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HISTORICAL FICTION: how do you stop it being a history lesson?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


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. 

Historians have the same fascination with the stories of the past that historical novelists do, but they approach their work in a different way. A historical novelist has a greater degree of freedom to imagine motives and intentions, to play with possibilities, to put words into their characters' mouths, and to wonder about the stories that have slipped through the cracks and been forgotten. 

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.

More interestingly, by rendering the past familiar, it can make the present seem strange. We take so much of our lives for granted – health, wealth, long life, i-phones – reading historical fiction can make us startlingly aware of just how much things have changed, as well as how little. 

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. 

Bring the characters to the history, not the other way around. In other words, know your period of history as intimately as possible and understand how the people of that time thought and spoke and ate and dressed - you must know what forces shaped your character's lives before you can invent them.  

Read as much as you can about your area of interest. Read letters, diaries and newspaper accounts of the time. Read the work of writers who were living and working then, and read the work of contemporary writers who have set their novels at that time. 

To write an historical novel, you must be a glutton for research – and you must be able to resist the desire to prove just how much research you've done. 

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. 


Out now! Out now! Out in August!


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