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.