Inside Historical Fiction – a look at Myfanwy Cook’s book

Historical Fiction Writing by Myfanwy CookMyfanwy Cook‘s Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit is next in the list of books I’ve been reading about the craft of writing historical fiction. Myfanwy is a prize winning author of short fiction who also runs creative fiction workshops. Her book covers a wide range of topics from deciding on your historical time period to voice and viewpoint, and a special section on historical crime fiction. Beyond the text itself, Myfanwy Cook offers practice activities, templates to use, and tips from a number of historical fiction writers.

The breadth of this book demands at least two posts and in today’s post, I’ve extracted various bits I found to illuminate the dimensions of research and world-building.

Broad guidance:

“the reader has to be drawn into an older world and situation which are so described that we are persuaded we know this world from the inside, not as remote spectators.”

“The ‘rule of thumb’ that you should always apply is never assume that the place you are writing about is the same as it was.”

According to C.C. Humphreys, one of the authors quoted in the book, “research is about finding things that act as springboards for the imagination and bounce your plot and characters into places you could not have foreseen.”

“The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Harry Sidebottom author of Warrior of Rome series

“the novelist should at least try to inhabit the psychological universe of his or her characters, to understand what their moral, religious, political and social universe was like.” Andrew Taylor author of The American Boy

Setting: “Setting in historical fiction is both temporal and spatial.”

Research sources: Research “every aspect of life as it was then, starting with home life and spreading out [to] the local situation, then to the national and then to the international” Lilian Harry author of historical novels and romances

While information on earlier periods can be augmented with archeological reports,  “For later periods maps, pictures and photographs are particularly important for filling in detail and avoiding errors.”

“Search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers for suitable names that were popular in the period.” Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments.

“Newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, advertisements, broadsheets and plays” are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time; letters are another source; still more sources: books, artefacts, documents such as wills, court rolls, paintings, maps, diaries, memorabilia, recordings, interviews, biographies, civil and military records, museums, town histories, ships’ logs, farm journals,

Look for information on the “local geography at the time, contemporary vehicles, recreational activities, popular music, pastimes and hobbies, prices of things in the shops, social structures”

“listen to a piece of music, song or instrument from the period you are interested in writing about”

“check the records on the period to see if it mentions floods or snow or even hot dry summers”

“Study books of etiquette and social customs relating to the period.”

Dialogue: “Make a list of verbs that were in common usage at the time” and incorporate a few into your dialogue. Possible sources include:,,

Detail: “Using specific detail will help your reader to identify with the period and setting that you are writing about.” For example, a drinking vessel could be a chalice, a porcelain cup, a pewter tankard; the chalice could be gold or silver and elaborately designed.

Timelines: “Timelines and event lines provide a fixed framework for you to write your story.” Beyond the major historical events, check for items such as new technologies, wars, famines and natural catastrophes.

“unless one keeps an eye on the calendar, you can find yourself holding a court on a Sunday or Saint’s day, or having roast pork on a Friday”

Summary thoughts: Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit includes all sorts of great advice, research ideas and useful reference sites. Both new and experienced writers will come away with very helpful suggestions. On a personal note, I find it difficult to work with exercises embedded in books. I suppose I prefer my exercises to be in a workshop setting, which, of course, was the original intent for those that are included. Others will no doubt find them helpful.

My only caveat concerns the book’s breadth – a soup to nuts exploration of the craft of writing plus the unique aspects of writing historical fiction. For me, combining the two diluted the impact of each one.

Next time I’ll share some of the websites Myfanwy Cook recommends.

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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.



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