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The writers map of historical fiction, stirred quite a response. Comments and suggestions have prompted me to augment the map using insights from those who responded as well as ideas from past interviews with favourite historical authors. I also went searching for books about writing historical fiction which has led me to invite various authors to add their input. The result: Inside historical fiction – a series of interviews on what makes this genre tick.
When I found Angela Hunt‘s book on writing historical fiction, I contacted her to see what advice she could offer. She called her book Writing Historical Fiction: Viewing the Past Through the Lens of the Present – an intriguing title and concept. Angela graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
M.K. Tod: With more than 130 books to your credit – Wow, that’s an impressive number – including fiction and non-fiction, you are undoubtedly a prolific writer! Can you share a few of your productivity tricks with us?
Angela Hunt: Lots of little things—a place and time for everything, a daily quota, a “relaxed” attitude toward housekeeping (though my house is clean, I don’t sweat the small stuff), and learning how to say “no” to good things that aren’t my best options.
Based on your experience, what attributes set historical fiction apart from contemporary fiction?
Obviously, historical fiction involves the people, places, and cultures of an age that’s past. Modern readers enjoy reading it and comparing modern attitudes to those of the past, but people will always be prone to virtues and vices no matter when they live.
You say that writers of historical fiction must do their best to “understand the mindset of the people” they write about. What techniques do you recommend to help writers accomplish this objective?
Historical fiction is so much more than substituting horses and carriages for automobiles. Historical authors need to understand the cultures of the past, and I believe there’s no better way to do that than to read writings written in that era. I have been amazed to discover how much literature exists from long-distant eras. I’ve read some amazing love poems from ancient Egypt, for example.
How do you research and prepare for writing an historical fiction story?
I start ordering books and reading about the people, their customs, their social structure, their clothing, their families, their governments, and their history. Whenever possible, I visit historical settings or take in museums with artifacts from ancient eras. When writing about ancient Egypt, I visited the British Museum, which has an amazing Egyptian collection.
What do you do to create a past world for your readers?
I use sensory perceptions. I try to make sure there is something to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell in every chapter.
Which historical fiction authors have inspired you?
As a child I read Margaret Mitchell, the Bronte sisters, and Louisa May Alcott. So it’s no wonder that my first adult novels were historicals.
What ingredients do you think make them successful?
Historical fiction not only requires a fascinating place and time, it depends on fascinating characters. Margaret Mitchell’s civil war story would be nothing without the headstrong Scarlett O’Hara.
What other advice can you offer writers of historical fiction?
Be careful not to let our present day political correctness intrude on your historical story. I once read a reader review chide me for “religious talk” in my novel set in 1587—well, daily life in that era was filled with “religious talk.” In other eras, women were chattel and some men were beastly, so if you create a headstrong woman, you must portray her as the exception she would be.
Can you tell us about Esther, your latest book?
Esther, Royal Beauty, is the first in a series of books about women whose exceptional beauty got them in trouble. It’s more than a retelling of the biblical story; it is the story of Xerxes, the Persian king, and Harbonah, a eunuch in the palace. Many books have been written about Esther, but I don’t know of many who have given these other important characters the space they deserve.
Many thanks for adding your thoughts on historical fiction, Angela. I wish you lots of success with your next novel.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (US, Canada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and on iTunes.