HISTORICAL FICTION WORKSHOP
© Jules Watson
I’d recommend a book by Persia Woolley, called “How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction”. I got it from Amazon years ago. It is from a series of “how to write” books from Writer’s Digest Books.
1. GETTING STARTED
1.1 WHAT IS HISTORICAL FICTION?
There are many different types:
Literary fiction - Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracey Chevalier.
Romance - Johanna Lindsey, romance novels set in previous eras.
Mainstream historicals, or commercial fiction -
Sometimes written by historians, or if not then enthusiastic amateurs. Usually very detailed and historically accurate, where the history is as important as the story. Edward Rutherford’s Sarum, Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, Sharon Penman’s medieval novels.
Plot-driven “blockbusters” -
Where the history is also well-researched, but usually much more plot-driven, pacier books. Pompeii by Robert Harris, Bernard Cornwell’s very popular novels, Conn Iggulden.
Historical fantasy – Juliet Marillier, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Me!
Combinations Diana Gabaldon – a bit of time travel fantasy, lots of intelligent romance, but in the main a series of historicals set in 18th century Scotland and America. “Time-slip” novels where the narrative switches between modern and historical characters are popular now. Sometimes there is reincarnation involved, such as in Barbara Erskine novels.
Historical thrillers / mysteries – set in Rome, Egypt, medieval England.
Almost every genre can be crossed with historical. “Alternate histories” mean some people have imagined a different future for us, based on an alternate past. So even the sci fi story can be historical!
I wanted to write novels based on the little-known history and archaeology of the Celts, but above all, I wanted to tell an exciting, fast-moving story. My books are historical fiction AND romance, AND adventure, since there are lots of battles and swordfights. They are classed as fantasy because of the elements of Celtic mysticism and religion I included, which are based around visions, dreams, and hints of the Otherworld.
I see myself as a storyteller, and that comes before reams of detailed history for me. But because of my background, I can’t bring myself to be lackadaisical and write shoddy history, either. I am unashamedly a commercial romance / fantasy / adventure writer, but if I use history or archaeology, it must be right.
I like historicals with good, intelligent romance, and a focus on the emotional life of characters, including female ones. That’s therefore what I write. I need to feel deeply moved by a story, as well as entertained by a pacy plot. Many people love the detailed history tomes, or the simpler blockbusters, though, and that’s why they sell well.
“You need to be a storyteller first, a historian second. While a good grasp of your era is essential, if you haven’t mastered the art of storytelling, you’re not going to get very far. An old-time actor said: ‘People care about people, so keep the characters downstage of the scenery’.” Persia Woolley
1.2 HOW TO DECIDE ON A STORY
Historical events provide some juicy plot ideas, but make sure you remember the smaller human dramas — heartbreak, personal danger, betrayals, births, and deaths — as well.
I loved anything about the Celts, so when it came time to choose my story, I thought about the major events in “Celtic” history. They came from the heartlands of Europe, they spread to the UK and Ireland, and their great enemy was the Romans. Thinking about these events, the Roman invasions of Scotland caught my eye. I had always loved Scotland since I first visited, I had family connections there, and few people set prehistoric books there.
Most importantly, focusing on the Romans invading Scotland (which not many people know about) instantly gave me some wonderful baddies (Romans); some brave goodies (Scots defending their homes); war and bloodshed, danger, forced partings between my characters, and the greater themes of freedom and sacrifice.
Try to pick something that will be as exciting, and give you scope for a good plot.
A/ PLACE - You can start with a place you’re interested in, e.g. Ireland, Egypt, Iraq, South America, India.
B/ TIME - You can start with a time period – Mongols/Genghis Khan, Regency, Restoration, US old west, Civil War, Viking, Ancient Greece, Victorian, Medieval, Tudor, Aztecs, ancient Japan.
C/ EVENT – You can focus on a famous event – Pompeii, World War One, European colonisation of America.
D/ PEOPLE – You can focus on a famous person - kings, queens, politicians, explorers, heroes, writers, artists, scandals. Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Winston Churchill, Columbus, the Medicis.
Publishers love you choosing famous events and people, as it is easier to market and sell such books.
1.2.2 HISTORY versus MYTH
Also be aware that you can have a book that is based purely on history, or a mix of history and myth, like Mary Renault’s Greek saga about Theseus. My new series, starting with The Swan Maiden, is based on Irish myths. However, I am trying to root the story in what we know of the Irish at this time, around 100 BC, and I include some real snippets from archaeology as well.
1.2.3 REAL EVENTS versus BACKDROP
- You can have a book whose plot is tied in with real events
- OR set it in a time period that you use purely as a backdrop, but not use historical events for the actual story.
I had only one historical figure in my first trilogy — the Roman commander Agricola — and even then we know only the bare facts of his campaign. That gave me a framework on which to base the books, but also lots of latitude to make up most of what I wanted.
I chose prehistory because I’m interested in it, but also it is a lesser known time period. The pros are that you have more leeway to change events to suit you as a novelist. The cons are that there is less on which to base your story, and also readers and publishers are often unfamiliar with such subject matter.
A well documented era
The cons are that you are going to have to do more research, because more is known about documented times, from the exact design of porcelain, to dress styles, to politics. You have a greater chance of making a big mistake, and you have to work within the confines of known history. You have less leeway to make plot and time changes.
For example, we know all about the Tudors; we even have their letters and diaries. This gives you a lot of story ideas to work with, but since we have actual times and dates when people are in specific places, you have less movement and have to be more careful. The pluses are that often those times are favourites with readers, and anything Tudor sells, pretty much!
However, I chose a little known time, place and set of events because no one else had done it, and at least I was original. Few books are set in Scotland in prehistory, and no one seemed to have covered the Roman invasions of Scotland, rather than England, which many have written about.
