Tuesday, 25 February 2014

How to write historical fiction - be bold

This is the second of my top 10 tips for writing historical fiction.

Don’t be intimidated by the facts, or the personalities that you discover. The facts are a starting point, not a straitjacket. Remember that even biography is an inexact science.

Once you have done enough research to get a strong sense of the time and place you are writing about, and the people who lived there, you need to free yourself from the idea that you need to be 'faithful to the facts'. You must get the facts right, yes, but you actually need to be unfaithful to them. Being historically accurate means that you don't change the dates of battles, the deaths of known historical figures, or make other blunders which are anachronistic and undermine your credibility as a historical fiction writer. (This does not apply if you are writing altered history, of which more in a later post. But altered history has as much in common with fantasy as it does with this genre.)

However it is possible to decide that - for example - Thomas Cromwell was beaten and despised by his father, and this was a formative element of his psychology, as Hilary Mantel does in Wolf Hall, or that Charles II rewarded an obscure physician for saving his favourite dog, as Rose Tremain does in Restoration. If you don't make such leaps of imagination, then you might as well write a text book, which is fine, but it's not fiction. 

Biographers create a story: the story of the life of their subject. They research that person's life and perspective, using letters, their own work, their own diaries, the diaries of others, and perhaps interviews if their subject is still alive or died recently. Once this work is done, the biographer uses supposition to try to enter the consciousness of this person. They may dramatize or even invent certain scenes to bring the 'story' alive. Some are more audacious than others - Peter Ackroyd is well-known for using the devices of a novelist to explore the lives of writers like Charles Dickens.

Fiction writers go beyond supposition - they invent. You have just as much right to do this if your book is set in 1614 as you do if it is set in 2014. And this still applies if you are basing your story on the lives of real people.

You can't write historical fiction politely. You have to force your way into the past, and claim it as your own, no matter how crazy or impossible this may seem. This is what Fay Weldon said to me when I was working on an early draft of my novel Dark Aemilia 'If you are going to put William Shakespeare in your book, he has to be your William Shakespeare, and no one else's.'

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

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.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction

Okay, so my new historical novel 'Dark Aemilia' comes out next month, and in this blog I'll be focusing on historical fiction and all things associated with it. Here are ten suggested 'top tips' which I hope might be useful both for new historical writers and people already writing in this field who want some fresh advice. I'll be fleshing these out in ten posts over the weeks leading to the publication date.

1. Know your field. Read everything, visit museums, find physical objects that inspire you, talk to family members, watch documentaries and films, pursue all lines of enquiry that are relevant to your chosen period or subject. Be an anorak, it’s more fun than you might think!

2. Be bold. Don’t be intimidated by the facts, or the personalities that you discover. The facts are a starting point, not a straitjacket. Remember that even biography is an inexact science.

3. Tell a good story – character and plot are just as important in this genre as in any other. Don’t make the mistake of letting the setting dominate everything else.

4. Think laterally. Is your story a romance or a thriller? If so, borrow from these genres. (Try and avoid a zombie mash-up if you can, this is as passé as Jeremy Paxman’s beard.)

5. Put your reader in a time machine. If you have found a way to immerse yourself in the period, try to give them the same experience.

6. Be succinct. Less is more in historical fiction – don’t get bogged down in long descriptions or expositional dialogue.

7. Look for ‘the gaps in history’. Hilary Mantel has talked about using the unknown in history, the unrecorded and forgotten moments. You can do the same thing. You can also search out periods that are less popular than the Elizabethan era, or more distant in time.

8. Character, character, character. Why is ‘Wolf Hall’ so successful? Or ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’? They are all very different in their approach, but all have vivid and believable characters that the reader cares about. Even an apparently unsympathetic character like Thomas Cromwell becomes engaging and absorbing when we are party to his thoughts and fears.

9. Develop genre awareness. If you want to write a Tudor crime thriller, make sure you read C.J.Sansom. If you want to write about the life of Charles II, read ‘Restoration’. And so on. If you are worried about your style being influenced when you are writing your own book, then stop reading other writers during this period, but it should definitely be part of your preparatory research.

10. Read outside the genre. It’s essential to read as widely as possible and as eclectically as possible if you want to write well and raise your game to the highest possible level. Historical fiction is not just a ticket to escapism, it’s a vibrant and varied genre in its own right.