Writing Historical Fiction

We all have genres we love and each has their own intricacies in terms of the writing. In this guest post, Dr Sanjida O’Connell shares her tips for writing historical fiction.

I am an accidental historical novelist. My third novel, The Naked Name of Love, was a story I had to tell that happened to be set in the past. My publishers, John Murray, wanted the fourth book to be in the historical literary genre too. Since they published Darwin and Byron I felt I couldn’t really say no. As David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, writes, ‘I didn’t set out to write a historical novel – you’d have to be mad.’

Historical novels are wildly popular right now but they come with their own particular baggage. I don’t believe rules strictly adhered to are going to give you the bestseller most of us crave but there are a few bits and bobs you ought to bear in mind before embarking on a journey into the past.

Research

First and foremost is research. Every novel requires some but the amount needed for a historical novel, unless you already have a PhD in your chosen year, is immense. You need to know what your characters ate, what they wore, how they washed (did they wash?!), how they got around, where they lived and even harder to find out but equally crucial, what they thought.

In the country of the past, people had different beliefs and customs; even their history was viewed alternately than we see it now. What was the zeitgeist of the time? Had the motor car just been invented? Was a scientific renaissance rising or dying? Then there are major historical events that overshadow your story but that your characters may be unaware of. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set in the US at the turn of the Civil War lending the characters’ predicament poignancy since we know what happened and they never will.

Don’t wear it on your sleeve

Having done all this research, don’t stick it all in your book! David Mitchell says, ‘Lines such as “Shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or will Madam prefer the two-wheeled barouche landau?” will kill.’ In the same vein, you might know the term Phaeton, but will your readers? In the interests of historical accuracy, you could risk alienating your audience.

In The Naked Name of Love, my main character, a priest, is traveling across Outer Mongolia in 1859. Here I can explain some historical words since he is stranger in a strange land too; once he’s back home in Bristol, I no longer have that luxury.

It’s all in the detail

Of course, some unfamiliar words now and again are acceptable. What you do want are details, which can only be gleaned through research and imagination. It is these details that can make your work glow and which will transport your reader to the world you have created. For example, this is a line or two of detail from Sugar Island just before Emily and her slave, Virginie’s outing ends in disaster: ‘Emily sipped her ice, crunching the crystals between her teeth. Virginie’s head was almost level with her feet; she could smell the oil in her hair. The ice was flavoured with orange and quickly melted into an overly sweet syrup at the bottom of the glass.’ Soldiers drinking and gambling in the inn then decide that a slave should not be allowed an ice.

Time and place

Clearly you are going to be researching the time period your novel is set, but you also need to know what the place was like. I live in Bristol, but walking round the streets doesn’t help me understand what Bristol in 1859 was like. Luckily for The Naked Name of Love, parts of Outer Mongolia haven’t changed that much! For Sugar Island I traveled to St Simons Island, Savannah, Georgia. In 1859 the entire island was given over to slave plantations; now it is the wealthiest zip code in America. Fortunately, there was a museum nearby (The Broadfield Plantation) and a smaller island (the Sugar Island of my title) that had been turned into a nature reserve so at least gave me a hint of the place as it had once been.

Dialogue

It’s so hard to find out how people in the distant past would really have spoken; even harder to recreate their speech in such a way that it sounds accurate but isn’t off-putting to read. This is the key – you need to find authenticity, rather than accuracy, heretical as this sounds.

For example, in Sugar Island, a novel dealing with slavery, hearing the slaves speak (and be called the N-word), raises the hackles of our modern-day sensibilities. Writing down how I thought they might have spoken from my research sounded derogatory; taking dialogue from a later period (for instance, the way the Afro-Americans spoke in The Help) didn’t help. In the end I did more research and discovered that the slaves on St Simons island were part of a group known as the Gullah and had their own dialect. I then altered this a bit to affect a compromise that would be easy to read and yet feel authentic.

Fact check

You need to do this. But it’s also an idea to get someone else to do it too, even if you have to pay them. Thank goodness my copy editor on The Naked Name of Love pointed out a number of errors, including lipstick smears on glasses (only prostitutes would have worn lipstick in 1859).

