Writing Wednesday: Writing Historical Fiction

Writing Historical Fiction

This advice was given by author Phil Carradice at the Swansea & District Writers Circle.

Historical fiction remains one of the most popular of all genres. The reading public seems to be infatuated with the past and, as a result, fiction based on or around historical events has survived the ‘assault’ of fantasy, romance, realism and so on and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Over the next four or five years expect a surge of historical books, thanks to the two World War anniversaries – a ready market, if you can write quickly! And if you are knowledgeable about the two periods in question.

However, if you are intending to write historical fiction one thing is imperative – that you have – or develop – a feel for history. To some extent this has to be intuitive because without it your writing will be lacking in atmosphere. And, forget plot and conflict, atmosphere in historical writing is 75% of the product.

If history was taught through stories we would remember more – Rudyard Kipling

  • One of the great advantages of historical fiction is that the plot already exists – or part of it, at least. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Indian mutiny, the Battle of the Somme – they actually happened. You don’t have to invent them (although Hollywood usually tries to reinvent much of the past).
  • To make historical fiction really effective however, it’s not enough just to retell the story of the Crimean War or the Iron Age. That’s factual history. You have to create or invent your story within the framework of the actual event, that’s what makes it fiction. But the broad framework is, at least, already there.
  • Use the three p’s – places, people and problem. Voldemort is the most important person in Harry Potter because he links to the problem.
  • Place. This is one element that writers often fail to fully develop. But a sense of place – good or bad – is essential to the success of historical fiction. Place is the one most writers fail at – try writing about a place you really love or hate.
  • People. Characters are the lifeblood of all fiction. With historical fiction you have a choice – is your main character real? Or is he/she an invention? Both can be effective but I tend to think there is more scope with fictionalised characters.
  • Problem. Sometimes called conflict, this simply means presenting your characters with difficulties that they have to overcome – or not, as the case may be. Don’t have to resolve everything at the end.
  • For historical fiction there are three basic styles or formats – the relationship, the uninvited guest and the quest.
  • The relationship. Two (or more) people come together. The meeting is momentous and thereafter everything changes (e.g. Harold and Duke William meet in Normandy before the Battle of Hastings, John Kennedy encounters Marilyn Munro at a party in Hollywood, Dylan Thomas meets Caitlin in a London pub etc etc).
  • The uninvited guest. A preconceived circle (a country house, a village etc) is broken or entered by an uninvited guest – the problem then ensues. Cowboy books tend to follow this idea – Jaws, ET, several more films also use it.
  • The quest. Exactly what it says, this involves a journey (physical or emotional), a quest or a searching for something – the search for the Holy Grail, the biblical missionary journeys of St Paul etc. Obstacles to overcome, circumvent or go round. e.g. Hornblower. If you can get all three in it will be great.
  • A chronological narrative is always easier to write but there is no rule on this. It depends on your skill as a writer. Throwbacks can be extremely useful but you have to ask why they are there and why they were not used, originally, in their context. A combination of modern and historical writing is a good technique – a character goes back in time – something Ronald Welch did in his novel The Gauntlet.
  • Research is vital. This is fairly obvious but, amazingly, people do sometimes start to write a piece of historical fiction without knowing very much about the period.
  • Secondary sources. Use books, articles etc as a basis. Why reinvent the wheel? Others have undoubtably been there before you and you should give them the respect they deserve. But be careful, you might be on the wrong end of bad research.
  • Primary sources. Visit Records Offices, libraries, the PRO at Kew – really get a handle on the period and the event you are writing about. Hendon – National Newspaper Archives.
  • Think laterally. Historical fiction will give you a feel for your period and there are many good writers out there – CJ Sansom for Henry VIII’s England, Rosemary Sutcliffe for Roman Britain and such. Read as much historical fiction as you can.
  • Remember the most effective historical stories are really only stories about people – who happened to be caught up in historical events. The history is just a framework on which you hang your story.
  • You must write in context. It’s no good having Kit Marlowe pull out a pocket watch. Avoid less obvious anachronisms – if your character is in India during the Mutiny, remember that it took six weeks to get news to and from England.
  • Think about the narrative voice – third person, first person, the God’s eye view etc. In historical fiction the first person is often very useful, it makes the reader identify with characters and feel that they are there.
  • Dialogue is crucial but unless you can do it very well (Russell Hoban in Ridley Walker, Anthony Burgess in A Dead Man in Deptford) don’t try to use accurate dialogue from the period. Keep it simple but use the language of the 21st century. Remember Chaucer’s English is, now, largely unintelligible. Perhaps a mixture?
  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs. They tend to be grossly overused in historical fiction as writers think they are creating atmosphere. Strengthen the verbs and nouns – much more powerful.
  • Take a particular slant – you can do this in historical fiction. So your Richard III can actually be a good character, not the evil monster created by Shakespeare. Remember that history belongs to the victors! But don’t go too far. You can’t have the French winning the battle of Waterloo. Or perhaps you can. After all, Robert Harris did it very effectively when, in Fatherland, he had Germany win the Second World War.
  • If possible, visit the places you want to write about, there is no better way of drinking in the atmosphere. So plan your holidays and take that trip of a lifetime to the Taj Mahal or Raffles in Singapore.
  • Draw your actual characters from real life. So your Josephine or Marie Antoinette can be real live people you know. In my story Writer’s Block, the villain is actually an amalgam of two people I used to work with. As Michael Leggett said, “Characters are formed partly from observation and partly from within the writer.” Just because you are writing historical fiction it doesn’t mean you can’t use modern people.
  • Physical description is quite important in historical fiction particularly when describing real people. Charles I had a stutter and was of slight build – it would be wrong to portray him as a loud, six-foot bully who is renowned for the quality of his speeches.
  • Don’t always put in descriptions let the portrait unfold.
  • Don’t overuse coincidence – easy to do in historical fiction. Remember, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.
  • Flat or supportive characters are important in historical fiction. They help to create the atmosphere and mood of the time.
  • There is a really vibrant market for children’s historical fiction.
  • Read as much historical fiction as you can – there’s lots available.
  • The key is good research. You don’t have to use it all but you do have to gain the knowledge in order to write effectively. For my novel The Boson’s Secret I actually spent 10 days on an old Thames sailing barge, trying to get a feel of what it will be like living and working on a wooden sailing ship in the 19th century.
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Thinking Thursday: One vote – use it wisely.

