Here are some of my favourite tips for writing historical fiction. It is from an older but very popular post, reviewed in the light of my more recent publishing experience with ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. Happy writing in 2014!
- Know thy self
How you approach writing historical fiction might depend a lot on your personality. Have you ever thought about whether you are a ‘big’ or ‘small picture’ person?
A ‘big picture’ individual will often prefer broad sweeps of history and miss some of the finer but important aspects of a story. ‘Small picture’ individuals might swamp themselves with so many facts, like formulating a mosaic, that they cannot start let alone finish a novel of such breadth. Be selective in what detailed descriptions the story really needs for it to flourish. Find a good balance and pace yourself so that you can indeed finish your manuscript in a timely fashion.
My ‘big picture’ nature led me to struggle with containment.
- ‘Less is more’ in historical fiction
In popular historical fiction, readers generally prefer historical content which doesn’t weigh down the narrative. If you want to sell books, remember this well.
Finding a happy medium here is the challenge. Personally, I prefer a novel with a strong historical foundation. It’s the history I want to learn about so some novels in this genre are often too light weight for me. What is clear to me is that historical fiction is a spectrum with varying levels of density bringing pleasure or pain to readers.
The size of the book seems to be a factor today as well. Some readers, and therefore publishers, prefer a shorter, less complex novel – a concise story which is carried along by exciting events and clever banter. And of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it may not suit your topic or personal style. My next book will definitely be shorter owing to some quite practical concerns – editing and proof reading takes longer, and publishing and postage costs increase with size.
You will simply not be able to please everyone but a good rule of thumb is that every sentence and every aspect of the content should add value to the story. However, it is worth considering especially in this information age that concentration spans seem to be diminishing as a result. Elegant simplicity is the key.
The phrase, ’kill your darlings’, means exactly what it says! And a properly edited book will be a mere skeletal shadow of its draft form. Self-publishers may run into difficulty here but your novel will benefit from the often expensive skills of a professional editor. Sadly, your good-hearted friends and family will have neither the skills nor the ‘slash and burn’ mentality required for the job.
- Decide what type of historical fiction you are going to write at the beginning and identify your audience
Historical fiction generally relates to stories set more than fifty years ago. There are also over 30 different time periods across 20 centuries and some may go even further back in time. Is it an adventure, a fantasy, an epic, a romance or mystery/crime thriller? Does it have a military or nautical flavour? Know your audience or niche beforehand and your novel will grow from a strong foundation.
I wrote my novel, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, because of my complete and, dare I say it, obsessive fascination with the Bruce family and their extraordinary story. It was only afterwards I was surprised to see that there were a number of historical fiction stories already written about sisters. Had I known earlier, it certainly wouldn’t have changed my path, but it was an object lesson in doing more research beforehand on the market.
Look also at the broad historical context of your story and any contemporary elements. The Battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland vanquished a much larger and better equipped English army, is critical to my story and I look forward to visiting Scotland for the 700 year Anniversary of the battle which will take place in June of this year. My audience is anyone of Scottish heritage around the world as well as those who enjoy a good dollop of medieval history.
- Find a period in time with which you have a heart connection
Mine is medieval Scotland but this has grown to include much of northern Europe for many of these countries were linked economically as well as politically. Weaving a story across such a broad landscape requires close attention to detail across multiple settings and sound research skills. I often feel like a vigilant, bright-eyed creature nosing the midden heaps of the past for tasty morsels, some long-forgotten bit of information which will add a unique twist to my story.
By all means write about your roots. Nothing is more inspiring than walking in the footsteps of your ancestors
- Learn to write well
Sounds obvious doesn’t it but, if you can, do a creative writing course or series of smaller courses and your story will flourish. Marry up your best creative efforts with fascinating characters who have their own story to tell. Use well-constructed sentences with robust nouns and powerful verbs, and limit unnecessary adverbs. Vary your sentence lengths. Avoid repetition. Read your work aloud as this sometimes identifies glitches you might otherwise have missed. Learn about the narrative arc – start and finish well.
My creative writing bible, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ by Australian author, Mark Tredinnick.
Learn from other writers in your genre. Hilary Mantel’s works are outstanding for their breath-taking descriptions and exquisite eye for detail. Other authors like Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Edward Rutherfurd write extraordinary historical fiction, weaving authentic texture into a complex tale to bring it to life. It’s no easy task!
- Look for conflicted characters
Flawed individuals with an array of strengths and weaknesses make for great stories. Draw out those flaws and human traits for that is what your reader will identify with in the midst of an unfamiliar setting.
The plot of your story will revolve around your characters. You’ll find an array of roles to foster and the pivotal aspects of protagonist and antagonist require a strong supporting cast. If like me, you love to write multi-generational epics, then you will probably have an abundance of characters. Think about these characters throughout your first draft and remove any that don’t add value early in the piece before you become too attached to them.
- Undertake strong research and develop an effective system for storing data
This is critical to your story for many historical fiction readers wish to be educated as well as entertained. Keep in mind that some of your readers will be keen students of history and may be looking for your story to bring what they know to life. I have put down many a historical fiction novel because the facts have got in the way of a good story. If you must take history into your own hands, make sure you fess up at the end, offering logical reasons why you chose an alternative path.
Try to complete your research before you start writing your novel. I once killed off a character then had to write her back into the story when further research showed she was very much alive and well and later gave birth to several children.
Another challenge for me is what to do with the research I’ve gathered: how to record and store it. I’m rubbish at it! Scribbled notes on napkins and loose paper are nigh on useless if you can’t locate that critical fact with ease. It’s a huge time waster!
- Read the most accurate historical texts on your topic for an overview
Get recommendations on texts from a variety of historians. Their views might differ and present intriguing perspectives. Previously unknown characters may come to light in your search. I like to pick over bibliographies to find new authors. Read social histories for this information will bring your subjects to life. Don’t forget children’s picture books as well: these can provide a visual layer of vital knowledge.
If you can, visit the countries that interest you. Nothing beats wandering around castle ruins at the end of the day. Look at the broad landscape which, most likely, will not have changed too much. That skyline of mountains will be what your characters saw as they looked out of the castle arrow slits. See how the sun shapes the landscape and where the shadows lie. Feel the wind on your face and the ghosts at your back.
- Immerse yourself in the culture through reading
Your 21st century eye will pick out differing values towards women, labourers, livestock, home and hearth, war and death. Reduce contamination from the present by thinking about what might/might not have been invented at the time.
Make no apology for the values of the past for this will surely date your book and bring the reader back into this century. Values evolve for a reason due to the economics and politics of the time. Accept this and move on.
- Get inside the skin of your characters to understand their lives
Understand the roles and manners and language of the time. Steer clear of writing dialogue that is so authentic that it is incomprehensible to your reader. English, plainly spoken and easily read, is best. Sometimes the sense of a different time can be captured in how a sentence is structured. Look for more subtle ways in language and setting to bring out the difference. Including a glossary of terms might be a helpful strategy for your readers.
- Identify the Themes within your Story
Draw out the broad human impulses: jealousy, betrayal, avarice, love, passion, pride, honour, humility and desire for power. These will bring your tale to life and form points of congruence for your reader. Mastery over one’s destiny and survival against all odds are issues that are pivotal to the human condition and the genre of historical fiction can teach us so much by exploring the dips and peaks of past experience. Distinct differences between then and now fascinate and intrigue us, but it is the emotional connection that we seek with our ancestors: from that comes continuity and hope.