So what I’m basically saying is that you need to do a lot of research to create historical detail and authenticity and then add a healthy dose of imagination to make your work sing. Just remember, you’re not writing a factual book. As the American Quaker novelist, Jessamyn West, said, ‘Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death …Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free.

Resources

Essay at the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Blogs: Linda Proud on historical fiction

My personal favorite historical novels: The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill, The Voyage of the Narwhale by Andrea Barrett, As Meat loves Salt by Maria McCann, Possession by AS Byatt, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney.

Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island (John Murray).

Twitter: @sanjidaoconnell

Facebook Sanjida OConnell

Her latest novel, Sugar Island, is out in paperback on 15 March, published by John Murray. It’s available for pre-order now.

On tour in America in 1859, Emily Harris, a young English actress, meets and marries the charming Charles Earl Brook. But Charles has kept a terrible secret: he is a slave-owner. Forced to accompany her husband south, Emily’s attempts to help the slaves put her in great danger. And when civil war breaks out, she realizes she stands to lose everything she has ever loved.

Do you have any tips for writing historical fiction? Please share them in the comments below.

Image: Flickr CC StuckInCustoms

 

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Comments

  1. says

    My WIP is a historical fantasy set in the 18th century, so this advice is really helpful. Thanks for sharing.

    (The story is set in Oxford, the modern-day version of which retains a lot of “olde worlde” character — luckily for me!)

    • says

      Good luck with it! Oxford is such a beautiful city and you’re right, parts of it still have a real, historical feel. In the 18th century the river in Bristol used to flow right through the centre so boats could literally float right into the heart of the city and unload on the warehouse steps. I’ve found searching for old engravings of the city really useful.

      • says

        Oxford is my favourite city in the world and I’m so lucky to live nearby! I must admit it is many years since I last visited Bristol, but I do remember the docks. I love old engravings — they are so atmospheric, great for getting a “feel” for time and place.

  2. says

    I see so manywriters give up on the facts in order to produce a story, any story. To me, this says that the writer things I’m stupid or, maybe worse, that the writer themselves is none too bright. There appears to be a subset of “alternative history” literature that actually isn’t alternative…it’s just plain laziness. I think that the best historical fiction makes it very clear to the reader what choices are being made for the sake of a good story.

    I’m both saddened and relieved when I find that the books written about my chosen subject are so bad as to hardly be readable. While I would someday love to come home and dive into a great story on these people, I am excited at the prospect of telling the story myself.

    • says

      There is no getting away from it – you need to do a lot of research for a historical work of fiction. Maybe people cut corners not realising they’ll compromise authenticity.

      I think you should go for it! Good luck with your book.

    • Bruce Geddes says

      I disagree that alt-history is laziness. As a writer of fiction, I feel no obligation to get the facts right. My obligation is to the story. The obligation to the facts is the job of the historian, not the novelist and readers who want to know the facts should look to history, not fiction.

      • says

        A story must be believable by the reader. If the author gets a fact wrong, such as dates, details, etc., a reader of that genre is very likely to notice, and will conclude that “this couldn’t have happened that way.” Historical fiction is different in this regard from other fiction, in that the author must be a historian, but all fiction must be believable.

  3. says

    Thanks so much for this helpful post! I am finishing up my 1st historical fiction novel right now. Great list of things to remember for writing historical fiction. I love the research, but it is hard at times to know how much of the research to put into the novel…:) Also struggle at times to make the dialogue sound authentic:) Thanks so much for the great tips!

    • says

      Thank you! Yes, it’s a hard balancing act. You don’t want to do too much research and feel as if you are wading through treacle!

      One thing I did with the novel I’m working on at the moment is do what I felt was enough research, then as I was writing it, I marked where I needed to do more. I didn’t stop writing but once I’d got to the end, I then went back and did the extra research. The advantage is that you don’t lose the flow of your writing and the new reserch can be much more specific and targeted.

