Writing Historical Fiction by Katharine McMahon

Writing Historical Fiction by Katharine McMahonTwo days ago, I promised to provide some thoughts based on my reading of Katharine McMahon’s WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. It’s a small e-book which requires less than two hours to read and, beyond the introduction, is broken into the following chapters: (1) Following Your Nose, (2) Researching the Past, (3) Telling Your Story in Sympathy With the Past, (4) Building Character, (5) How to Describe the Past and What Voice to Use, and (6) Voice.

A number of points stood out for me.

Katharine McMahon explores further that magic I mentioned in the previous post. She feels strongly that an emotional connection to the past is critical to successfully write historical fiction.

the minute I, as a writer of historical fiction, lose my emotional connection with the material, there’ll be a deadness to the writing, and to how I feel about my writing


In great historical fiction, the history and the story combine to generate a whole world of intrigue, analogy and curiosity. But the fiction, and the emotional content of the novel, is the driver.

McMahon believes that historical fiction creates an “unwritten contract between writer and reader“: that fact and fiction are interwoven; that fiction can fill the gaps where history goes silent; that a writer creates the illusion of being immersed in the past; that truth is not first and foremost, but a great story is; and that research underpins the vividness of the story telling.

The reader and I both know that I’m going to interweave the two [fact and fiction] as seamlessly as I would if I were writing a contemporary novel.


 ‘accuracy’, while being critically important, comes second to authenticity, and a piece of fiction has to be truthful – authentic – only within itself

In the section on research, she describes a novel where the writer has reassembled “the tiniest threads of [her research], in the most delicate, dreamlike structure, only the bits she wants and no others” to tell her story” and encourages writers of historical fiction to take a similar approach to make their stories sparkle, to drive the story, illuminate the characters and setting, to underpin the themes and conflicts.

For her own research, McMahon begins with a general history of the time period (a book not internet research) then dives into the bibliography searching for primary and secondary sources. You cannot research everything, she declares, and in her own case often adds further research as her writing unfolds.

There always comes a tipping point when the research has to be let go and the writing begun


in writing about the past your relationship with it, as a writer, should be as intimate but as fluid as your relationship with anybody that you love

In the sections discussing voice:

The voice, the tone in which the novel is written and the language that is used will all spring from the story, the period, the research and the characters.

And here too, she adds to the unwritten contract between reader and writer, stating that the “reader knows a novel has been written in the 21st century about events in the past” and therefore has certain expectations about voice and dialogue.

McMahon illustrates her points with clear examples and suggests a few exercises writers can undertake. I found the chapter on voice particularly helpful. Summary: a straightforward read with some excellent takeaways.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.


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One Response

  1. This sounds an amazing read. I agreed with everything you reported.

    Writing historicals is very tricky. Writers may slip into lecturing, which in this kind of fiction is particularly easy, I think. And readers sometimes want to be lectured, which is frustrating. But hey, in the end, every authors makes their own decitions on the subject, right?

    I’ll always agree that the story is the most imporntat… as long as it doesn’t contrast with history.

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