1.2.5 FAMOUS CHARACTER
If you’re going to do a book about Cleopatra, yours may not stand out among the many others about her. On the other hand, readers know instantly what to expect, and such figures are often popular. Of course, you could always do a story on Cleo’s handmaid, using known history as a backdrop. Michelle Moran used this technique in Nefertiti, by making Nefertiti’s sister the main character. People often put twists on well-covered events like that – “seeing through the eyes of the scribe.” In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory got around the familiarity of Anne Boleyn by focusing on her unknown sister, and told the story of Henry VIII’s court through her eyes.
Also remember that if you’re going to make your book revolve around a well-known figure, and there’s a lot known about him or her, you’ve got your work cut out. Others are already going to know a lot more than you about that person.
“I thought I’d do a book on Richard III. Then I saw how many books had been written about him, and realized every day of his life could be accounted for, almost to the hour. That meant I would have to be doubly accurate, and I didn’t want to put that much effort into it.” Persia Woolley
1.2.6 PICK YOUR SUBJECT AND TIME WISELY
If you decide to pick something more recent, or totally outside your own cultural experience, you need to put in the research time. If it’s a recent story, there will still be people alive who lived it — for example, World War II. For other experiences, for example the Civil War or Irish famine, there will be whole reams of narrative written down. For anything set in the first half of the 20th century, there may be later recordings of people who lived through that time.
Take an example of sharecroppers in America’s Deep South in the 1930s.
What sorts of things would you need to research?
How they spoke. What they ate. What their houses were like. The weather. Regional specialities in dress / housing / food. Transport modes. Racial issues. Politics. Welfare and economic issues – how people lived, what they had or did not have around them in their homes. Social mores.
Clearly, if you pick a time and subject that is entirely unfamiliar to you and your background, AND which involves people who are probably still alive with their own genuine memories, you have your work cut out.
1.2.7 PLOT DRIVEN versus CHARACTER DRIVEN
In plot-driven books, for example, Dr Zhivago, history dominates and shapes the characters. Historical events often loom large as the “main character.” Another example would be Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell. The building of Stonehenge was not the backdrop of the book; it drove the entire plot plus character choices.
In character-driven books, for example, Gone with the Wind, characters run the story, and history is used as a backdrop and for settings. In this case, it is Scarlett’s personal concerns that drive the story, more than the Civil War itself.
In contemporary mainstream fiction, plot-driven books are usually “faster” in pace, and character-driven books seen as “slower” in pace.
In historical fiction the reverse is true. A book that relies on history to build the plot will need more background, build up and explanation. A character-driven book can whiz past faster, since the history is more a backdrop.
My trilogy is character-driven. If I’d focused on the Roman campaigns as the primary heart of the book, I’d have to have written a lot more about Roman politics and background, a lot more on the army, and a lot more on how the British province was run. As it was, I picked out ONLY the bits about Roman society that impacted my Celtic characters directly. Therefore the book moved faster than a dense historical novel focusing on Roman events.
1.2.8 HOW MUCH HISTORY?
Do you want a swift, racy blockbuster, mainly to entertain? Or a slower, more analyzing book, mainly to educate? I will show you some tips below on how to weave that knowledge in well.
Colleen McCullough’s Roman books are very detailed and took 10 years of research before she wrote a word. She got around some of the detail by providing a glossary, which was probably necessary in books that size.
You need to pick a time period or set of events that you have real passion for and interest in. Don’t pick something because it’s trendy — you will be putting in numerous hours of research and writing for no guaranteed reward. You therefore have to be driven because you love the story and place.
Also, if you live and breathe your time period your writing will breathe, too. Readers can instantly tell if a writer’s heart is in a book or not.
I “sucked up” information on the Celts for many years before I started my specific research. I already knew what they wore / ate / used long before I wrote anything, and people say how vivid my books are because of that.
2.1 WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FROM RESEARCH:
1/ Historical events
2/ Geography / setting
3/ Daily life – what people ate, how they dressed, where they lived etc.
For example, if you’re writing a story set during the Yukon gold rush, you’re going to need to know about: early mining tools, health and diseases, transport, what towns were like, the ethnic mix of people (Chinese, Native Americans), who was in conflict with whom, who did what jobs, the landscape, local politics, national politics, language / colloquialisms, leisure activities, available food, clothes, communication methods etc.
This reality check should make you really consider what kind of setting you want.
2.2 WHY DO GOOD RESEARCH?
2.2.1 It will make your writing more vivid. People want to be sucked into your created world, and that means you need all the tiny details right, so it envelops them. People have said to me they sank right into my books, lived in them and couldn’t drag themselves away. This is the greatest compliment a writer could ever get.
As an example from my books, in the middle of a scene, if a character puts out a hand to stir a pot over the fire, to visualise this your readers need to know that Iron Age houses were round; and that the hearth was in the centre, not on a wall. That the pot is an iron cauldron probably hanging on a chain, set on a Celtic firedog (a type of spit). That the fire is made of burning peat which has a very distinctive smell, and that the lighting around the character comes from a lamp burning sheep fat or seal oil.
One historical fantasy writer I read years ago didn’t do this. He barely described the weather, the time of day, the inside of houses, or what his people wore. Consequently, it could have been set in Scotland, France, Iceland or America for all I knew. It could have been any time of the year. It could have been set any time from the Bronze Age to late medieval. I just couldn’t sink into it, I couldn’t visualise it, therefore I couldn’t really care about the story or people, and ultimately I never finished it!
2.2.2 Research ensures you avoid anachronisms – they trip up the best writers.
These are things slipping in that are wrong for the time period. For example, a plant or food item that was only imported to your place in more modern times; technology that hadn’t been invented by the time of your story (powder guns versus rifles) Or putting a road in your scene that hadn’t been built then, inserting stone buildings where there were only shacks, or nothing at all.
