depending on your target audience. When I first planned my first-century Rome trilogy, I intended to write it for older teens and adults. But then I realized I wanted it to be a book parents could read aloud to their children. So I cut back on the detail a bit. It’s still violent at times, but I my goal was to write in a way appropriate for children. 

3. Focus on the good guys. The Bible is our example again here. Yes, write about the villains in history. But make your focus be on the good guys. No, not perfect people, but those who were seeking to do right and honor God, whether they be real people from the past or characters you create for your historical fiction. And those who have dramatic redemption stories, too, like Paul, the zealous persecutor of the church who was transformed into one of the boldest, most faithful Christians this world has seen. Or John Newton, the hardened slave trader turned pastor, abolitionist, and hymn writer. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever write anything from the perspective of a bad guy. The Bible does include examples of telling what the villains are thinking. But focus on the heroes. 

4. Research, but don’t immerse yourself too much. Do read extensively about your time period. But don’t read exclusively about it. Read about other times in history. Throw in some good nonfiction on Christian living. Maybe read a little poetry, too. Or try an allegory. Don’t become too obsessed with one time period. It’s easy (at least for me) to let a passion turn into an obsession. So do read lots about the time period you’re writing about. But read other things, too. 

5. And most importantly, always, always, always communicate hope. I saved the best one for last. Please, please end your stories, whether they be an entirely true narrative or historical fiction, with hope. I don’t mean you should only write ones that have a fairy tale ending. I actually like reading about martyrs. But even when you end with a tragedy, give hope. For us as Christians, death is simply the doorway to Heaven. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said shortly before he was executed at the age of thirty-nine, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” Or to quote the Apostle Paul, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” (Philippians 1:21). Communicate that to your readers. And show the good that comes out of tragedies. Even something as terrible as the unjust execution of a faithful follower of Christ can lead to great good. Often the death of one Christian will lead many to Christ. As an early church father said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Then there are other cases, such as the soldier who is slain in battle and the side he fought for still loses the war, or the child who dies from disease, where we cannot see any good that came out of that. But we can still trust God that He has a purpose we cannot see. We know that He is sovereign, wise, and loving, and we live by faith, not by sight. That’s the hope we want to give our readers. 

   So go, write about times of persecution and poverty, suffering and slavery, warfare and want, disease and danger, enemies and evil. But don’t make that your focus. Zoom in on courage and character, hope and heroism, faith and friendship, love and light, peace and patience, joy and justice, grace and goodness, redemption and reconciliation, family and forgiveness, bravery and beauty, perseverance and purity, trust and truth.

   And always remember, “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it,” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

All for Him, 

Savannah Jane

P. S. Art by yours truly.


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