Get started in writing historical fiction

My first non-fiction book is designed both for writers new to writing of any sort, and for experienced writers wanting to tackle the specific demands of this most challenging and exciting genre.

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I’ve been known to say that writing fiction about a time before the writer came to consciousness - which is Margaret Atwood’s definition of historical fiction - is the the ultimate challenge for a writer. It’s not easy, but it’s very exciting, to set about evoking Then, so that it’s meaningful for us Now without losing touch with the otherness of the past. To do it, you must work with your imagination while staying true to enough history for the reader to happily read ‘as if’ this story really happened. So I was flattered and delighted to be asked by John Murray Learning to contribute a new book to their famous Teach Yourself imprint. When it was published, I blogged about why I’ve come to write historical fiction, and what it has meant to write this book; for more posts on writing historical fiction, click through to This Itch of Writing.

Until I get round to writing my own how-to-write book, this is the nearest I’ve got to a portable version of This Itch of Writing. All the examples, obviously, are taken from historical fiction, and there’s plenty of material about research and resources, but probably eighty percent of what I’m talking about applies whatever you write. And it also covers cousin-genres, such as parallel narratives, fantasy and steampunk, which are partly-historical while also ranging elsewhere.

Scroll down to read an extract, or to buy a copy, ask at your local independent bookshop or go online:

read an extract

Why do you want to write historical fiction?

By definition you can’t have experienced the world you want to write, which makes it harder to imagine and recreate the lives in it. So why do you want to write historical fiction? To help you to make writerly choices, ask yourself what your reasons are:

- To explore lives that until recently weren’t recorded at all, or only by educated, white men: the lives of women, servants, children, immigrants, convicts, slaves, the marginal, the mad, the strange, the oppressed. (The Long Song by Andrea Levy)

- To explore the inner life and subjective experience of people whose outer life is well recorded: kings and queens, the rich and powerful, the famous and the infamous, men and women who shaped the worlds they knew, or discovered new ones. (Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel)

- To evoke a famous event in history, and what it was like to live through it. (The Siege by Helen Dunmore)

- To explore the past lives you sense in old buildings and landscapes and bring them to full life. (Stone Angel by Barry Unsworth)

- To evoke a particular time in history which has a very strong atmosphere and dynamic which you want to capture. (Pure by Andrew Miller)

- To explore fundamental human drives, desires and dilemmas, by stepping away from the clutter and close-up familiarity of the modern world. (Rites of Passage by William Golding and its sequels in the ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ trilogy)

- To explore modern drives, desires and dilemmas, by stepping sideways from a specific modern world to look at how all humans are shaped by their circumstances. (Restoration by Rose Tremain)

- To write about sex and love with more at stake: with more barriers of law and custom before two people can get together; when there’s no contraception and no divorce; when everyone knows that Hell is waiting for sinners. (The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye)

- To write about violence and death when both are closer: when death is only a sword’s-length or witch’s curse away; when small wounds can kill you; when honour is sometimes more important than life; when you need a priest before you can die without fear. (Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian)

- To work with gowns and breeches because they’re more fun than jeans and sweaters; to travel on horses or in chariots instead of cars and planes; to use unreliable human messengers instead of telephones or email. (The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer)

- To exploit the comic or satirical potential of casting what the reader knows of history into a modern tone: the Ancient Greek landlady who’s stingy with the bathwater, the Aztec warrior worried about his drooping star-rating. (The Walled Orchard by Tom Holt)

- To exploit the potential for magic and/or fantasy if you move away from the literal depiction of the modern world. Who knows what could have happened in the dark forests and on the high seas when witches stalked the earth? (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke)

Write: evoke an historical place

Think about an historical place you’ve actually been to. Scribble down some notes, and perhaps dig out any souvenirs, to bring the memories up to the surface. Set aside your records, and start writing. Draw on your memory to write an evocation of the place: the physical, mental and emotional experience of being there, knowing that other lives were there before you. Remember to check in with all six senses, and if you find one of those lives coming alive, then let them on to the page. Resist copying your notes straight into this piece: you’re trying to evoke the experience of being there as you would in a story, not inform us about the place like a tour guide. First-draft your evocation and set it aside, without revising or editing it for now.