1. Do the research but wear it lightly
There are two big watch-outs for the writer of historical fiction and they are two sides of the same coin.
Some writers believe that, because they are writing fiction, that absolves them of the need to be thorough in the detail that underpins their story. “It’s fiction, after all.” Yes, but it’s also historical! Getting the facts wrong immediately signals that the writer is not in control of their subject and this undermines authorial credibility. Readers of historical fiction are often extremely knowledgeable about history. Failure to properly research your time period can raise hackles. I’m not talking about interpretation here – Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell good vs More bad is absolutely fine, whether you agree with her or not, because she has done the research and then made a considered interpretation. No, I’m talking about getting the facts wrong or twisting them to fit the story. Hollywood movies have a terrible tendency to do this and it drives me crazy – the Americans did not capture the Enigma machine – it happened before they even entered the war. Even those who write Alternative History need to work hard and do the research to make their departure from actual events plausible to the reader.
The other side of the coin is doing a vast amount of research and then feeling the need to shoehorn it all into the book. This can give the reader a bad case of indigestion. Just because you know a lot you don’t have to ladle it on so thick that it gets in the way of telling the story! Most good writers of historical fiction will do vastly more research than makes it onto the page.
Research doesn’t have to involve sitting for hours in libraries, consulting dusty manuscripts – especially if, like me, you write stories that happen to be set in the past rather than fictionalised historical biographies. Wandering around museums, watching old movies, looking at paintings, reading fiction and poetry that’s contemporary to the period you are writing about are all valuable additions to your research. I came up with the bones of the plot of my new novel, The Green Ribbons while wandering around an old country church. The idea for Kurinji Flowers came to me when I tried to imagine who might have stayed in the Indian hotel room I was staying in on holiday.
2. It’s about creating a sense of PLACE as well as TIME
If you want to make historical fiction jump off the page and come alive for your readers, it’s not enough to get the time period right. Part of making that past world vivid is about making the location come alive too. Creating a sense of place will make your characters more believable and help the reader visualise them in action.
Obviously places change over time – my novel Letters from a Patchwork Quilt is partly set in the industrial town of Middlesbrough in northern England. The part of the town where my characters lived was swept away in the 1960s as part of slum clearance. I did visit Middlesbrough – but I heavily relied on studying old photographs of the town in the nineteenth century. I walked along the nearby beaches, mentally removing the offshore wind-farm and concentrating on the dunes, the patterns of coal dust in the sand and the sound of the birds.
In order to make my setting of a tea plantation in pre-Independence India come alive in Kurinji Flowers, I went to stay in a 1930s tea planter’s bungalow in the middle of nowhere – about 20km from the nearest town. The nearby tea factory was still using the same equipment (including wood-fired furnaces) that had been used by the British in the first half of the last century. I walked the same paths my main character would have walked, photographing and sketching the flora and fauna, experiencing how the place looked, smelled and sounded. I visited what had been the old British colonial club and I hung out in the local market watching the spice sellers, the fabric salesmen and the tailors at work.
3. Watch your language – especially in dialogue
One of the biggest turnoffs for me in some historic fiction is when the author, in an attempt at historical authenticity, peppers the dialogue with “prithee my liege”, thees and thous, and other such expressions in an attempt at historical authenticity. The problem is that, while they may have been widely used in the period in question, they jar horribly to the modern reader and as such create a barrier between reader and characters.
My preference is to use words that would have been used at the time but that still sound natural now, avoid anachronisms and omit any now obsolete ‘curlicues’ of speech such as hither and whither goest thou. After all, people at the time would have found those words completely natural and would not have hesitated over them, whereas we can find them distracting. The author’s challenge is to make the reader feel present in the action not in a library!
But avoiding anachronisms can in itself cause further problems – a lot of very modern-sounding words are in fact quite ancient. My rule of thumb is that if my beta readers, editor, or proof reader point them out as sounding too modern I try to find an alternative – even when they are accurate to the period. It’s all about keeping credibility and a sense of authenticity.
There’s a YouTube video that points out all the speech anachronisms in Downton Abbey (such as get shafted, when push comes to shove and I’ll contact her.). While they may be anachronistic I doubt that many viewers would have noticed some of them.
4. Avoid anachronisms of behaviour as well as of speech and historical fact
Another trap to avoid is having your nineteenth century characters behave in the in the way they would behave today. I’ve just read an otherwise very enjoyable book where I struggled to believe in the female protagonist’s feisty 21st century reaction to her unexpected out-of-wedlock pregnancy at age eighteen in 19th century Mid-West America. Being a single mum in an affluent and respectable family in a small town would have been a very different proposition to making such a choice today and it jarred with me how lightly the heroine took it.
In order to understand the attitudes to sexual behaviour and morality in early 20th century Britain I read some contemporary sex manuals. In fact my bookshelves groan with all sorts of odd titles for research purposes such as The Marriage Manual – a Practical Guide to Sex and Marriage (1936), The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1904) and Bradshaw’s Railway Handbook (1863).
5. Last but most important – tell a great story!
Writing historical fiction is about telling a story that readers want to read – otherwise you’d be better to write a history book. The most fundamental requirement regardless of the genre you write in is to tell a good tale that will keep your readers hooked to the end – especially if they end up staying up all night to finish it!
Clare is a graduate of Manchester University, where she read English Language and Literature. After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own strategy-consulting business for 18 years in London. She recently moved to Eastbourne on the south coast to focus on her writing and stare out of her kitchen window at the ever-changing sea.
When not writing and reading, Clare loves to splash about with watercolours and grabs any available opportunity to travel – often under the guise of research. You can read mor about Clare and her books here. She can also be found on Twitter and on Facebook.