I am spending my weekend at the first-ever Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference, in Sydney. It's going to be a fascinating weekend, with lots of talk about the fascinating past and ways to bring it to life on the page. It's not too late to join us! You can book it at the HNSA Website
In the meantime, I thought I'd post on one of the great challenges of writing Historical Fiction - how do you stop it being a history lesson?
History as a mere collection of names and dates and facts can - in the wrong hands - be mind-numbingly boring.
Yet history is not boring. It’s full of terror and joy, hope and hunger, desperation and danger. It is full of stories that have the power to enthrall, disgust, amuse, and frighten those that listen. These stories also have an immense power to teach. I was always good at history at school, but I used to joke that’s because I had Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer as a teacher.
Voltaire said that ‘Ancient histories are but fables that have been agreed upon.’ William Stubbs was more direct. He called history a pack of lies. This is the historian’s nightmare, and the novelist’s dream.
Because a novelist is not interested in pinning down the past like a dead butterfly. They are interested in making the butterfly, miraculously, live again. It can be hard sometimes to realise that the history told in a textbook actually involves real people, who had dreams and were thwarted in them, who had desires that made them act as fools, who had faith in ideas that were proved to be false, or who triumphed against all the odds; people who bled when they were pricked.
This is what historical fiction can do so well. It can make the past come alive again, and seem real, and it can also, very powerfully, illuminate the similarities between the past and the present.
So how can a historical novelist make sure that their story lives and dances?
The first thing you need to do is make your characters as vivid and real as possible. History is what happens to people.
The research should make the world come alive for you, so that it inhabits your imagination. It should not be dropped into the text like big lumps of undigested fat. Try and whisk it in well, and strain off what’s not needed. Remember, you are not a history teacher, but a novelist. It is the story that is important, and the telling of the story, not the great globs of historical fact that show you’ve done your research.
A few other tips:
Set the scene and introduce your primary characters straight away – give the reader someone to ‘imprint’ on
Do not litter your speech with too many old-fashioned or foreign words or expressions – think of yourself as a translator who has rendered the speech of their world into the speech of our world. However, don’t use contemporary slang such as ‘OK’ unless writing a time-slip story
Don’t explain too much – allow the reader to pick up historical context by the character’s actions and beliefs – trust in your reader’s intelligence and imagination
Remember the writer’s two secret weapons: suspense and surprise. You create suspense by creating a desire to know in your reader – while surprise stops things from getting boring.
Finally, re-write, re-write, re-write.