      You’re right, dialogue is tricky. It’s a combination of accuracy, authenticity and gut instinct. I’d err on more modern dialogue as it’s easier to read, so long as there are no faux pas – words that weren’t common or even invented in your time period. All the best with it!

      • says

        I’m trying your tips now with the 2nd novel in the series and it’s working really well. As I write I just put in brackets (RESEARCH CLOTHING) or something and keep writing or I’ll say something about dialogue. Awesome :)

  4. says

    I’ve written four historical novels and one non-fiction history book. The biggest difference is that while the details and historical accuracy are important to both historical fiction and non-fiction, historical fiction readers seem to remain most concerned about the story while non-fiction readers want to know more about the details. My historical fiction are always asking me about the characters and what happened to the characters after the book ends. Readers of my non-fiction ask me questions that force me to go deeper into the details of my story.

    • says

      That’s an interesting comment. You’ve obviously managed to get the balance right between detail, accuracy and story if you’re readers want to know more about the characters.

      What I find, though, with my non-fiction books, is that whilst you are much more constrained by facts, the book flows better if you can tell all of it, or parts of it as a story. From comments I’ve had, too much detail can get readers bogged down in the details and lose the thrust of the narrative. In my most recent non-fiction book, Chimpanzee: The Making of the Film (out March 13 2012) I put the technical information, such as chimpanzee biology, in boxes at the side so it didn’t interrupt the ‘story’ but that extra information was there for those people who wanted more detail.

      • says

        I agree. I remember reading “The Name of the Rose” in college. I was really enjoying the story until it seemed to stop as the author got bogged down in a history of the church or the monastery where it was set (I forget which). Anyway, I finally skipped that whole chapter and kept reading. I don’t feel like I missed anything by skipping that information dump. Details need to chosen carefully so that they pertain to the story or creating the historical setting. Plus, it’s always best to spread them out and mix up how you deliver the information (i.e., exposition, dialogue, actions). With non-fiction, you can do what you did. Similar methods would be to use footnotes or subheads that set that information apart so that a reader can skip the section if he or she wants.

        • says

          I agree. Even good novelists sometimes forget less is more. Good point – exposition can be spread out and delivered in different forms. I find all these suggestions also apply to other fact-heavy genres, particularly fiction containing science. Michael Crichton can be guilty of dumping all his science in undigestible gobbits.

  5. says

    I seem to be reading about historical fiction everywhere these days, which is wonderful! I find that the rewards of researching and writing historical fiction are greater than any other writing I’ve done. The quotation from West–”Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free”–is perfect. Thanks very much.

    • says

      I know! It’s so popular right now. I guess it’s one end of the spectrum of escapism we’re seeing right now – the vampire/werewolf trend being one example of another. Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. says

    I started writing historical fiction because I didn’t think history non-fiction could be interesting. Then I read David McCullough’s “1776″ and discovered other writers like Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand. They tell interesting stories that could be fiction, but I think the fact that they aren’t makes them even more interesting to read. Just as using non-fiction techniques, such as strong researching, helps create authentic historical fiction. Using good narrative techiques, helps create engaging non-fiction history.

  7. says

    So glad to see the pendulum start to swing. I know Tudors are hot, hot, HOT right now, but I’m hoping that since the market’s flooded with them, people will explore other time periods (such as your novel). I completed a historical fiction novel on Vikings, and definitely found that writing historical fiction moves slower than contemp. fiction, simply because you’re trying to nail down those details and speech patterns. This is where a historical fiction critique group or well-read editor can really come in handy–they can catch those little things you’ve missed. Glad I found this post on twitter!

    • says

      That’s good to hear, thank you!

      I like the idea of novels set in other, older time periods. I don’t think they have to be slower paced. You could argue that because less is known about more ancient times, you can get away with more imaginative work. I’d recommend looking at Geraldine Brooks, The Year of Wonders, set during the plague in the 1600s, and also Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall, because the dialogue is very modern. Best wishes.

