Writing Historical Fiction.Apr 25, 2021
'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'
From the Desk of our Tutor Kate Riordan.
I always think it’s strange when people say ‘Oh, I don’t read historical fiction’ with a look of mild distaste.
That look generally means one of two things: that a story set in the past will be irrelevant and impossible to relate to, or that reading it will feel less like entertainment and more like school.
But how can history be irrelevant when it’s made us what and who we are today? To dismiss historical fiction is to dismiss the human experience. As for the entertainment factor, think of Bridgerton, adapted for Netflix from the books by Julia Quinn. 82 million households streamed the series in its first month. Sexy and frothy and fun, it’s about as far from dry and dusty as you can get. It wasn’t just the bodice-ripping people seemed to enjoy either. Its evocation of a society that put a huge emphasis on appearance, conformity and notoriety also spoke to a modern audience.
For me, as a reader, being taken back in time is the ultimate escapism, and much more tantalisingly exotic than a book set thousands of miles away. Elon Musk will probably get to Mars if he throws enough money at it, but he ain’t going back to the 1920s or the 1530s. So, the reasons for reading historical fiction seem pretty obvious. What is admittedly a bit more tricky is the writing of it. If you’ve got a historical novel on the go, or you’re about to start one, there are some questions you’d do well to ask yourself before going any further.
The first is why. Not just why are you writing historical at all (do you have something new to say?) but why that specific period in time. This is especially pertinent if you’re setting your story in the recent past. Why choose the nineties over now? (And yes, classing the nineties as historical makes me feel ancient too.) Is it because your plot falls apart in an era of mobile phones and the internet? That probably isn’t a good enough reason.
Is it because you were around then, and you want to relive your past? That isn’t reason enough on its own either, and I say that as someone whose most recent novel, The Heatwave, is partly set in 1993, with a teenage character who is the same age I was then. My initial justification for this was a desire to get all those little details right, which would create an immersive and nostalgic experience for the reader. This turned out to be true: lots of readers of a similar age liked that aspect of it. But I needed a deeper reason, too - and I found it in another character, Elodie: a child incapable of feeling fear and any real emotion, who seems to enjoy inflicting pain. If Elodie had grown up in contemporary New York, she’d have been whisked off to therapy immediately. Instead, she is growing up in rural France in the seventies. Elodie’s mother is told she’s imagining things, that her daughter will grow out of it, that the danger she presents to her little sister is harmless sibling rivalry. This leaves the family isolated and helpless, which ramps up the tension and significantly raises the stakes.
The second question is related to why, and it's when. Think about what the period you're choosing has to say about how we live now. When you write historical fiction, you're setting up a dialogue between the past and the present. If you do have a theme, and you want to make a point about how much certain things have or haven't changed, it would seem best to be sly about it and choose a period that is quite starkly different in certain respects. The bonus of writing historical fiction is that you have a 'ready-made' world, so unlike with fantasy or sci-fi, you can work with a set of knowns, and so can you readers. Is there a time and place for your current idea in progress which is just right to say what you want or show an absence or a surfeit of something important to your story?
A critical issue for the budding historical writer is research. One of the more surprising pieces of advice I find myself giving is, ‘don’t go overboard’.
What I really mean is, don’t let the research take over. If you have exhaustively studied a particular period for a decade, it’s going to be difficult to leave enough of it out so that it doesn’t suffocate your story. All those facts you’ve squirrelled away are going to want their moment on the page and this is when you have to be extremely self-disciplined (or get a tough editor).
If you’re not sure how much detail is needed, try moving a scene to the present day. If your protagonist is being kissed by someone for the first time, is she noting what iPhone her paramour owns? Is she wondering if he’s on a 24-month contract with EE? You need to strike a balance between your reader’s comprehension of a time they have no first-hand experience of and a story that feels naturalistic. Beware of clunky exposition, especially in dialogue, at all times. And if it doesn’t advance the story, leave it out.
Really, the ideal combination is to know a lot, and then have the confidence to leave most of it out.
The same applies at sentence level: you only need a hint of old-fashioned language. Always avoid going the full Dickens. This way, your recreation of the period will feel innate rather than show-offy. Instead of your reader picturing you beavering away at the British Library, you will disappear entirely. The reader, in safe and invisible hands, will relax happily into the story. Your historical setting will become, for a little while, real.
And now a special note for those basing their stories on real events or people (this also applies to those writing memoirs): never forget that life is messy, repetitive and often dull. It doesn’t have a nice logical arc. I always keep in mind that line from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. When fed-up A-level student Rudge, practising for his university interviews, is asked how he would define history, he replies, ‘It’s just one fucking thing after another.’
That is not how you want your story to turn out.
On a similar note, something is not just interesting because it’s old. As with sci-fi and speculative fiction, even the most intricate world-building needs story-telling to become a novel. We still have to care about the characters. Everything else can be looked up on Google.
Of course, and as I touched on with Bridgerton, the best historical fiction manages to be true to the period while also whispering subtly to our contemporary preoccupations and fears. Think of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This is a book about loss and grief set in a time of plague, which happened to be published just as a strange new virus tipped into a full-blown pandemic. Of course, it was written well before anyone had heard of Covid-19, but you get my point.
If your story can offer a new angle or fresh context on an issue that persists today, you’re well on your way to creating something pretty special.
If you're writing, or thinking about writing, historical fiction or a biography, we can offer you our warm support and enthusiastic guidance. Founder of The Novelry, and Course Director, Louise Dean has written historical fiction, read History at Cambridge, and has a particular interest in historical fiction. You can book a free 15-minute chat with Louise Dean or Kate Riordan to talk about your novel here.
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