Writing historical fiction offers a unique set of challenges: How far should you let the historical record dictate your own plot? Should you dramatize famous historical figures, or should your central character or characters be fictional? How do you build a lost world in the pages of your book? This is also a task that requires meticulous research, but at the same time you must avoid what Walter Scott described as the ‘dragging in of unnecessary historical details.’ It can also be rather lucrative if you get it right, so if you’re thinking about writing a historical novel, here are a few tips to get you started…
- KNOW YOUR ARCHETYPES
Pretty much any sort of historical narrative, regardless of period, can usually be divided into one of the following categories:
The ‘Defamiliar’ (from Victor Shklovsky, who believed that literary narrative should ‘estrange’ or ‘defamiliarise’ the everyday world), which explores ordinary, fictional lives within a particular era. They may be effected by major historical events, but have no control over them, rather like most of us; the models for this type of novel being those of Scott and Tolstoy.
The ‘Historical Romance,’ which tends to depict famous characters and/or events, often within quite a melodramatic narrative, like Carolyn Meyer’s ‘Young Royals’ novels, or in more sophisticated literary character studies, most notably Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
The ‘Cultural Retrieval,’ in which someone relatively unknown is rediscovered and dramatized, good examples being The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ Trilogy, and Telstar by James Hicks and Nick Moran.
- KNOW YOUR SUB-GENRES
- Murder Mystery, for example The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and the ‘Cadfael’ novels of Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter).
- Military History: The Battle by Patrick Rimbaud, Bernard Cornwall’s ‘Sharpe’ novels, and the ‘Jack Aubrey’ series by Patrick O’Brian (Sea Stories being a variant).
- The Saga: Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ and Philippa Gregory’s ‘Tudor Court’ series.
- The Fake Memoir: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ novels.
- Fantasy: The Children of Llyr by Evangeline Walton; The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson.
- Alternative or Speculative: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons; The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; Tracy Chevalier, Girl With a Pearl Earring.
- Timeslips and Parallel Narratives: The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor; Waterland by Graham Swift; Possession by A. S. Byatt.
- Revisionist and Post-colonial: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
- Magic Realist: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.
- Love Story: Green Darkness by Anya Seton; Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.
- Bodice-Ripper: Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey; Highland Velvet by Jude Deveraux.
- Literary Re-imagining: Jack Maggs by Peter Carey; Estella: Her Expectations by Sue Roe (both re-writes of Great Expectations); Barricades: The Journey of Javert by C.A. Shilton (Les Misérables).
- Steampunk: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
- Gothic: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind; Maggie Power, Porphyria’s Lover
- READ SOME WALTER SCOTT
The historical novel as we know it begins with Walter Scott (1771 – 1832). Scott wrote his first novel, Waverley or ’Tis’ Sixty Years Since (a story of the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745) in 1814, producing thereafter an average of two historical novels a year for the rest of his life. These are packed with antiquarian detail, sublime landscapes, dark ruins, and tortured protagonists, all combined with an innovative sense of the plight of the individual subject within complex and threatening historical processes. Titles that are probably still familiar include Rob Roy (1817), Ivanhoe (1819), Quentin Durward (1823), and Redguantlet (1824). ‘To read his novel,’ wrote Vissarion Belinsky, ‘is like living the age he describes, becoming for a moment a contemporary of the characters he portrays, thinking for a moment their thoughts and feeling their emotions.’ Georg Lukács developed Belinsky’s thesis in his hugely influential study The Historical Novel (1974), identifying the refinement and influence of Scott’s technique in the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy. His summation very much encapsulates the concept and device of the Defamiliar in historical fiction:
What matters in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in these events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality … Scott thus lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives, as do the Romantic hero-worshippers. Hence they can never be central figures of the action. For the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if the everyday life of the people, the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction. (Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel.)
Lukács called such a protagonist the ‘mediocre hero.’
- FIND THE STORY IN THE HISTORY
The historical novelist constructs a dramatic narrative inspired by historical ‘fact’ (such as it is). In order to pace and structure an engaging narrative, don’t feel too constrained by the historical record. Study your subject, and list the original events you want to write about in a linear, chronological form. Then start to think about this chronology in terms of setting, characters, action and scenes, focusing on key players as literary characters in your narrative.
Basically, you can’t adapt a historical story literally and expect it to work as a novel. Historical accuracy can often be a dramatic disaster. Your historical source material is just your starting point. Try to honour its spirit and integrity, but remember you have to make this into a page-turning novel.
Decide who the story is about. Anything that does not serve your main characters probably has to go. You’ll also have to accept that you have to fictionalise; shifting, cutting or adding scenes in order to follow your through line. Don’t invent for its own sake, but create scenes and dialogue when needed. Always remember that a literary adaptation of real events is an original novel based on other material. They are simply different forms of narrative.