      • says

        I definitely need to read Wolf Hall, since the dialogue in my Viking novel is relatively modern, too (at least as far as contractions, etc.). I used The Girl w/the Pearl Earring as my blueprint, so to speak–getting enough details to evoke the time/events without overdosing on them!

    • says

      I know what you mean. I’m put off reading a lot of historical fiction too. But I wouldn’t dismiss a whole genre out of hand. Personally I think what’s important is the story and the writing. A gripping story and beautiful style can transcend your genre-boundaries!

      For instance, Margaret Atwood writes a lot of science fiction – she just doesn’t call it that and her books are a good read. You could also argue that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is science fiction. I love both writers, though I wouldn’t say I was a die-hard sci-fi fan.

  8. says

    A fine interview by Joanna with excellent advice by Sanjida. Good research is one of the keys: the when, the where, the how plus a gut instinct to know when to stop digging and start pushing aside the detritus!

    I worked with James A. Michener for two years on his South African novel, the Covenant, a controversial collaboration I describe in detail on my website, from the plotting to the final manuscript. A useful guide for anyone drawn to historical fiction.

    I spent five years on my historical novel of Brazil, with a first draft of three-quarters of million words written in the old-fashioned way, by hand. What the research entailed is best captured by an anecdote:

    Of all the accolades one could hope for at the end of an epic work like Brazil none brought more joy than a simple question asked by famed Brazilian historian and sociologist Gilberto Freyre.
    “I should like to know if Uys had an unpublished jornal intime of a Brazilian family?”

    There was no private journal, just the will to understand the Brazilian “thing” and a passion for writing and storytelling, which lies at the heart of every good novel

    • says

      Wow! What an accolade! I had a private journal for both Sugar Island and The Naked Name of Love to help me so that’s incredible to get that sort of praise without one. Congrats.

  9. says

    Alas, I do have a PhD in my chosen period – the late 16th century! And it’s a nuisance. Why? Because I feel compelled to use phrases that the people of the time might have used, and the modern reader simply does not understand them. Novelist Leonard Tourney is professor in Shakespeare Studies and must have faced this dilemma in his Elizabethan mysteries. His solution is to have the folk of the period speak in a neutral idiom. It’s not ‘correct’ but it contains no linguistic howlers. Too much authenticity can throw the reader out of the story!

  10. says

    You’re right John, it’s a delicate balance between being correct to some extent and being readable. I can see a PhD can be a help or a hinderance if you’re too clsoe to the subject. Mine is on chimpanzees and when I write about these apeasI can be in danger of assuming other people know all about them too. Best wishes with finding a middle ground.

  11. says

    Great Article, Sanjida.

    I have one character from the early 900s, and I have to say you are so dead on; research is the key. That one small section, maybe 8 pages long, took me several months. It was hard and I still wonder if I pulled it off. I opted for a few words such as ‘grund’ for ground, and ‘y’ere’ for year. I even went as far as to spell not, as naught. Fortunately, readers have said they enjoyed Milo (his name) but in trying to determine what the reader would think, I gotta tell you, I went nuts trying to find the fine line between keeping it interesting, and stating the facts.

    I wish I’d run across an article like this back then. I see some seriously smart (and wise) comments.

    Thanks for the post.

    Johnny

  12. Dwayne says

    Sanjida:

    My fear is that I will get it all wrong!

    Want a good laugh? I’m currently writing a story based in the early 1800 on a slave plantation in Virginia, and in one of my drafts I wrote that four slaves were removing a piano from the back of a TRUCK. LOL! But trucks weren’t invented yet. I have since changed TRUCK to wagon.

    Anyway, I fear if I make a mistake, there will be some moron accusing me to being lazy. Meanwhile, those naysayers don’t see the sweat I’m putting into this, nor how my desk is full of history books and slave narratives from that time period.

    So, do we have to be 100% correct?

    And my second question, and probably the more important one, is how to incorporate research into our stories.

