Writing Historical Fiction


Tales of Time Past

Writing historical fiction gives writers a fantastically rich background against which to write. But the old verities of fiction - character, story and prose - remain as important as ever.

Here a few practitioners offer their words of wisdom on how to write historical fiction which will feel brilliantly alive - and wonderfully saleable.

Emma Darwin

Author of acclaimed literary historical novel The Mathematics of Love

It goes without saying that you’ve researched your historical facts, and that includes manners and morals as well as stage-coaches and corsetry: how people behave in matters of sex or smoking must be as accurate and convincing as how they cook or bet or fight. You’ve kept a sharp eye out for things you didn’t know you had to check: don’t make your medieval peasants eat potatoes or your Regency heroine tell her fiancé to ‘step on the gas’, and don’t forget that everyone always wears a hat outdoors. You’ve read writing of the period and found a voice for your novel that’s neither incomprehensible, nor twee pastiche, nor crashingly modern.

And then you must leave it all behind, because you’re not writing history, you’re writing fiction, and fiction is all about what you can make the reader believe you know: not what you’ve learnt in a library, but what you know as naturally as you know your own house. The worst writing you’ll ever do is what you write when you’ve got a history book in the other hand. The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it, their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse.

And all of that must happen without  you once letting the reins drop. Your readers want to live and breathe history but they won’t keep reading if the narrative grinds to a halt on a hill of historical detail. So find it all out, get it right, and then, in a sense, forget what you’ve found and write. You’re telling stories, not histories.


Susan Opie

Senior editor at HarperCollins & publisher of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl among many other works of historical fiction

Before you embark upon your historical novel, ask yourself: who are you writing for? Not only must you have a clear idea of your potential readership (male, female, crossover, and how literary), but also you should bear in mind the state of the market in this area as well. The publishing industry changes, and it has certainly done so in this field within recent memory.

The market demands good fiction, and there’s some very good advice about that from Harry & Emma elsewhere on this page, but in this instance it also looks for a strong sense of authenticity. That’s as applicable to the commercial historical novels as it is to the more literary kind. Remember, readers want to come away from the novel feeling that they have been entertained and that they’ve learnt something as well. They might then go away and discuss the book in reading groups, so it’ll have to stand up to such scrutiny (and the scrutiny of literary agents, of course!)

The biggest successes in the area have tended to evoke a period we think we know something about, and have then gone on to shine a new light on it, bringing it to life in a fresh way. It might be told through the eyes of a character not directly in the line of historical action, allowing the narrator much more freedom to move and to comment. Generally, readers are drawn in by familiar elements (if not the period then a famous character or setting), but not so familiar that they’ve heard it all before. Keep an eye on what’s come out over the past year or two and also on what’s about to come out; if a particular character/setting/period has featured several times already, why would a literary agent or publisher take on another book of the same kind?

If you receive an offer of publication, the harsh reality of the industry will mean that your publisher will ask you to produce books in fairly quick succession. That can be hard in this genre; research takes time, and the novels themselves tend not to be short. So you’d better love the period you’ve picked, as it’s much easier to write  regularly in a period you know well rather than try to change eras with every new book. But if all that hasn’t putyou off - good luck!

 
 
 

 Harry Bingham

Founder of The Writers' Workshop & author of three historical novels

 

First and foremost, authors of historical fiction need to write good fiction. That means a strong plot, driven by strong characters and supported by a strong prose style.

But the historical genre does make a difference to the writer all the same. In my experience (and I've written 2 contemporary novels as well as 3 historical ones), settings drawn from history give a fabulously rich background for the novels. Make sure you relish the opportunities you get to use an evocative vocabulary. Pay particular attention to your nouns. Don't tell us that your character ate a 'simple dinner'. Tell us that he ate a 'thin turnip soup' or 'rye bread with the first rust-coloured tints of mould'. Get specific and reach for details that illuminate the period.

In dialogue, it's best not to go all 'methinks, gadzooks' on the reader. That just looks daft & stilted, and will have any literary agent discarding your manuscript after a page or two. It's best to keep dialogue basically modern, but with the occasional dip into the vocabulary or grammatical structures of the past. Use of the occasional, now obsolete, slang or idiom can also really help.

One other point, for commercial novelists especially, is that you do need to be careful about the attitudes of your characters. A bloke born in the nineteenth century would almost certainly have been a racist, misogynist, homophobic bigot by our own 21st century standards. In maintaining the empathy of contemporary readers, you will need to finesse these issues. On the whole, unless you are portraying villains, you should have old-fashioned attitudes tempered by more liberal concerns, even if these never quite end up winning.

Finally, enjoy writing. It ought to be a pure joy. It certainly has been for me.