Originally posted on eating.with.sinners:

7PartyLeadersGeneralElectionAfter the complexity and incoherence of the recent televised debate featuring the heads of the seven major parties competing at May’s general election, I guess many of the Great British voters are doubly confused. British politics is just not what it used to be. Times have changed and we are no longer faced with the simplicity of a two-party system, an “either-or” decision. It’s not even going to be like the current three-party stand-off with the LibDems holding the balance of power. With the significant recent advances of UKIP and the growth of the Green Party, the predicted landslide of the Scottish National Party north of the border and Plaid Cymru hoping to see the same political shift in Wales, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Whatever we feel about the relative merits or problems this will cause, that’s how it is, and no amount of moaning will change it. No…

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Writing Wednesday: How to Run a Book Launch

My book launch for The Magna Carta Story is arranged, so I thought I would pass on my experience. If you are producing a printed book, you can have a book launch. It would be difficult to launch a book without a hard copy, but you might find a way.

How to Run a Book Launch

A book launch has two phases: publicity and performance. It’s no good arranging a book launch if nobody comes, and your event will not be very successful unless the audience are entertained and encouraged to buy.

Publicity

You need to pull in as many favours as possible. Your friends and family may buy your book anyway, because they love you, but if they come to the launch and buy, it makes for a bigger audience and a better buzz on the night.

Book Launch PosterI designed some A5 flyers and a poster and printed them at home. Then I put them up everywhere I could (do ask permission first) and handed them out to people at every opportunity. Make sure there’s a good display of your posters at the venue itself.

If you can think of any groups or organisations that are relevant, let them know too. Because I write history, I am contacting local history groups, local museums, and the local branch of the Historical Association. I have started giving talks, so I will be contacting the groups I have spoken to, and asking them to spread the word to their members.

Then there is the press. My contacts with the press have been more by luck than judgement, but this time I have a properly laid out press release. I have been learning! Local papers, magazines, radio stations, anywhere you can think of.

Performance

What are you going to do at your book launch? You can’t just stand up and say, “Buy my book!” Public speaking is not so difficult, if you remember how excited you are about your book.

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Prepare a script for what you want to say, but try not to read it all. Try to look up and share from your heart.  Talk about why you wrote the book, what inspired you. Introduce some of your characters, even give a summary of the plot – though you might not want to give away the ending. The Magna Carta Story is history, so I can tell the story, but add in little interesting tidbits I have found in my research.

