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