Top 10 tips for historical fiction - know your field

One of the reasons I used to think that writing historical fiction was not for me was that I didn’t think I knew enough about history. I had the idea that it would be better to write about ‘what I knew’ because it would save me a bit of time. If I based fiction on familiar, everyday facts, then I could put the energy I would have put into finding out about farthingales or dropsy into writing the actual story.

So my first novel was set in my home town, Brighton, in what was then the present day. (The year 2000 or thereabouts.) But it turned out that research was essential if that story was to work. When confronted with the blank page, unless you can really recall the precise texture and detail of an experience, you have three choices:

1.   Use your imagination
2.    Be extremely brief.
3.    Find out about the precise texture and detail of the experience.

Choices one and two are fine, and I use them regularly. In fact, all fiction is a mix of research, memory and imagination, and if you aren't prepared to go for it and make stuff up, you are probably better off doing something else. Brevity and elision are gifts to the writer – fading in an out of scenes, cutting to the chase, avoiding adverbs and adjectives Unless Absolutely Necessary – this is good, effective writing.

But Choice 3 will get you in the end. You need to know your subject. You need to know your subject if you are writing chick lit, or crime, or a literary novel set in a call centre. There is no escape from this. And when you set out on your finding out mission, the greatest surprise of all is that it is extremely enjoyable. 

As long as you keep your story and your reasons for doing your research in mind, and don’t panic about spending time away from writing new words down, this part of the writing process not only grounds your story in actuality and real events, it also inspires lots of new ideas, and helps you refine existing ones. Becoming an anorak is among the great pleasures of writing.

I am starting a new historical novel now, set in a new period. (The Restoration.) And I'm going through the same process I went through with Dark Aemilia. The first stage is scoping out – I am reading big, fat books about Charles II and the other major players in the period, and slightly thinner books about Restoration drama. I’m not sure what I will need for my story at this stage, so I am assuming I will need everything. I am a bit like someone packing up before emigrating, because writing a new historical novel, set in an unfamiliar period, is like moving to another country.


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