A good one from my prehistoric era is “steel.” It hadn’t been made yet in its modern form, which means I can’t really describe my people’s weaponry as being made of steel, shining like steel, as hard as steel. I can’t even use as a description “he had a steely glint in his eye.” They did not have the technology to melt iron, so nothing was made of cast iron or even wrought iron. Iron was basically taken in its raw form as blooms, then the impurities were beaten out of it.
Madder is a well-known dye plant, but I checked before I used it in one book and found it isn’t native to the UK. It was imported from Europe much later. Out went the madder, unless I have it being imported! Ditto to all Roman imports we have come to take for granted: olive oil, wine, cabbage, the plough, walnuts, figs, dates, chestnuts, purple dye. Don’t even get me started on potatoes and tomatoes!
Any story set before the times of the great explorations and later colonisations will face the same issues. One that always frustrates me is rabbits. Rabbits are hop-hopping all over the UK and Australia, I have grown up seeing them everywhere. But they were introduced to Britain by the Normans. Previously, there were only hares, which move and act differently from rabbits. Can’t describe anything as rabbit-like!
The lesson is, check everything. However, I know that the people of the British Isles were great traders, even many years before my time. If I think something could have been imported, I will err on the side of including it if I really want it.
The third book of my trilogy was set a little bit in York, which changed over the four hundred years of the Roman occupation. In my time, I had to check whether the bath-house was where it used to be, and whether the temples had changed, because at my time the empire had become Christian. Was the fort built in stone or timber? We do all slip up, though!
Another thing that is difficult with anachronisms is language. You have to banish your “okays” and “fines”. Swearing is very difficult, since the Celts did not have a concept of prostitution or even looking down on promiscuity in women, and a great many insults that men level at women are based around such terms. I always struggle with curses!
We think in our modern mindset – but we must try and get into that of our characters.
Also check your descriptions. You can’t use adjectives, similes, metaphors or analogies that don’t belong. For example, something sounding like a shot, or “off like a shot” if it relates to guns before they were invented. Something or someone (e.g. their emotions) being volcanic or explosive when your characters, without the benefit of The Discovery Channel, won’t know about such geological events. Using “glassy” if there was none.
Silk was known in the Roman world, and even the European Celts had a bit, so I decided it was OK to use it in early Scotland. But there was no velvet until much later, so strictly speaking you can’t say “his skin was like velvet” (though I might have!)
This can be very hard, when you naturally reach for descriptions that are familiar to the modern you. Try and restrict yourself to metaphors and similes based only on the world, the time and place, in which your characters exist.
2.3 GETTING INTO RESEARCH
Start with the general and gradually drill down to the specific. If you start with specifics you’ll get lost and probably never actually write anything. It’s a detective trail — one reference leads to another.
A/ To start
Decide on your period and story using general books on your era from the library. If you’ve decided on your era, look at building up a library of your own, starting with general books, for example a basic book on “The Tudors.” The internet is also good to get a good general feel of events, people and eras. Also look at other novels in the same era and genre. Authors often list the major books they used for research.
B/ Narrow down
Read a few general books about daily life in your era, biographies of your chosen person, and history books to see how your events played out. For me, that layer of research was about Celtic daily life, Roman history, and Roman Britain.
C/ Get more specific
Zero in on your chosen events / people / culture / specific history. For me, that was about Roman Scotland, reading the text of Tacitus, reading about the Picts, Dalriada, and Scotland at that time.
D/ Boffin city!
At the most detailed level, you can research anything from how your people prepared beer, to hunting styles, weaponry, dress, food, houses, how women were treated, what constituted courtship and marriage. Remember that it depends on your story — if your character is a farmer, you’ll need to know a lot about crops, seasons, harvesting etc. If he’s a king, you need to know about politics, noble dress, noble pursuits such as hunting, rich people’s food, their social situation.
A sample of my books include: First Century Celtic Swords, Scottish Wildflowers, Illustrated Herbal Handbook, Plants and People in Ancient Scotland, Hillforts of England and Wales, Guide to Callanish Standing Stones, Celtic Women, Age of the Picts, Prehistoric Cooking, Roman Towns in Britain, Barbarian Weapons, Gods of Roman Britain.
Take an example of a book set in the era of the Wars of the Roses, fifteenth-century England.
Start: Look at general British history for context, and the main characters in history.
Narrow down: Look at books on that specific century, how the wars unfolded, the outcomes, the major historical figures and events timeline.
More specific: Battles you will use in your story, the life history of your chosen historical figures, the geography of regions.
Boffinry: Noblewomen’s dress fasteners, their jewellery, food, native trees, seasons, battle weapons, documents, social mores, maps.
A/ The Net
WARNING: The internet is a great tool, but the accuracy of the information cannot be verified.
Do thorough research via academic or highbrow popular books FIRST, so you can filter what sounds real and what isn’t. Then you can use the internet, but only when you can discern. Or use the internet to get a flavour of an era, then consult specialist books.
ALWAYS double check your information. Check it on other websites, but be aware that false information can proliferate easily among many sites — like a virus! It’s easy to find out the main academics who specialize in your era. They very often head up relevant university departments, and they often write properly researched books for the general populace. Start with them because they will note in their bibliographies more specialist books and journals. Check out everything via more academic channels.
Remember that Wikipedia articles can be written by anyone. They can be full of inaccuracies, or biased. They might be written by experts…but maybe not. Don’t rely on them.
Good book sites:
This links together most of the stores worldwide that sell second-hand, old and rare books. Search by keyword as well as for specifics. They mail all over world.
For early British history – Tempus Publishing and Oxbow books are great.
Also check recreation and re-enactment societies, e.g. a Roman legion society, Civil War societies — search via Google.
Special interest societies
Bulletin boards and discussion groups — www.historicalfictiononline.com has loads of suggestions
There are specialist sites about dyeing, historical foods, clothing, you name it. They often have more links, and more links…
Libraries are wonderful for general books. For specifics, you might need larger or university libraries, which are good for chasing up specialist journals, for example.