- DO YOUR RESEARCH
To write credible and non-trivial historical fiction you need to train yourself to be a historical researcher, otherwise your novel will be riven with unintentional inaccuracy and anachronism. It’s notable, in fact how many successful historical novelists have some sort of background in academia; Philippa Gregory and Sarah Waters, for example, both hold doctorates in English literature, while Hilary Mantel spent five years researching and writing Wolf Hall, detailing her meticulous process in an interview published in The Wall Street Journal: ‘You really need to know,’ she explained, ‘where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else.’
Whatever your period, you will have a realm of primary and secondary reference sources available to you, and internet archives and the growing sophistication and specialisation of online encyclopaedias means that you can access and cross-reference information instantly that only a few years ago would’ve required a trip to the British Library or the National Archive. Primary sources are those created in or very close to the time of the original event, or during the lifetime of your subject. They can be unique documents – I’ve worked with handwritten, unpublished Victorian letters, for example – or they may have been mass-produced, for instance:
- Memoirs and diaries.
- Official and public documents, such as Hansard and parish records.
- Newspapers and magazines.
- Published or recorded first-hand accounts and interviews.
- Contemporary fiction and drama.
- Works of art.
- Sound recordings.
- Film and video.
The further back your chosen period, generally speaking, the fewer primary sources there will be.
Secondary sources are created after the primary sources, the former often written to evaluate the latter; the historian Hayden White, for example, has argued that the task of his profession is to ‘charge events with a comprehensible plot structure.’ Secondary sources will include:
- Published academic and popular histories.
- Entries in encyclopaedias.
- Academic articles.
- Historical fiction.
- Film, TV and drama based on historical events.
- Representational or interpretive art produced after the fact.
As with the increasing online availability of primary sources, the internet makes locating a rare secondary source much easier than it used to be. Someone always has one for sale on Amazon Marketplace. Bear in mind that any source will always have some sort of bias of ideas, and interpret accordingly.
- REBUILD THE VANISHED WORLD
Remember you’re world-building as much as story-telling, so when researching keep your eye out always for quirky cultural details and interesting facts about the way people talked, dressed, worked and acted; what they ate, what they believed, and why. Look at prevalent social issues, attitudes and values; significant historical events and cultural icons. In historical fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, readers expect a well-planned, authentic and credible setting. In reading historical fiction, what we’re really asking is ‘What was it like to live back then…?’
One note of caution, though: it is very easy to become so hung up on research that you never actually start writing. Establish some parameters in advance, and stick to them. You’re never going to find out everything, and even if you did they’d be no room to include it all in your novel.
- AVOID INFORMATION DUMPING
In A New Spirit of the Age (1844), Dickens’ collaborator R.H. Horne described popular historical fiction as a ‘romance of old dates, old names, old houses, and old clothes.’ Thackeray, meanwhile, sent them up something chronic, and we can learn a lot from this in terms of what not to do:
Here follows a description of the THAMES AT MIDNIGHT, in a fine historical style; with an account of Lambeth, Westminster, the Savoy, Baynard’s Castle, Arundel House, the Temple; of Old London Bridge, with its twenty arches, ‘on which be houses builded, so that it seemeth rather a continual street than a bridge’; of Bankside, and the ‘Globe’ and the ‘Fortune’ Theatres; of the ferries across the river, and of the pirates who infest the same – namely, tinklermen, petermen, hebbermen, trawlermen; of the fleet of barges that lay at the Savoy steps; and of the long lines of slime wherries sleeping on the river banks and basking and shining in the moonbeams. A combat on the river is described, that takes place between the crews of a tinklerman’s boat and the water-bailiff’s. Shouting his war-cry, ‘St. Mary Overy à la rescousse!’ the water-bailiff sprung at the throat of the tinklerman captain. The crews of both vessels, as if aware that the struggle of their chiefs would decide the contest, ceased hostilities, and awaited on their respective poops the issue of the death-shock. It was not long coming. ‘Yield, dog!’ said the water-bailiff. The tinklerman could not answer – for his throat was grasped too tight in the iron clench of the city champion; but drawing his snickersnee, he plunged it seven times in the bailiff’s chest: still the latter fell not. The death-rattle gurgled in the throat of his opponent; his arms fell heavily to his side. Foot to foot, each standing at the side of his boat, stood the brave men – they were both dead! ‘In the name of St. Clement Danes’, said the master, ‘give way, my men!’ and, thrusting forward his halberd (seven feet long, richly decorated with velvet and brass nails, and having the city arms, argent, a cross gules, and in the first quarter a dagger displayed of the second), he thrust the tinkleman’s boat away from his own; and at once the bodies of the captains plunged down, down, down, down in the unfathomable waters.
After this follows another episode. Two masked ladies quarrel at the door of a tavern overlooking the Thames; they turn out to be Stella and Vanessa, who have followed Swift thither; who is in the act of reading ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ to Gay, Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, and Pope. Two fellows are sitting shuddering under a doorway; to one of them Tom Billings flung a sixpence. He little knew that the names of those two young men were – Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. (Thackeray, Catherine, A Story, 1839.)
- HOLD THE MELODRAMA
When Scott died in 1832, the historical novel continued to be popular, with some jobbing authors (notably G.P.R. James and W.H. Ainsworth) making careers out of the genre, while other more literary novelists fashionably dabbled. Dickens, for example, wrote two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities.