    I’m currently reading a novel, won’t mention the name, but there are some sections that read like a history book. I thought one was supposed to take the research and create situations out of them. For example, if you know that the house slaves would sometimes have to give up their free time on Sundays (their only day of rest), and cook dinner in the Slave Master’s home because he decided to have guests over … wouldn’t you want to put this information in a SCENE? Show the frustration of the slave who is probably tired from a week’s worth of backbreaking work and dealing with a the slave master’s insensitive attitude? Etc., etc.

    Maybe this plays to the question that David Mitchell was answering when he was interviewed by the Man Book Prize on his research. He said, “Then, of course, you have to hide 9/10ths of your research below the waterline – which I suppose is a fancy way of saying, ‘Not even putting it in the text.’”

    Let me know what you think? Hopefully this helps others who are unsure of HOW to incorporate research into their fiction.

    Dwayne

    • says

      You should always to your best with fact checking. That way, when somebody catches you about some tiny fact, you can at least know that you did your best. I had somebody tell me once that the smallmouth bass I mentioned in one sentence of a novel should have actually been largemouth bass (the smallmouth hadn’t been introduced into the area until a couple years later). I took refuge in the fact that if that was the only problem the reader found, I was doing all right.

      Sometimes, though, you can write off a mistake to creative license because you are writing fiction. I don’t think the truck would have qualified, though. ;=) Historical novels that are set in a fictional town would be an example of this.

      Since you are writing fiction, if you can write a compelling story with authentic characters, I think most readers will miss or overlook a minor error because they are too interested in seeing what happens next to the story.

      Mitchell was right about what he said. You aren’t writing a history book so you might not be able to work in all your research directly into the story. However, since you do know the information, it will influence how you your characters act because you know there is a rationale for the action even if you can’t make it apparent.

      The key is to give your best effort to write a great story.

  13. laura says

    My problem (one of them) which drives me crazy, is that for the period I want to write about, there is just not that much known. I have questions about what they ate, or how they lived the details of religion and family life and nobody can tell me because nobody knows. I just don’t know what to do.

    • says

      Laura, what is the time and place you are trying to find information about?

      Since it is fiction, you can make some intuitive leaps. Look at other locations from the same time. Can parallels be drawn? Look at other times from you locale. Can you make a chronological timeline that passes through your time period? As a last resort, either work around the knowledge you don’t have or make your best guess.

      I was recently writing and needed details about asphalt paving in the early 20th Century. I looked all over, but couldn’t find the information I was looking for, though I did find some other details that I could use. I finally had to use elements of farming techniques and road building techniques to extrapolate just how paving a road would have been done. I had someone who had been in the asphalt business 20 years tell me last night that my conclusions were probably pretty close to the mark from what he knew (though he didn’t know exactly how it had been done then either).

      • laura says

        Wow, thanks for responding to a comment on an old post. My period is 4th century Sassanian Persian Empire. There are 3 books in English about this era, and I will have finished them soon. Then there is a section in a big old reference book I can finish reading at the library, and an online scholarly journal that was only recently established. After that, I will have to try to glean useful information from related fields and try to squeeze drops of translated info out of german language and maybe Farsi web resources. None of this changes the fact that modern archaeology in the region has barely been done at all, all the history books focus on political and religious matters to the exclusion of the lives of regular people and the history of urban centers to the exclusion of any info on the less populated areas, or that issues in the middle east have caused what info that existed to be out of reach and even destroyed, and that even if I spoke (one of)the language(s) of the region, I can pretty much forget about finding an expert to talk to local to me, since I think there are only 3 or 4 scholars in the country that have specialized on this place in time given the obstacles I just mentioned.

        I should really think about some other part of history to fixate on, but I don’t think my brain really works that way. I am actually pretty enthusiastic about learning everything that I can though. And I find it all so interesting, that I have been inspired to write about it. But it still is frustrating reading the same tips for historical writers that are doubtless useful for people with too many research options, when my problems are the opposite. So I guess my comment was just venting a little.

        I think you are right about basically coming up with what I can find out about and filling in the blanks with best educated guesses. I feel like I also have to be a little braver in terms of reaching out for whatever resources I can find and getting all the way to the root of them, rather than relying on other people’s compiled research. Thanks again for responding.

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