tagHow ToHow to Write Historical Fiction

How to Write Historical Fiction


So you have this great idea to set your next erotic masterpiece in the Restoration Court of King Charles II, complete with Nell Gwyn and a bare breasted Lady Arabella Churchill. Fine I reply, "what did Nell Gwyn do for a living?"

"She sold oranges outside the theatre."

I am impressed that you knew the theatre part. At this point you are doing quite well. Then I say. "Which theatre?" Your face is perplexed. I am no longer impressed, if you want to write historical fiction you need all the historical facts at your finger tips.

This article relates to Historic fiction, not to myth or fantasy fiction. By Historic Fiction I mean a story that is set in a defined time and place.

Myth or Fantasy Fiction stories are set in some very vaguely defined timeframe in undefined or imaginary locations. Thus the writer is free to invent not only the characters but also the culture within which they exist, an example of this type of fiction would be Arthurian tales from the era of chivalry. Thus these tales require little or no knowledge on the part of the author. If you want to write this type of erotic fiction read some of Aran Ashe or Anne Rice's work. And it looks like lots of fun to write, like Sci-Fi you will be able to create a form of parallel world.

The writer of Historical Fiction has no such luxury of freedom. All writers regardless of genre have to strive for truth, to convince their readers that no matter how fantastical the tale the story being told is true. If the writer of Historicals deviates from the known truth, by telling unsubstantiated untruths the reader will not believe in the authors honesty. So the story being told will be constrained by historical facts.

Historical fiction comes in many guises; the loosest form creates a complete cast of fictional characters. The tightest form inserts a fictional character and or events into a true story. In the second-case the writer is probably trying to advance some pet theory to account for some inexplicable action on the part of the main protagonist. e.g. Why in 1940 did Hitler halt his victorious army and merely encircle the British at Dunkirque instead of annihilating them? (An often asked question) Now say the theory you want to advance is that he was too busy indulging at an orgy! The military history must be correct, as must Hitler's known timetable and movements. The idea will not work unless there is a documented unaccounted gap which creates the opportunity to create the fiction.

By now you are protesting I only want to tell a dirty story set in the California Goldrush of 1849; A simple Jack/Jill Off story.

If you think like that, stop now! Stick with stories set in contemporary times or write Myth Fiction. The writer of Historical Fiction must always be aware that amongst the readership there will probably be experts whose subject is this particular era. Expert Jack or Jill will stop midstroke when your prospector fends off a claim-jumper with his Winchester Rifle, not only will they be frustrated but they will be angry when a well written story is spoilt by some basic historical inaccuracy. To put it bluntly your history buff readers will not give a flying fuck that you got it right about clipper ships rounding Cape Horn or the fact that there was no railroad – you got something wrong and will have ruined their orgasm as surely as flat batteries in a vibrator.

The successful writer of Historical Fiction, regardless of the genre, has to respect the intelligence and knowledge of his or her readers. Having said that you do not have to be a historian, what you do have to be is an expert on the era you intend to write about. I was talking to the author Rosemary Rowe, whose hero Libertus is a freedman, a maker of mosaics in Roman Britain in the time of Commodus 187ad, she said to me, "I am not a historian, but I have developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Romano Britain over a thirty year time frame." She also told me that she uses 6 history books as reference sources.

If you want to write Historic Fiction becoming an expert on your time and place should be your aim. This leads us to research resources, in choosing them you must act like a historian, you must forensically examine the evidence. Do not choose "coffee table" history books – they often perpetuate inaccurate fallacies. Look to see who the author is, and make sure that the book contains a bibliography in other words that the author's sources can be verified. If you are using the Internet for your research, you should ask the same questions of the site as you do of a book, whose site is it, do they quote their sources and give links.

Do not trust the claims made in television documentaries until you have independently verified them. Do not be seduced by the "experts" who appear on the documentary, remember they may have talked to hundreds of academics whose views did not agree with the programme makers agenda. Then there are always academics who are up for hire – for money or for the buzz of being a media person they will say whatever the producers want.

If by now I have not put you off the idea of writing Historic Fiction then you want to write in this genre. So where do you start?

Well the story line, (plot) will be no different, whether set in Neanderthal man's cave, a Roman Villa, Medieval Castle or a Pioneer Cabin.

Settle on the period and place you intend to write about and read. Read until you understand not only the physical environment, but also the society. You must know what was deemed acceptable and what was unacceptable in respectable society. The social and cultural mores. E.g. Slavery has existed since the beginning of man's history, but the treatment and status of slaves has differed vastly through time and cultures. Slaves in ancient Rome could be employed in many functions from lowly menial (as most were) to respected Physician. Attitudes to marriage, divorce, children, even crime have all changed through place and time.

Age poses another problem that you will need to solve. Adulthood has not always been defined as eighteen, if your character is an adult but under 18 you will have work out a means to convey this without stating their age. The method I use relies to some extent upon the reader's knowledge.

Dialogue is one of the biggest problems – and the answer I think lies in individual taste, I admit I have not yet resolved the issue to my own satisfaction. How much period or place language should you use?

Some authors favour very little, in the case of a pre 19th century story – women may become wenches, bars are called taverns, add in a few peasants and that is it. Others, (including myself) tend to go for the full Monty, loads of archaic or Latin names and phrases, sometimes accompanied by a plethora of footnotes or explanations in the body of the story. I prefer footnotes in my Roman stories, the average reader can read the story that flows without looking at the footnotes, and the history buff can look up the footnotes.

When using modern language as the dialogue use precise slightly old fashioned formal language, do not use contractions. (Don't, won't, shouldn't), or modern phrases or word usage – no targets, mission statements etc.

Recently I have been writing part of a chain story "Talisman" my part is set in 16th century England, assuming that most of my English speaking readers have at some time had a passing acquaintance with the works of Shakespeare I opted to use 16th Century English for all the dialogue. To do this you need an extra tool, in addition to your Dictionary and Thesaurus (you do have them on your desk whatever you are writing), you will need a book on word origins.

On the subject of books you will also need one on costume; your knowledgeable reader will collapse into paroxysms of orgasm destroying laughter when your medieval maiden or her knight errant, removes her bra and panties!

Another good history book to purchase is "Sex in History" by Reay Tannahill if it is still available.

If like me you intend to write Roman Stories be warned this is one of the best documented eras in history. You will also need an atlas of the Roman World and a Latin Dictionary. I also refer to about 6 books on a regular basis with another 19 I use on a when needed basis.

Unless you are already an expert writer avoid using important people as the main characters, their lives are too well documented, it is far easier to use slaves or servants, for in every age it is a truism that the common people do not have biographers. Another reason is that your ending must not influence or alter history.

A clever example of this is contained in two war films "Went the Day Well?" and "The Eagle has Landed". In both stories German Special Forces land in England during World War Two, in both cases the action is restricted to a small geographical area and concludes with every German being killed, and all records of the matter being suppressed on the grounds of "National Security".

To summarise, do not start until you are confident about your expertise – the feedback mails could be daunting. Not the one word Trolls but wordy epistles detailing where the reader thinks you have got your facts wrong, if you know your subject these correspondents will also welcome your response. The only way to really know your subject is to buy the books and read them, do not bother with the library you will be constantly needing them to refer to. Before you start writing know what your protagonists would be wearing, eating, drinking, what their homes looked like, what their bed felt like. How often did they wash or was bathing abhorred. How old was old, how young was young. At what age did they marry, at what age did they die. Remember in the not too distant past (early 20thC), death was a fact of life; people would put "IIL", (meaning "if I live") or "GW" (God willing) by memo entries in their diaries.

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