I had the pleasure of being included on a panel at the HNS Denver conference that took place from June 26 to 28, 2015. The panel topic was Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction Without the Famous. My co-presenters were Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let The Read Books and Beatriz Williams, author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant and other novels. Jenny explored the contribution stories with fictional historical characters can make and why we so enjoy reading about them. Beatriz brought the marketing perspective, explaining how agents and editors look at fiction without the famous.
My role was to discuss relevant reader data and provide a writer’s perspective on creating fictional characters.
First the data about readers.
In the 2015 survey, 84% of readers selected ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events’. This is reflected in the favourite titles mentioned by readers where only 23% of favourite fiction mentioned concerns famous historical figures. As mentioned in the main report, these numbers are good news for authors who prefer to write about fictional characters.
After showing other survey data I summarized the challenge for authors: you need to bring the past to life with a great story that helps readers learn using superb writing so that they feel immersed in time and place. Furthermore, make sure your historical details are accurate and make sure you create interesting and complex characters who behave realistically to their time period.
A tall order. And what about developing characters?
Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series, offered this comment: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Authors have to subtly immerse readers in those differences using characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, setting, theme and world-building.
Needless to say this list is incomplete.
Dialogue should suit the times without being cumbersome to read or difficult to understand. Authors can do this by dipping occasionally into vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past. Someone uttering the phrase “dog’s breath” is clearly not of modern times. Plot, of course, will be enhanced by including upheavals and major events of the time period. Readers expect such events to have a bearing on the twists and turns of the story. And although you could argue that conflict transcends time, characters must still experience conflict in the context of their time.
Research is absolutely critical and, as Deanna Raybourn, author of A Curious Beginning, said, “Research brings colour and texture, and a well placed detail can anchor a story in its time – but the novel should not be so fact-heavy that it is like a text book.”
Emma Darwin, author of A Secret Alchemy, has been writing a book on writing historical fiction. She says the worst is when you write with a history book in hand and “The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.”
It was a pleasure to be included on the panel and to attend the HNS conference where I met so many wonderful people and attended great sessions on many aspects of writing historical fiction.
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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 from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.