Writing Historical Fiction, or “Holy Cow, This is Harder Than it Looks!”
So you’ve decided to write a historical fiction novel. You enjoy writing, and you adore history, so combining your two loves is a natural step. But before you take that leap into the past, there are a few things you might want to think about:
What are you bringing to the table?
As most historical fiction readers know, there is already a LOT of choice out there. Take the Tudors for example. There are thousands of books on Henry the Eighth (famous for his six wives, two of whom he had executed), Anne Bolyne (his most notorious wife), their daughter Elizabeth I, her sister, brother, cousin, their favourite cat, ‘Persil’, etc.*
You should ask yourself: do you want to retell the story, add something new, or both? They’re all fine options, but if you want to attract readers, simply repeating the same story just won’t do it. You need an angle, something new to add to the story, like Hilary Mantel did when she told the Tudor story from the point of view of one of Henry’s key advisors in her novel Wolf Hall. Or else you need a time period that’s not been done to death. Throw in an obscure historial figure, or the the ‘secret’ history of someone you admire, and you’re off to a good start.
*Not a real thing
Pros and cons of writing historical fiction:
- The history & timeline already exist – you only need to add the story
- The further back in history you go, the less records there are – more chance for you to fill in the blanks with your story and get creative
- Most, if not all, research can be done from your living room (see point below on using the internet)
- You’ll become an “expert” in a relatively short period of time
- Research! If you don’t enjoy research, historical fiction isn’t for you
- Even though the history & timeline already exist, you will still need to plan carefully (historical fiction readers are a VERY keen and, oftentimes, very particular group; they’ll call you on incorrect dates and events, fabric colours, types of broom straw, and favourite Tudor cats.)
Probably the most important aspect of writing historical fiction; you can never do too much research but you CAN put too much of it into your story.
You will have to do research. You should be able to discuss your chosen time period with ease when finished. As mentioned, historical fiction readers can be pretty demanding. Your historical details must be accurate. But not all of your research will make it into your story. Remember, this is a novel, not a grade twelve history paper. Throwing in too much historical detail just for the sake of it will turn your reader off. Three pages of detailed description on how a medieval axe is made is fine for a dissertation, but unless the information is relevant to the story, simply referring to an axe will be enough for your readers. You can call it a big axe if you want. A big, shiny axe is fine. But leave it now.
Having said that, details are a lot of the story when used well, and will create your story’s atmosphere. A few words of description of what the king’s goblet looks like, compared to one of his servants, won’t only contribute to the sense of time but also subtly illustrate the difference between two different social classes ie rich people, and people owned by rich people.
Important descriptions you may want to include:
- Objects common to the period
Keep in mind that not only clothing fashions change with the times, so does furniture, architecture, decorations, household items – getting these details correct is imperative and will draw your readers into your story that much more.
One of my favourite quotes, while written by a horror master, applies to historical fictions: “Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.” (Steven King)
The Internet is Your Friend. Except When it Isn’t
While researching your novel, you will come across two scenarios:
- too little information
- too much information
- way way too much information
Too Little Information
The further back in time you go, the less documentation exists (I had two paragraphs in a history book to use when I wrote my Anglo Saxon novel). Records almost always focus on the upper classes and church, and are usually written by males. These time periods, while frustrating to research, DO allow for more license when writing the actual story. Many details of life can be inferred based on the history and events taking place at the time – just don’t take it too far!
Too much information
How do you sort through all of that information? Carefully!
When researching any time period from any country, try to stick to scholarly sources ie sites that include information from primary sources and a bibliography. These let you dig further into your subject if you want to check the original source material (ie original court documents, bills of sale, household accounts, church records etc)
Way Way Too Much Information
Yes, it happens. Good luck and edit HARD!
Make sure your characters act as they should. For example, an 18th century woman will behave differently in most situations to a 21st century woman, and will have different resources to hand. Ensure actions are appropriate to the time period (don’t have Queen Victoria humming Beyoncé). And, as mentioned earlier, ensure your characters are dressed right.
Depending on your time and place, you may decide to write speech as your characters spoke ‘back then’. This is fine, but a word of warning: if not done it can pull your reader right out of the story. Tread cautiously! (My characters spoke Old Norse and Old English/Anglo Saxon but I chose to use modern English with a few Old Norse swear words added at appropriate moments to add flavour and urgency to the relevant scenes).
Remember not to let modern speech creep in. A letter from a Nineteenth Century gentleman to his sweetheard might start ‘My dearest darling’ and not ‘hey babe’. (One expression that particularly bugs me is ‘okay’. American, from the mid 1800s, it should never be used in a medieval historical fiction novel!)
Pick a Date
While your novel may be a sweeping epic that covers many generations of the same family, start with a specific date.
- It makes the research a lot easier (kind of obvious, that one)
- It’s necessary if you’re telling the story of an actual historic figure
- It helps to anchor the story in your reader’s mind
You’ve picked your time period and all of your descriptions of clothing, homes, rooms, and behaviour are accurate but what about your locations? Cities, neighbourhoods, and countries change as much as fashion so make sure your descriptions of locations are just as correct. What sounds are there? Horse and carts? Pigs being herded through a street? Pre- or post-industrial age noises? And what about smells? A modern London street probably smells a lot better than a medieval one (or does it?). I once spent eight hours researching whether or not there was a priory at Ulney in 14th century England. There wasn’t. But I put one in anyway. And I feel guilty about it every day. Not kidding.
One Last Thought
Writing historical fiction can be constricting. After all, the facts are laid out already, what more is there? But remember, while the facts are there, the story isn’t. Yet. That’s your job!
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Copyright K Evans 2022