Depending on their curriculum, college libraries might have loads of specialist books and collections of papers, everything from the archaeological finds from Roman layers in York, to parish memoirs of 18th century England, to land claim records from Minnesota.
Second-hand bookshops often get seconds of good history books, and there are always odd little things in them – I got an old-fashioned atlas of British landscapes and wildlife. It makes sense to build up your own library if you’re going to specialize in an era, or like me do a trilogy.
C/ Specialist journals
Don’t be scared of them, they are essential. Not only because they are very specific – I spent ages photocopying papers on Hadrian’s Wall in the 4th century — but also because at the end of each paper there is a bibliography, and here you’ll probably find all the books that are relevant to your era or story, plus other specific papers you can then track down. You can then look for them on Amazon, or on Abe books.
These can be invaluable. For British stories, get the Ordnance Survey maps of the UK – the most detailed. Also, there are old OS maps that pre-date the 20th C for some areas. Geographical maps strip away modern cities, and give you the lie of the land and natural features.
E/ Research trips
Lots of authors don’t visit the actual places they write about, and there is certainly a lot of information out there to help you, without being on the ground. I advise going if you can, depending on the level of detail you need for your book, and how connected your characters are to the natural world. In my book, my characters live in a completely rural setting, and would have been connected to every feature of their landscape — so I needed to be, too. For me, it was essential that I visited Scotland and Ireland for this realism.
Such trips are often tax deductible, even if you are not yet earning money from books. This depends on your particular country; check out the tax rules there.
The advantages? You can see recreation societies doing their thing. You can pick up specialist pamphlets you can’t get anywhere else. You can see the lie of the land, what the geography is like, the weather, the smells and sounds. Local museums often have specific artifacts and information that the bigger ones don’t, and they rarely have websites.
Without many trips to Scotland, I could not have known just how wet the ground gets (oozing!), the amazing colours of the bracken and grass in autumn, or the views from Dunadd (the home of my characters). I also saw reconstructed Celtic houses (good for atmosphere), Roman temples, Roman rooms, women spinning, men doing crafts like wood turning, starting a fire, cooking food. Battle re-enactments show you the clothes and weapons, as the re-enactors are usually very knowledgeable. I recently tried on a reconstructed Roman army helmet, and for the first time knew exactly how heavy they were! You can hear how a whole regiment of mounted warriors sounds when they are charging you, or smell the exact scent of raw sheep wool soaked in peaty water. You get a sense of how dark a roundhouse was, and how cold a castle.
If you cannot travel, then look for photos of your sites on the web; specific books that show buildings, landscape, and views. You might (depending on era) be able to get hold of eyewitness accounts or diaries. And then of course, there are maps.
I emailed a writer years ago who did a trilogy of books on Dark Age England, and she had done all her research through maps. The problem is that you can look at a contour line on a map, but you can’t really tell how high that hill looks until you’re standing there. Well, I can't.
F/ Consult experts
But only about specific, detailed things that they will know; and keep questions short. Don’t abuse them. I didn’t use experts because I got all I wanted from books.
2.5 HOW MUCH RESEARCH - WHEN TO START WRITING?
DON’T DO TOO MUCH
Don’t fall into the old trap of doing so much research that you never start writing! As soon as you have a fairly good idea of your story or characters or time period, go for it. You don’t need to know it all; you can research and write in tandem.
Do some background research of the basics and you can start forming thoughts on story and character. A character might just leap out at you while you are researching. A story might just appear. If they don’t, keep reading until something does. It could be that you are reading general stuff, and then one day you pick up something about lace weavers in 15th century England and wham, your heroine jumps right out at you.
The basic issues of where your book is set / when / and what vocation/position your characters fill will dictate your more specific research topics. A hero who is a king has a very different life from an itinerant sailor, a mercenary, a farmer, a courtesan, or a doctor. You need to know completely different things for each of these characters, so decide that first before you get down to the nitty gritty.
For example, in my book The Song of the North, I originally thought my heroine traveled from the south into Scotland by sea, bypassing Hadrian’s Wall. Once I started writing, the story changed and I realised she actually passes through the wall. So then I had to do the research on what the wall forts looked like, and how they were manned.
Later, she has to deal with an epidemic of sickness among a group of babies. I decided they all got croup – so then I had to go off and find out what herbs and treatments they might have used for croup in preindustrial societies, and after that, what plants were native and therefore available before more modern trade routes opened up.
In The White Mare there is an important scene early on where the hero’s brother is injured in a boar hunt. I chose to do the scene for character and plot reasons:
- it establishes my hero as a good leader and warrior
- it shows his bond with his injured brother
- it establishes that my heroine is a healer
- it establishes her status, and this other cool, calm side to her
- it illuminated tribal politics
So after I’d written the bare bones, I had to research the native treatments for wounds and fevers, and what wild boars look like and how they were hunted. Most authors work this way – do a certain amount of research but just get writing. This way, you avoid researching something you then don’t use. Write most of the draft to a good finished stage before you finalise details.
Your research triggers off story and character ideas, but story and character realisations then trigger off research: they work together.
DON’T DO TOO LITTLE
You will end up doing research you never use, but it doesn’t matter if it’s about getting a broad, solid base. I knew about Celtic daily life so thoroughly that I lived and breathed it – and that shows in your writing. It could be the making of your book.
It meant that the small “living” stuff became instinctive, and I could focus on the story and pacing. I already knew how my characters were dressed, what their houses were like, their weaponry, their food, the landscape at the time of year (snowy, wet, green, the rust of autumn).
If I suddenly decided my heroine needed to visit the blacksmith, I knew what he would have in his house, the technology and tools around him, the view she had as she walked down the hill... I didn’t need to stop and look details up then and there. I had enough.
