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Get Started Writing Historical Fiction

starting to write Oct 09, 2022
get started in writing historical fiction by thinking about whether you should be writing historical fiction

Historical fiction is a rich genre filled with inspirational real-life characters and fascinating historical contexts to explore. But when you decide to write it, how do you get started?

This is a wide-ranging genre; historical fiction writers have a world of stories open to them. Many swoon-worthy romantic novels are set in the past, for example. There are even less obvious crossovers for exploration: consider a science fiction story spearheaded by a kooky Victorian doctor, or a high-concept fiction novel where a character is reborn again and again during the Second World War.

Historical fiction is that rare beast in publishing: both a commercial genre, as evidenced by the chart-topping success of historical fiction writers like Jessie Burton and Stacey Halls (both of whom have written great blog posts for us, on endurance and on being edited respectively), and a genre with respected and award-winning prowess – think of celebrated authors such as Hilary Mantel who demonstrated the genre’s popularity and immense literary merit.

Before you dive in, there are a few key questions you should ask yourself. If you have a historical story that you’re bursting to write, ponder these three excellent questions posed by our very own historical fiction writing coach, Kate Riordan

 

Do I really want to write historical fiction?

Before you get started in writing historical fiction, interrogate whether this is really the genre you want to write.

You can break this down into three parts:

  • Why fiction rather than non-fiction?

  • Why not a contemporary setting?

  • How will your story resonate with a modern reader?

Why write historical fiction?

So, to the first, which applies mainly to those writing in significant detail about real events and real people.

Think about why you’re writing fiction. Have you chosen it over non-fiction because you think it’s more likely to net you a publishing deal, or because it seems more creative and somehow proper? This is not enough.

As the late Hilary Mantel said:

Like a historian, I interpret, select, discard, shape, simplify. Unlike a historian, I make up people’s thoughts.
—Hilary Mantel

Fiction, by its very definition, demands that you make up stuff.

If you’re writing about historical events but feel you can’t deviate from the record, even when not doing so detracts from the reader’s experience and spoils a good story, then why not write it as non-fiction?

With all the contradictory confusion and tantalising blanks that real history throws up, creative non-fiction can be a thrill to write. (Caveat: non-fiction should still be a work of judicious editing and emphasis – have you noticed how many bestsellers in this corner of the market are lauded as being ‘as compelling as fiction’?)

Why have you chosen a historical context? 

The second thing to consider is whether the historical setting is adding anything to the story.

Generally, the social attitudes of the past provide terrible conflict in which to mire your characters, and are reason enough. Aspects of the past we find abhorrent now – the dehumanisation of slavery; women with anxiety and depression locked up in asylums; the majority of a country’s citizens not allowed to vote – inspire stories that obviously need to be told, and arguably offer a more powerful lesson than a more remote history book might.

Generally, the social attitudes of the past provide terrible conflict in which to mire your characters.

So, really, this question applies to the much more recent past. There’s something both daunting and dispiriting about modern technology which can cause some writers to scurry back to the halcyon and significantly less connected days of the early nineties. (I have great admiration for modern crime writers trying to pen a perfect murder in a world with bleeding-edge forensics, digital footprints and endless surveillance.)

Just remember that you probably need more than a plotting impasse as your motivation for writing historical fiction.

How will your historical fiction resonate with a modern reader?

Lastly, your story will ideally shine a subtle light on the preoccupations of today.

Witnessing social change in a historical novel can educate and enlighten us, not just about where we’ve come from, but about where we might be going next – using hindsight to look for patterns in human behaviour.

It stands to reason that historical fiction about women not having control over their bodies (from the aforementioned asylums to novels about witch-hunts) will hit particularly hard at a time when reproductive rights are being so radically eroded in the US. 

Witnessing social change in a historical novel can educate and enlighten us, not just about where we’ve come from, but about where we might be going next.

  

Am I comfortable telling a story based on real people from the past?

Following on from the first part of the question above, there are two groups of writers this applies to, and I see both regularly at The Novelry.

There are those writing stories about real-life events that have captured their imaginations, and there are those fictionalising lives from within their own family histories. Either one is a common source of consternation among our writers and, when boiled down, these worries are a blend of wanting to get it right and not wanting to get into trouble.

From a general, legal point of view, you can’t libel the dead. However, most of you will want to set the bar rather higher than this. You want to do a really good job – portraying people who are no longer able to speak for themselves with sensitivity and accuracy; to reach back through time in order to retrieve something as near as dammit to the truth.

 there are lots of rich historical stories to tell

Aspiring authors of historical fiction must explore their motives

For the first group, it’s important to understand your motives for choosing a particular story.

In his recent interview with us, Patrick Gale discussed the protagonist of his latest book Mother’s Son, the Cornish poet Charles Causley. What began as a desire to bring a poet he loved (and who had remained unfairly obscure) to a new audience, morphed into something more personal when he discovered that Causley was probably gay.

