As part of my efforts to dig inside historical fiction, last week I began reading Marina Oliver‘s Writing Historical Fiction: How to Write an Historical Blockbuster. While much of the advice seems very basic and applies to novels of all genres, nevertheless, I have a few highlights to share. (Bolded phrases are chapter headings.)
The Joys of Historicals: “For many writers, the challenge of combining imagination with real events adds a fascinating dimension to the plotting of novels … the plot must be carefully devised to fit the known facts.” [There is a case to be made for extending or interpreting the known facts to what is plausible.]
Be a Professional: find books on “historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases … dictionaries of quotations, books of names, books on furniture, costume and houses, second-hand copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack, hotel and tourist guides and maps”
Be a Professional: “understand the conflicts of the time, how people felt and why they behaved as they did”
Be a Professional: “make a list of historical themes appropriate to different times”
Be a Professional: use “records such as judicial reports, school log books and local newspapers”; “read biographies of other people important at the time”
Getting Started: Art books and paintings “show far more than just the buildings. They will show how much traffic is around, what sort, what the people were wearing, shop fronts, advertisements on hoardings or buildings”
Getting Started: “make a timeline for the real events that happen during the course of your novel”
Characters: “Your characters have to abide by the conventions of their time. To write a believable historical story you have to understand and make use of the contemporary attitudes and beliefs, not superimpose those of a later century”; “If characters go against norms, you must be very sure of their motives, and know what would be the reaction of other people”
Characters: “investigate beliefs, religion, morality, social codes, political context, manners and mannerisms and understand how these bear on your characters”
Dialogue: “give the right flavour of the time without being incomprehensible”
Dialogue: “Be careful with historical slang expressions. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.” [The word gay is used as an example.]
Plot: “you need to be aware, always, whether what you ask of your characters is feasible and whether it fits in with the attitudes and conventions of their time.”
Some other techniques: “Never deviate from the known historical facts. Research all those facts which are important to the accuracy of the story or background.” [Other writers suggest that the occasional deviation one more minor items accompanied by an author note is acceptable.]
Research is essential: There are different levels of research. First there is the general background … then you will need more specific information, relating more closely to the location and the time, and finally tiny details to illustrate something in the story, to back up some action or make a plot development possible. [I like the notion of different levels.]
Please add your thoughts and any guidance you may have. Next up – Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Tool Kit by Myfanwy Cook.
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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.