3.0 THE WRITING
I’m just going to focus on the aspects of good fiction writing that relate specifically to historical fiction, or which are most crucial to historical fiction.
You still need to work on all the normal elements of good novel writing – plot (structure, scene/sequel, suspense, motive); good characterization; description and setting, and language. Any of these can let your novel down, so if you need help there are an avalanche of writer’s courses, writer’s groups, and “how to write” books. Hone your skills through those.
I never did any writing courses, but I did read a few “How to” writer books.
You also need to start reading like a writer, not as a reader. You’ll pick up a lot that way.
3.1 OVERALL STRUCTURE OF A GOOD NOVEL
Your history and research is one thing, but that alone won’t mean you’ve got a good historical novel.
3.1 THE RIDE
Your novel is supposed to take your readers on a rollercoaster ride of tension – increasing tension, then allowing relief, then building up again. Good books – the ones that engage us, rather than being a mere history lesson – manipulate readers. You decide when they bite their nails, when they sigh, and when they cry.
So how do you manipulate readers? You write a great story arc.
- You use drama, tension, cliff hangers, threats, plot twists, good and evil, grief, death, love, loss, to manipulate readers.
- You make readers engage with your story and people, feel and even cry.
- Don’t just tickle their intellect — make them desperate to see what happens next.
- Leave them at the end of each chapter dying to keep turning the page.
There are books on the basic foundations of plot – get one.
Your PLOT and STORY ARC are the foundations of your book. The bones. The frame.
Your HISTORY and CHARACTERS are the decoration, the jewellery, the brush strokes. Without the first being right, your book won’t work even if you are the best researcher, or best writer of language.
need conflict: period. It isn’t rocket science. You take someone
readers care about, and you give them a big challenge to overcome. It
could be physical or emotional. They have to fight to succeed against
the odds, which are stacked against them. You have baddies trying to
thwart them, goodies trying to help them. You need dark and light.
Clashing desires and goals. Conflict can either be between the hero and
“the world” or circumstances (such as a war) or between people. Both is
better. The way that clash of goals is worked out is your story.
Without conflict, you have no novel, so get that right first.
One great tip I read once is to take your hero or heroine and on page one throw them into a great life-changing moment. Chuck them into chaos. For example, on page one hero gets a letter that his aunt has died and left him money if he goes and lives in the country. Or heroine’s guardian dies, leaving her bereft in a dangerous world. Or she is to be given in marriage to someone she does not know. Or someone walks into his life. The hero falls ill. War breaks out.
Historical fiction authors can have a tendency to get stuck in a slow, descriptive start, going on about where their characters live, and what mundane things they are doing. But it can be too slow for modern readers.
Twist the plot suddenly on them on page one, and you’ve created tension in one easy step. Readers are going to want to know immediately how this change will affect the character…and you’ve got them reading over the page to see.
3.4 SHOWING VS. TELLING
This is the single most important key to being a good novelist.
The problem some people have with their embryonic novels is that they write by reporting the action to the reader. It’s the way we were all taught how to write at school. It’s how newspapers and magazines are written.
But showing versus telling is the difference between something sounding like amateur fiction, and something sounding like “real” novel writing.
TELLING is reporting what the character is doing, in prose, with no dialog.
A (very) simple example — not from a real book!
- “In the morning light, Charlotte thought back to the night before. She’d walked into this very room and poured a glass of wine. Behind her in the bedroom she had left Jake lying naked in bed. She stood there feeling so ashamed of herself for sleeping with him – her brother-in-law! She had gulped down the wine in one. She couldn’t believe what she’d done. Then the fear began to set in. What if her sister found out? And then she might lose her family... Suddenly she realised she better get him out of here. She went back in and made him put his clothes on, then turfed him out the door.”
This is all telling. There’s no immediacy; no feeling of being right in the scene. It isn’t happening in real time; it’s being reported as if the author is looking in from outside and commenting on Charlotte, rather than that we are with Charlotte, in Charlotte’s life.
Here’s how this scene would be if I was showing. It would be in real time — although she could still be flashing back on the memory the next day. Only this time, it would be a full sensory memory.
- “Charlotte staggered from the
bedroom and made for the glass of wine still sitting on the table. Her
skin was hot, and not from sweat. How could she?
“Hey!” Jake called out from the bed, his voice trying for sexy, and failing. “Come back in here and do that to me again, minx!”
Her face burning, Charlotte gulped the wine. “Don’t you have to be home?” she called back, gritting her teeth as her mind screamed instead: Won’t Nancy have the dinner ready? Nancy. Her dear, sweet sister.
“I’ve still got ten minutes,” he cooed. “Football practice isn’t over until five.”
Jeez, the kids! What if Nancy found out — what if their parents did? Charlotte’s hand trembled as she raised the glass to her lips.
That was it. Setting down the glass she marched to the bedroom door. Jake was stretched out, a smug smile on his face. “We don’t have ten minutes,” she choked out. “We have none — just get your clothes and get out of my bed, and never come back!”
His face fell. “Charlotte…” he wheedled.
“No!” She bundled up his clothes. “Out, now!”
He was still protesting as she pushed him out the door in his underpants, throwing the rest of his clothes at him. Then she slammed the door and leaned on it, her legs beginning to shake.”
I know it's a bad scene, but see how vivid it is? Instead of telling us she is ashamed, I’ve shown her blushing and burning. There are thoughts and dialogue. Instead of telling us she’s just slept with her brother-in-law, I’ve shown it by having him lying there, shouting out a sexual reference, then I’ve shown her thinking suddenly of Nancy. Put two and two together, and you get the same information, but it has more impact and immediacy. I haven’t told you she is afraid; I’ve shown her mind racing, her legs and hands shaking. It’s gone from being something related like a police report to an actual, living scene.
Showing versus telling doesn’t mean you have to impart everything in a real-time scene. You can do it in sequel as well — sequels are the bits of prose that are not real-time action scenes or scenes of dialogue. You can still “show” even when your character is in a period of internal musing. It does not have to be action.