The essentially Romantic direction the historical novel took after Scott is best illustrated by a quick look at the work of his successor William Harrison Ainsworth (1805 – 1882). Few people read Ainsworth these days, but in the nineteenth century he was huge: viewed by critics as the natural successor to Scott, and Dickens’ only serious commercial rival in the 1830s. Ainsworth is significant as a major influence on Victorian antiquarianism and national identity, entirely through the reception of his historical novels. Many national myths, such as Dick Turpin’s ride to York, actually originate in Ainsworth’s stories. Ainsworth also developed a rather recognisable style of historical storytelling.
Unlike Scott, Ainsworth’s novels actively foreground and dramatize famous historical personages in which, as the critic John Moore wrote, ‘The kings were kingly and majestic, the queens were queenly and beautiful; and whether the historians had assigned them to the pigeon-hole labelled “Good” or the one labelled “Bad”, they were always in a sense Great.’ Here’s a classic Ainsworth scene:
Gently depositing her upon the pallet, the soldier took a seat beside her on a stone slab at the foot of the bed. He next, at her request, as the cave was rendered almost wholly dark by the overhanging trees, struck a light, and set fire to a candle placed within a lantern.
After a few moments passed in prayer, the recluse begged him to give her the crucifix that she might clasp it to her breast. This done, she became more composed, and prepared to meet her end. Suddenly, as if something had again disturbed her, she opened wide her glazing eyes, and starting up with a dying effort, stretched out her hands.
‘I see him before them!’ she cried. ‘They examine him – they adjudge him! Ah! He is now in a dungeon! See, the torturers advance! He is placed on the rack – once – twice – thrice – they turn the levers! His joints snap in their sockets – his sinews crack! Mercy! He confesses! He is led to execution. I see him ascend the scaffold!’
‘Whom do you behold?’ inquired the soldier, listening to her in astonishment.
‘His face is hidden from me,’ replied the prophetess; ‘but his figure is not unlike your own. Ha! I hear the executioner pronounce his name. How are you called?’
‘GUY FAWKES,’ replied the soldier.
‘It is the name I heard,’ rejoined Elizabeth Orton.
And, sinking backward, she expired. (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 1841.)
This melodramatic style may seem a bit daft to the modern reader, and it was Ainsworth’s prose that Thackeray had in mind in Catherine, but what we essentially have here is a model for the popular historical narrative. The plot and overall style of Michael Hirst’s script for the second season of The Tudors, for example, was basically Ainsworth’s novel Windsor Castle (1843). Melodrama is a very two-dimensional form of story-telling, however, relying on recognisable character stereotypes, such as heroes, villains, damsels-in-distress, and comic relief. Aim for more emotional depth. As Michael Faber explained in an interview with The List: ‘If someone’s a cartoon villain you can dismiss them, but if they behave despicably but you kind of like them, they really get under your skin. You have this sense that they ought to be able to do better, and yet they’ve let you down.’
- UNDERSTAND HISTORICAL DETERMINISM
If you are writing about well-known historical figures or events, your reader already knows the plot: Anne Boleyn is going to be beheaded, as is Lady Jane Grey and Charles I; Elizabeth I is never going to marry, Guy Fawkes is going to fail, Napoleon is going to be defeated at Waterloo, the Hindenberg is going to burn, the Titanic is going to sink, and England are going to lose on penalties.
There are five possible moves from here:
- Don’t write about well-known people and events (Defamiliarisation).
- Choose historical characters and events that only professional historians of the period are likely to have even heard of (Cultural Retrieval).
- Change events and claim you’re writing about an ‘alternative reality.’ A great example of this is Alan Moore’s Watchmen, where America wins Vietnam and Nixon is re-elected. A stupid example would be the end of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. You can’t justify everything with ‘postmodernism.’
- Make it a tragedy. When Aristotle sat down with his popcorn to watch Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex he already knew that Oedipus was going to marry Jocasta and end up blind and exiled, as did the rest of the audience. Did they pretend to act surprised at the end? No! The central tenet of tragedy is inevitability; and, according to Aristotle in his Poetics, the purpose of any dramatic plot is to show the protagonist’s moral defect (the hamartia), his or her recognition of its existence (the anagnorisis), and the consequences of its existence (the peripeteia).
- Write with insight and drama. As Hilary Mantel explained in a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: ‘In every scene, even the quiet ones, I try to create turning points, multiple turning points. So the reader knows how it’s going to turn out, but the reader’s expectation of how and why is constantly challenged.’
- WRITE IT WELL
Remember always that you’re writing a novel, not a history. This means you need to focus on character and dialogue, action and setting, plot, pace and narrative structure. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself. Have a look at my ‘Twelve Essential Components’ and ‘Top Ten Writing Mistakes’ and remember, in the words of Thomas Love Peacock, ‘History is but a tiresome thing in itself; it becomes more agreeable the more romance is mixed up with it.’