Tony Riches is a keen writer, blogger, tweeter and reader of historical fiction. We met one day when I discovered some advice he had to offer on his blog, The Writing Desk and today I’m delighted to have him here to give his views on ‘inside historical fiction’.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable / irresistible?
I love it when a book opens our eyes to an entirely different view of the perceived wisdom. An example that springs immediately to mind is Hilary Mantel’s work, which has really made me re-think the role of Thomas Cromwell and helps me understand the English Reformation. Other ‘magic ingredients’ are an atmospheric sense of the time and place—as well as skillfully woven tapestries of historical facts, running through great storytelling like threads of gold.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Yes and no. A great historical novel respects the social, political and economic issues of the day so readers can trust the author to shine new light on their understanding of actual events. At the same time, truly engaging stories are about people and emotional relationships, love and hate, secrets and lies—all of human life. (My second novel The Shell is set in present day Mombasa but the story could have been set in the First World War and worked just as well.)
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?
I’ve become fascinated by the way the clothes people wear actually change the way they behave. I was in the Royal Air Force in my youth and occasionally had to wear camouflaged battle-dress and carry a machine gun. Surprisingly (or not) I now draw on that experience when I’m writing about soldiers fighting in the Wars of the Roses. I also enjoy researching the outrageous banquets enjoyed by royalty in the fifteenth century (peacocks with gilded beaks or a porpoise roasted whole.)
In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Research is essential and, when possible, there is no substitute for actually visiting the locations, as even ruined castles are rich in clues if you know what to look for. I like to find an authentic ‘voice’ for characters – without over doing it. I read even more than I write, mixing historical fiction with non-fiction and immersing myself in the specific time. I also find it useful to study TV and film adaptations, such as the beautifully produced interpretation of Wolf Hall currently being shown on the BBC.
I enjoy searching for primary sources and discovering long forgotten details. For example, the first photo is of the little chapel Eleanor would have prayed in when she was imprisoned in Beaumaris Castle, which I visited on a glorious summer day. Here is an extract from her ‘diary’ I wrote after visiting it:
“I take my time on my walk and usually end in the chapel tower. It is simply furnished but a quiet, peaceful place. Always cool even in this summer heat, the chapel has a high vaulted stone ceiling and carved wooden panelling. Lady Ellen said it was built by King Edward for his personal use. I am grateful for his piety, as his chapel is where I can find some peace from the soldiers and my jailers. I kneel in contemplation but do not pray. God has long since forsaken me. Instead I remember those who have treated me well, the few who have been kind to me and those who have died in the nine long years since I was last a free woman.”
The second picture is one I took of Sir William Bulkeley (Eleanor’s gaoler) and his wife Ellen, in the nearby church. Their effigies are so well preserved after more than five hundred years, I felt more able to understand the kind of people they were – and represented them more sensitively as a consequence.
With regard to secondary sources, the internet makes it so much easier to find little ‘gems’ such as Jessica Freeman’s paper for the Journal of Medieval History on sorcery and witchcraft (attached for info). I was able to use this to help me sort out the many myths from the facts – and make sure my account is as consistent with the known details as possible. (I always add a section at the end of my books with details of my sources and further reading.)
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I believe readers of historical fiction are becoming more discerning – a good thing, as it ‘raises the bar’ for authors. In my own field, there has been impressive growth in the range and quality of novels about the Wars of the Roses (such as Conn Iggulden’s Stormbird trilogy.) I also have regular feedback from readers along the lines of ‘I didn’t know much about [insert name or era] before reading your book’ which is encouraging as it suggests the genre is continuing to attract new audiences.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tony. Some excellent suggestions for other writers as well as insights for readers who wish to understand how we go about building our historical worlds.
Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and has a particular interest in the history of the fifteenth century. His novel Warwick: The Man Behind The Wars of the Roses tells the story of the Earl of Warwick, Sir Richard Neville, known of as the ‘Kingmaker’. His latest novel The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham is about the ill-fated Duchess of Gloucester, whose interest in astrology led to accusations of a plot against the king using sorcery and witchcraft.