Consider these two examples. The first is telling; the second is showing.
“For days Rhiann was paralysed with fear. All she could do was wait, and it was driving her insane even though she didn’t show any emotion.”
“For days Rhiann walked stiffly from her house and sat immobile in the same place on the walls, her arms rigid around her knees as she gazed out to the west. Eremon was out there somewhere. He was coming back — she would tell herself that, over and over, and her lips would move silently. Every time one of the sentries came past, he peered at her. Then she held her face absolutely still. No one must see into her. No one.”
This is sequel, it’s not a scene. It’s the bit that goes between real-time scenes that involve interaction between characters. However, I’m still showing not telling, because you can see her fear in her posture, her thoughts, her actions. I don’t have to tell you she’s scared, or that she’s waiting. All that is implied, without me saying one direct thing to the reader about what she is feeling.
Another example. This is a real scene taken from The Dawn Stag. Here, I wanted to get in that they used these special types of saddles as they had no stirrups. I could have just said “Eremon came out and rubbed down his saddle, which looked like ‘blah blah’, while Rhiann talked to him of the mission they were both going to undertake. They were both scared for each other.” That would be telling. This is the (incomplete) actual scene:
Yet when a day dawned bright and still, with a warm sun glittering on the last frosts, Conaire took Caitlin and their son out walking alone, and Eremon appeared in the middle of the day outside the house. In his arms was his fighting saddle, and a pot of mutton-fat.
Scooping up two honey cakes, Rhiann joined him in the cool sun, pressing her lips to his forehead for a moment before settling down beside him on the bench. She drew up her knees and gestured at the four-horned saddle, which had been stored away through the long dark. “I take this to mean your plans with Conaire have been laid.”
Eremon paused at rubbing fat into the leather of one saddle horn, cocking an eye at her. “I didn’t want to burden you, a stór, until I had thrashed it out with him — until I was sure it was right.”
“And now you are sure.” Rhiann took one of the cakes, looking at Eremon expectantly. Despite the sun the breeze was still cold off the sea, and she drew her sleeves to the ends of her fingers before biting into the cake.
Eremon smiled, though his eyes were solemn. Then he braced himself. “Rhiann, after our success in the south, we think we should strike first this year. Agricola won’t be expecting it, which gives us an advantage, and we’ve shown our raiding tactics can work against the Roman army — no matter how formidable everyone thinks them to be.” He rubbed the cracked side of the saddle horn vigorously. “If we lure them northwards, we can take them by surprise and draw them up into the mountains. On their own ground, I have seen then what the tribes can do.”
Despite the plunge of her belly, Rhiann recognised the light in Eremon’s eyes: a warrior’s excitement. She pillowed her chin on one hand, clearing her throat. “Where will you go?”
This scene performs a number of functions, and illustrates a lot of what I’ve been talking about.
1/ Through dialogue, it imparts the info that Eremon has got to go away to war. This is showing.
2/ It shows their fear for each other in the hesitant way they speak, and how their bodies react: the “plunge of her belly”.
3/ I wanted to get in the historical fact about the fighting saddle. Instead of dropping it in any old place as a “fact”, I’ve woven it into the scene. The point of the scene is the conversation, not the saddle, but I’ve made Eremon polish the saddle while he’s in conversation so that I still slip in what it is, and what it looks like and why.
5/ I made sure there was a reason for including the saddle. He gets it out only because he has to get it ready to go to war. It is a signal to Rhiann that he’s going to war. It is wrapped up in her emotional state about the coming battle – she is scared.
So, the saddle is relevant to Rhiann’s current emotional state, and it’s relevant to advancing the story, since winter is now over and in this one small scene I’ve got across that it’s spring and he is about to go away.
It also re-establishes the Roman threat, reminding the reader of the advancing wave of Romans after a winter filled with personal drama. This racks up the tension again.
Doing this well is vital for historical fiction, because you must remember your readers aren’t familiar with the world in which you’ve put them. Consider this paragraph:
- “John went to the fridge and pulled out a Coke, then sat and turned on the TV. Suddenly, on the news bulletin, there was his brother Charles waving a placard up and down in front of City Hall.”
See how many assumptions you can make here, because it’s contemporary. Your readers all know what a fridge is, a Coke, a TV, a news bulletin, a placard and City Hall. You don’t need to stop and explain any of it.
In my prehistoric time, no one knows anything. Say my heroine gets up out of bed — readers need to know what sort of bed she had, what her house is like, her bedcovers. She goes to the hearth to make a cup of tea (what fuel did they burn, what pots did they have, what shape and in what position was the hearth, what native drinks did they have, was anyone else sleeping there on the floor?) You can see that even in a simple bit of action, a whole load of things need explaining to your readers.
You also need to make sure you know everything about your settings in your time.
Up until recently, London burned coal for fuel, which created a completely different living experience in the past. Historic characters living in London wouldn’t be able to see; they might have a cough; they would be covered in dirt. A few hundred years ago winters were colder, and the Thames froze when it never does now.
You need to show what sort of lighting your characters had — lamps, gas lights, fire, electricity? This affects your action, because if there’s no light to switch on, then maybe you can’t have action at night (or it has to be outside where there’s a moon.) They didn’t have central heating in castles, so you’d better be writing a whole lot of freezing, shivering, running from fire to fire, donning of cloaks, and drafts going up necks, blowing out candles and stirring wall hangings.
In modern times, buildings have been put up, rivers dammed, marshes drained. If your characters live in a natural world, like mine, they would be more tied in with the seasons, plants, animals, weather, sun, moon, and stars. The seasons would have had more of an impact on farming Celts than for a high-class lady in Regency England, since she was always inside houses or carriages. If your people are close to nature, you have to show them cold, wet, hot, sweating, hungry, skinning animals, weaving their own cloth.
