Saturday, 8 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - think laterally

Historical fiction is a broad and eclectic genre. You don't have to write a story that is a copycat of what has already been written. So my fourth tip is to think laterally and customize tropes and conventions from other genres as freely and cheekily as you like. Remember that there are already numerous sub-genres that have done exactly that: romantic historical fiction, historical thrillers and alternative histories, which are part historical fiction, part fantasy.

Examples include Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (historical romance) which tells the story of the relationship between John Donne and Anne More; Dissolution, the first book the Shardlake series of Tudor crime thrillers by C.J. Sansom and Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove, which is set in an alternate sixteenth century England which has been invaded by the Spanish Armada. Some books span more than one sub-genre - for example, Fatherland by Robert Harris is both an alternate history (imagining that Germany invaded England at the end of World War II) and a thriller.

This is good news if you are fan of a particular genre of writing, and can help shape and focus your ideas .Plot can be an issue for many new or inexperienced writers, and both romances and thrillers operate within certain constraints and conventions, which both limit your options and clarify your narrative goals. (A romance should be a love story in which your protagonist has to overcome a series of obstacles to be with their lover; a thriller should revolve around a quest or 'chase' story, with the protagonist seeking to resolve a mystery or use their ingenuity to avert disaster or achieve their goal.)

The literary historical novel is also having a renaissance, following the success of authors like Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. The bets are off here - you can experiment and delve into much darker or stranger terrain if you want to write in this form. The recently announced long list for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction included a number of historical novels. (The books in question are: The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter; The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent  and The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. There are also historical elements in two other books on the list: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner moves backwards and forwards in time, and  The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri  covers several decades of Indian and American life. 

So - the good news is that this genre can be bent and twisted and adapted to any form that you like. You can use certain conventions, you can make lateral connections, and you can subvert the whole lot if you want to.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - tell a good story

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.

Historical fiction encompasses a wide range of sub-genres, and some historical novels are more page turney than others. (Excuse the erudite literary jargon there.) A novel like 'The Name of the Rose' demands more patience and application from the reader than 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. 'Story' tends to be more overtly important in popular fiction than in literary fiction, though all these terms are inexact and some writers think that a plot is over-valued by editors in literary writing, as this blogger has pointed out.

So what do I mean when I suggest that you should 'write a good story'? My advice is that you should be able to lose yourself in the world that you have created, that you should create characters that obsess you and fascinate you, and that you should have some idea about the needs and desires of these characters. I don't mean that you should have a three act structure or a shopping list of must-haves taken from 'how to write' books' (Although I do suggest that you should be aware of all these things.) And I don't mean that you should be scared of experimentation.  A good story is, in the end, the story that you needed to tell, which you have lived with and lived inside and committed yourself to.

There is something organic and instinctive about the best stories and the best story tellers. Don't just read historical novels, but be voracious and catholic in your reading, and return to books that you have loved in the past. My personal favourites include 'Rebecca', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', 'Lucky Jim', 'The Talented Mr Ripley', 'The Weather in the Streets' and 'Affinity'. 

The only historical novel on the list is Affinity, and I read it before I had any intention of writing in this genre myself. I challenge anyone to write a better plot than Sarah Waters has in that book. I finished it on a train and actually laughed out loud, not because it was funny especially, but because of its sheer audacity and cleverness. It was the perfect ending, the most satisfying and wonderful sleight of hand by the author. If you haven't read it, and you are wondering what I am banging on about, please do.

A good story is a succession of events which make you want to know what happens next. A clever story is one which surprises you constantly, subverting your expectations. You can write anti stories or meta fiction or undermine the form if you like. But this series of blog posts is aimed at anyone starting to write historical fiction, and in my opinion, mastering the art of story telling is a sound starting point. Just as Picasso began by learning the conventions of drawing, so we can learn from the convention of the traditional tale.