Elizabeth Fremantle on Writing Historical Fiction

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth FremantleI’m so pleased to have Elizabeth Fremantle here today talking about her writing and the challenges of historical fiction. Elizabeth has been called “a brilliant new player in the court of royal fiction” (People magazine) and is the author of Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason and the newly released Watch the Lady.

MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Elizabeth Fremantle: For me it is all about character. Obviously characters must exist in a context, which is often one of highly dramatic and politically significant events, but if the people at the heart of those events are not well drawn, compelling and complex individuals, a reader might as well read about the period on Wikipedia.

MKT: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

EF: I suppose it depends on the kind of historical novel we are talking about. A literary novel, wherever or whenever it is set, exists to explore ideas and raise questions about what it is to be a social being. Take Jim Crace’s Harvest for example, which is set in a non-specific moment in the past but works as an allegory for modern consumerism.

There is a tendency in historical novels that do not aspire to be experimental, to privilege fine detail and world-building as a way to demonstrate period and often narrative detail is necessary to ensure the reader understands the context and back story. This means that the mode of the historical novel is often closer to Realism rather than Modernism, which is the style, or at least a primary influence, of much contemporary fiction.

This is a simplistic view and there are always exceptions. Take Sarah Waters for example, whose work often has the characteristics of Realism and yet is literary and contemporary in its outlook. This could also be said of Hilary Mantel’s historical work.

MKT: What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

EF: My particular aim is to give a voice to the women whose stories have been obscured in history. So Katherine Parr, of Queen’s Gambit, was not the dull nursemaid of popular reputation but a successful author and a dangerous political operator. In Watch the Lady I explore the adultery that ensured Penelope Devereux’s story was ignored for centuries and shine a light on her controversial political dealings.

I’m interested in women who are rule-breakers, or who in some way show defiance in the face of a culture that limited them to the domestic arena.

MKT: In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

EF: I try and go back to original sources as much as possible and tend to read any available biographies of the characters in my novels. I will draw more general information from all sorts of places: recipes, etiquette manuals, artifacts, architecture, contemporary accounting books and portraiture, to name a few.

I am not a writer who seeks to re-create authentic period dialogue but I aim to create a modern equivalent. Letters and plays are a good place to gain a sense of the way people spoke and behaved. But absolute accuracy will always remain elusive.

MKT: What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

EF: For me less is more, so one small but specific authentic detail, like the experience of walking up a tightly spiraled stone staircase, constricted as the inside of a seashell, is more useful than the description of an entire building.

Again though it comes to character and how an individual responds to the setting they are in. So for one person that staircase might induce a paralyzing claustrophobia and in another it might be a place to hide – a refuge.

MKT: Do you see any particular trends in HF?

EF: A number of writers I know, of both fiction and non-fiction, are focusing on the Stuart period, which has been rather unpopular for some time, though why is a mystery to me, as it was a time of highly dramatic and pivotal events. Perhaps though I have only noticed this because I am writing four Stuart books and so my radar is picking up on it.

Watch the Lady UK coverMKT: Please tell us a little about your latest novel Watch The Lady.

Watch the Lady is set in the declining years of Elizabeth’s reign, when the aging Queen’s intransigence and refusal to name an heir are beginning to destabilize the country. Political factions at court are polarized with the Cecils and the Devereuxs at loggerheads. My heroine Penelope Devereux, sister to royal favorite, the Earl of Essex, and muse to poet Sir Philip Sidney, inhabits the heart of this world and the novel follows her in her mission to ensure that her family is placed to best advantage when Elizabeth finally comes to an end.

Penelope is a woman who refuses to be limited by her gender and finds ways to manipulate her restricted world to suit her ends.

Many thanks for offering these insights on historical fiction, Elizabeth. I hope Watch the Lady will be another winner in the marketplace!


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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Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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