All this grounds your readers in your world – if you can’t paint it for them and make it come alive, they won’t feel close to your book.
If you don’t do enough description, your readers won’t sink into your story, or be swept away by it. They won’t disappear into it, and might not “get” your characters either. Then they might not care about your story at all!
However, if you do it too much you risk boring the readers, drowning them in historical detail, slowing down your pace to zilch and coming off as a complete boffin. Nothing turns readers off historical fiction quicker than that.
Two good rules of thumb are…
1/ Only put in historical detail when it advances characterisation by rounding out the characters; or advances your story.
Don’t be overindulgent; never just throw it in for the sake of it. Use it, discriminate! Don’t put in your pet fact when it has no relevance to the scene. If you really love it, then decide how to work it into the story.
2/ Only use description that is relevant to the character, to keep the focus on the action.
For example, consider this. Your heroine is an aristocrat riding through the countryside in a carriage, her stomach churning with the fear that she’s about to be married off to a man she hates. She looks out of the window. You want to get across that it’s autumn and the harvest is in full swing.
Don’t wax lyrical about how pretty the scenery is, or how the labourers in the field are using this special type of plough, or talk in detail about exactly how they’re harvesting the wheat. She won’t care how pretty it is – she’s going to her doom! Also, she’s a well-born lady: she wouldn’t have the faintest idea what a plough is, or what the heck they are doing in the field.
Do have her notice they are harvesting…and then think, “Oh my god!” She realises only then how the year is passing so fast, and how at Christmas in three months she’ll be married to that horrible lord, and she’s running out of time. Or describe a storm coming in over the fields — she shivers and shrinks in her seat, feeling the approaching dread for the storm about to engulf her own life (cheesy, but you get the idea.) Or that the hair colour of one of the labourers reminds her of her hated betrothed...
So…only describe what is relevant to the plot, to her emotional state, and to what the viewpoint character knows, would notice, or be aware of. If you really must describe a particular aspect of life, then perhaps you need a character who lives that life, or you need to re-evaluate your main characters.
This technique will keep the book moving, it will keep the focus on the character, and you will still get to describe the season, the weather and the field.
Many historical novelists are known for their incredible detail — often what seems irrelevant detail. I personally get bored by that, but that is just me. To pull off that detailed style, your scholarship better be immaculate, and your prose better sing.
Back to showing vs. telling — weaving in your descriptive facts
Here is another example. Your heroine walks into a tower room in a castle. Her husband is alone there.
have her just stop and describe the room to the reader. Have her storm
in and see he is at his desk. She grabs a paper weight and hurls it at
the wall, where it shatters. Here, through action,
you get to say what she swept off the desk in her rage, and that tells
people what sorts of things medieval lords had on desks!
Or even better, she hurls it out the window — which means you get to say “It flew out of the narrow, stone opening...” and voila, in the middle of some action, you’ve managed to describe the window.
This is what makes historical writing come alive.
For me, characters are the single most important thing in any novel. If readers don’t care about your characters, or aren’t interested even in the baddies, all the flashy writing in the world won’t save your book.
There’s lots of information out there about how to draw vital, sympathetic characters — I won’t go into that, as it is common to all fiction. But in historical fiction, the choice of a character’s position and vocation is particularly crucial.
In a contemporary novel, you could have a farmer’s wife living in the mid-west, and an investment banker living in New York, and though they do vastly different things they live a broadly similar life. Both have TV, go to restaurants, drive a car. But in feudal times in Britain, for example, the gulf between peasant and king was immense. Everything would have been different.
Therefore the position in society of your characters is a vital decision. If you pick a farmer working in the fields during the Wars of the Roses, he has no access to the political decisions facing his king. He won’t even notice when the men go off to war. He will notice, though, if they fight in his fields and ruin his crops, or if his house gets ransacked by soldiers!
This could still be a riveting story about that farmer, but it’s a different story than if your hero is King Edward IV, and he’s the one making these big decisions about going to war. He might be on the battlefield — but he won’t notice the crops getting trampled. He will eat imported food off silver plate, sleep in a proper bed, change his clothes, wear silk and velvet, enjoy proper warmth from great fires, and medical care. The farmer probably sleeps with his animals, has one set of clothes, eats the same turnips every night, and visits a wise woman for herbal cures.
So your story, your plot twists, even your setting is dictated by your choice of character.
Is it a little local human drama you’re telling, set against the backdrop of big events? (see The Year of Wonders, about a village woman in the great plague of the 17th century.) Gone with the Wind falls into this category, too. It’s how the war affects Scarlett that is the story, not the war itself.
Or do you want to be right at the heart of your big historical events, in which case you’re going to have to have characters among the nobility, politicians or ruling classes (or a courtier lurking in corners!)
The main characters in my Dalriada trilogy are the nobility of Celtic society for this reason. If my hero was a farmer, not much would have changed for him — he wouldn’t know anything of the bigger events, such as the Romans invading, for quite some time. And I’d have no story.
Apply the same reasoning to whether your main characters are going to be male or female. In most periods of time, female activity and movement, access to knowledge, and sexual freedom were all curtailed. This will affect what story you tell and how you tell it. If a woman is inside all day sewing, she won’t know much of what goes on past her doorstep. This may be true of men of the lower classes, too. On the other hand, a lower-class female probably had more sexual freedom than a guarded princess. This will change your story, too. I made my heroine a royal priestess so that she was at the heart of the decision-making process.
Don’t forget that going for the smaller lives can make your story. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier wrote a story about Vermeer and 17th century Holland, but it was really all about her heroine, Griet; her subtle, tense experiences. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory eschews the flashier character of Anne Boleyn and instead focuses on her sister. She still gets to tell the story of Anne and Henry, but in a different way. In The Year of Wonders the “big event” was the plague. In this case, the best possible way to tell the story was to focus on one poor little nobody, because you see how the tragedy affected her personally, which made it more heartbreaking than if you’d just had the king talking about it from afar.