If you can find anyone else to speak – I had my illustrator speak in the past and sell prints of her illustrations – that will add to the programme. Then take questions. Tell them why they should buy the book. Make sure you have refreshments, nothing elaborate, and then leave them to eat, drink and buy!

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Thinking Thursday: Understanding the Trinity

The Trinity is a doctrine that many Christians struggle with. My husband wrote a blog post last year which discussed this in detail, and I thought I would share it with you. You might find the rest of his blog useful too. Click here.

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Writing Wednesday: The Magna Carta Story is out!

Magna Carta CoverDid you know that King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta?
He sealed it.

Did you know that the rebel barons offered the English throne to Prince Louis of France?
If John hadn’t died, the British Isles might be part of France today.

Did you know that Magna Carta was only in force for a few weeks?

So why is the Great Charter considered to be the dawn of democracy?

Find out in The Magna Carta Story, the layman’s guide. It contains all the intrigue, tantrums and civil war, what happened afterwards, and why it’s so important.

Ebook and print book available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Print book also available from Create Space.

So, after all these months of work, it’s finally up online, in ebook and print. I’m so excited!

I have ordered print copies and am planning my book launch in the real world, but I need to launch online too. For that, I need reviews. Of course, I hope people will buy the book and leave reviews. But I’m asking you for help.

I will send a free PDF copy of the book to the first ten people to leave their email address in the comments below, or contact me via the email address on the About Me page.

Please help and leave me an honest review on Amazon.

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Thinking Thursday: Life after Easter

Originally posted on eating.with.sinners:

LifeAfterEaster“With hindsight”… it’s easy to believe in the resurrection. We have been raised on centuries of Christian tradition and all “know” that Jesus was raised from the dead. Whilst questioned by our materialistic world, the Easter story is so much part of our Western cultural tradition that there is little that surprises us. But that certainly wasn’t the case for Jesus’ early followers.

Life with Jesus had been unpredictable at the best of times. But after his resurrection, it went haywire. I mean, how on earth do you “get on with normal life” when the one you have followed for a couple of years, the one you had watched as he hung on a cross and died, then appears alive a few days later – not to mention walking through walls and nicking your supper!

Jesus came back to life, but not to the life he had left. It wasn’t…

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Writing Wednesday: Giving Talks

Speech 2A lot of writers will be horrified at the thought of standing up in front of people and giving a talk. I’ve had some experience, because I used to be a trainer, but it’s still scary – if you do it cold.

Think about your story or your book for a minute. Do you think it’s good? Is it interesting? Is it exciting, or heart-warming, or surprising? The answers should be ‘yes’, because you wouldn’t be promoting your book if you thought it was boring or badly written.

When you are with someone who is interested in your book, can you talk to them about it? I’ll bet you have little anecdotes about how you got the idea, where your characters came from, how you almost gave up but were inspired to finish it. If you can talk like that to one person, why not several? Why not a whole room full? Just remember to speak slower.

I started my first book by making notes from Google searches and visits to the library, researching the story of Alina de Braose in the early 14th century in Gower. There wasn’t any book about her so I had to piece it together like a jigsaw. It didn’t occur to me to make it a book until I had time on my hands after having a stroke.

I wrote it because I was excited about the story. Three years later, I’m still excited. So excited, that I talk without notes for about 45 minutes and then answer questions (I do have notes in case I get stuck, I’m not reckless). I printed some A4-sized pictures about my story and put them in clear plastic pockets in a ring binder. I can show the pictures to illustrate my talk and remind me what comes next.

vlcsnap-2013-09-17-21h59m23s71I am amazed at the groups out there who are looking for speakers, especially if you are free. I don’t charge for the talk, I sell my books at the end at a discount price. Sometimes I sell five, sometimes twenty-five. It all helps, and I have a great time. And so does my audience, because enthusiasm is catching!

I’ve not sought out bookings yet, I get recommended by someone I’ve talked to, so I’ve only done a few. But now I’ve got some experience I plan to actively pursue it. I’m giving one tonight to the Ladies Guild in Killay, and one in June to a church group. Other groups have said they will ask me back.

The only drawback is that you need to have print books to sell, which I do, so I have to make sure I have enough stock without spending too much money. With more and more public places having wifi these days, if you asked the organiser to tell people to bring their ereaders, maybe people would be persuaded to buy your ebook after the talk, it’s worth a try.

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