The poet had been a private man in life; when asked why he’d never written his memoirs he replied that it was ‘all in the poems’. For Patrick, this response offered something like permission from a man who had, as Patrick puts it, ‘hidden in plain sight’ (and indeed had to: homosexuality was still criminalised during his lifetime).

Any writer considering doing something similar should consider how comfortable they are with digging into people’s secret lives. Remember that not everyone will approve of you ‘raking up the past’, and that descendants of the people you’re writing about might still be around. Are you OK with that? Does your research back you up, if you’re making a bold new claim?

You want to do a really good job – portraying people who are no longer able to speak for themselves with sensitivity and accuracy; to reach back through time in order to retrieve something as near as dammit to the truth.

Those last sentences also apply to those writing a story about their own relatives. It’s always worth talking to surviving family members, not only to uncover their own stash of anecdotes from the past, but to gauge how happy they would be for the story to be written. Put baldly, the juicy stuff that makes a great story as far as you’re concerned – adultery, illegitimacy, criminality and madness – might seriously upset your conservative uncle.

Again, are you OK with that? If it’s going to keep you up at night, consider changing names and places so that you feel liberated to write the story you really want to.

as you get started in writing historical fiction consider the implications of the historical fiction genre

How much research should I do, and when?

While historical fiction readers expect (and sometimes demand) historical accuracy, the actual research process can vary quite a bit when you’re writing historical fiction, even amongst the most successful writers in the genre.

It all comes down to personal choice. Some writers of historical fiction enjoy the research as much (if not more) than the writing itself, and this camp will want to lose themselves in libraries or down internet rabbit-holes for a long time.

That’s fine, but beware of using research as a respectable excuse for procrastination. Try not to mix the very distinct jobs of writing and researching. Do you – mid-scene in the thick of a writing session – really need to spend half an hour Googling how much a meat pie would have cost in 1820s London? Can you make it a penny for now, and look it up later? After all, this business is creative writing, and you don’t want to sacrifice your flow to minute details. 

Beware of using research as a respectable excuse for procrastination.

How I research before writing historical fiction

My own methods are designed to be as efficient as possible. I don’t want to spend months researching in a scattergun way and never using most of it. That would make for a very frustrating writing journey.

I tend to read a few well-respected social histories about a particular period or issue to ‘get my eye in’ and then I disappear into the story. Once that’s drafted and I’ve got my story set, I can think about checking all those ‘meat pie’ specifics.

Of course, I am also drawing on a well of books and films I’ve consumed throughout my life. I have read lots of fiction and non-fiction alike about the Victorians, the Edwardians and around the two World Wars, and much of this has seeped into my brain and taken root there. I can already have a decent stab at their patterns of speech; I know roughly what they would have worn and something of its exotic vocabulary, too: all those whalebone stays and cloche hats and bombazine mourning gowns. This can help me on my way to writing quickly, and fact-checking the details later.

If you don’t have unlimited time and money for years of research (not to mention the stamina) as you get started writing historical fiction, consider a past you already feel familiar with and passionate about. What date would you plug into a time machine? Go there.

Familiar settings can help you get started in writing historical fiction

However, if I decided to set a story in Renaissance Italy, like Maggie O’Farrell with her latest novel, The Marriage Portrait, I would need to read a whole lot more at the start. It occurs to me only now, writing this, that I have always picked eras and places I already feel I know quite well. I have a compelling vision of these times and settings, and can get on exploring my characters’ voices and dive straight into the writing process.

When I wrote The Stranger, set in Cornwall during Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ of 1940, I already had a large stock of images flickering in my mind. These came chiefly from Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn (and the slightly racy BBC adaptation of it which I watched avidly as a young teenager); from du Maurier’s Rebecca (obviously); and from myriad other home-front dramas and books I’d read and watched for pleasure.

If you don’t have unlimited time and money for years of research (not to mention the stamina) as you get started writing historical fiction, consider a past you already feel familiar with and passionate about. What date would you plug into a time machine? Go there.

And if your favourite period is well-trodden ground? Find a shadowy corner that’s been overlooked and tell it from that perspective. Practice developing characters that we haven’t heard from, or perhaps even seen, before.
  


 
 
just write, online community of historical fiction writers may say - but self interrogation and research matter too!

Kate Riordan

Writing Coach at The Novelry

Kate Riordan is the author of six books; five novels and short stories, including the Sunday Times bestseller The Girl in the Photograph, Top Ten Red Magazine choice of the year The Stranger, and The Heatwave, a must-read Richard and Judy Book Club Thriller pick. Her latest novel, Summer Fever, published in 2022 and has been praised as a ‘sexy, sultry immersive read’. If you’re writing mystery, a psychological suspense thriller, or historical fiction you’ll find Kate Riordan a supportive and inspiring writing coach.

 


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