Be in their heads
Get right inside your characters. Pompeii erupts – what did it smell like, sound like, look like? Be there with your characters as if their life is happening now, not as if you’re looking back from this distant time. Don’t treat your characters or story as ancient history, or you’ll make your readers feel distant from it, too. Use all the senses to ground your characters in that world, not just sight but taste, smell, touch, hearing. How does silk feel? What do rutting stags sound like? How does a peat fire smell?
I like to have my characters sounding pretty modern, within reason. Any obvious anachronisms will jar — and don’t have them say “God forbid” if they’re not Christian! I try not to use phrases that are obviously in a foreign language like protégée, and blasé. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to make them sound archaic either (thees, thous, forsooth.) Modern readers won’t feel close to them if they speak that way.
I think humans have always felt and thought roughly the same. We all love, we hate, we betray. So be modern within reason. However, don’t have your characters act outside the social / moral / sexual limits of the time or it will jar — it won’t seem real. If they’re flouting those conventions, then use it for drama, for example, an upper class girl running away from an arranged marriage; a Victorian prostitute suddenly deciding to remain chaste because she loves this one man. Having your characters flout convention can be a good base for drama, but make sure it’s deliberate, not just sloppy research or writing.
Don’t make them clichés
Avoid the bawdy tavern wench, the puritan preacher. Make your characters your own unique inventions. Also, nothing is ever black and white. For example, in my third book, The Song of the North, the Roman Empire has become Christian. But my characters follow a bit of the old and the new religions. The nobles convert to Christianity to please the emperor, while the commoners keep to their pagan rites as well. Life is always fluid, and your story will sound more believable if you write it that way. Having characters that are a bit different in society makes them less likely to be cardboard cut-outs.
Mine that historical research of yours to shape your characters. For example, I discovered that there is some evidence that in Celtic Scotland, royal blood was passed down through the female line, not through males. I took this snippet and based my whole Dalriada trilogy on it — my heroine is the unfortunate heir of this blood, and when her uncle dies she is forced into marriage. This historical snippet gives her status in her tribe, but also puts her in the path of danger because of the blood she carries.
3.7 POINT OF VIEW
You need to decide if you are going to write in the first person or the third (or second!).
First person gives an unbeatable feeling of intimacy, as you are inside a character’s head. It’s hard not to care about them, as a reader. It can make for very vivid, riveting writing. You can also get across all your little author ideas and personal opinions by having your character think or observe them. You can’t just drop these ideas as easily in third person, because that is called “author intrusion.”
The downside is that you can’t show other events happening distant from your viewpoint character, unless that character is there in the scene. So you need to figure out how you’ll work around that. Does the viewpoint character find out about other events from letters or messages? Or from having those other events reported by a second character?
This could be boring, though, so watch it. It depends on the story you want to tell. You’ll either need to take your character to the action, or bring the action to them, or have them react to the results. If you’re dealing with big historical events, this could be tricky. If action will revolve around your viewpoint character, then that’s easier.
I chose third person because I was showing great sweeps of movement — the Romans advancing, the druid plotting my heroine’s downfall, another female character posing a later threat. I simply could not have shown all this if I was in my heroine’s head in first person.
She wouldn’t even have known the Romans were coming! For me, the story had far greater suspense in third person, for I could show all the movements being made against her, of which she was unaware — but the reader knew. This increased the tension a lot.
In The Year of Wonders, however, the entire book takes place in one village. The heroine has personal dealings with every character in the book, so in this case first person suited the story much better, and made it more emotional.
Third person is also called omniscient point of view. It is the most common, because it’s easy! You can roam around your story as if from above, popping into the points of view of the king, the enemy, his wife, a common soldier — whoever you want. You can show all the action taking place everywhere, all at once, and you can sample thoughts and feelings of many characters to show their motivation.
In first person, you have to get another character’s inner world — motivations, feelings, ideas — across in what they say and do alone. This is effective, but can be difficult.
On the downside, third person is less intimate, and can be less vivid for the reader as there is some separation between what a character is seeing and feeling and where the reader feels they are in the story (floating above, rather than in). Also, if they have to bounce around in various characters’ heads, readers might lose the certainty of who is the heroine or hero. People like to cheer for someone.
There is a another way, however…third person intimate.
Third person intimate. I discovered I was already writing this way when I came across it in a book. It means that you restrict your third person point of view to one or a few characters, rather than bouncing around inside every man and his dog.
In my case, almost all my scenes are written from the point of view of my heroine (or hero). In any given scene, although I write “she did this” and “she did that”, not “I did this” and “I did that” (that is, third person) I still stay completely inside her head. It is as if the reader is perched on her shoulder, feeling everything she feels. I describe only what she sees, smells, hears in that scene. I have her direct thoughts, in italics. I have her feelings. This gives a similar intimacy to first person, without its restrictions.
If I want to show something else happening of which she is unaware, I simply start a new scene and switch to be in my hero’s head instead.
I also strayed away from them both if I had to, into the head of a Roman commander, or his lover, or my heroine’s aunt, or the hero’s brother. However, I restricted this to a few times, and only used it where it was very effective — to give another slant on the behavior of the main character, by someone close to her observing her; or to illuminate the new character better by showing his/her thoughts.
I also occasionally went into the head of an “anonymous” character, to jolt the reader and give a different perspective to an action scene. For example, as my hero went to raid a Roman camp, I started a scene from the viewpoint of an anonymous sentry, so I could show how terrifying it was having a whole band of barbarians suddenly overrun you in the night.
Keep these episodes short, and don’t overuse them or they become digressions from the main characters, which can irritate readers. Also, if you do this for your villain — going inside his or her head — it will personalise them, and perhaps make them more sympathetic than you intended.