Author Insights on Historical Fiction

What do well-known authors of historical fiction have to say about the genre? Let’s look at a few.

Some time ago, I interviewed Edward Rutherfurd, author of novels such as Paris, London, and most recently China, who outlined his rules for writing historical fiction:

  • Don’t invent history – you can add characters and incidents as long as they fit in with known historical events. It is fiction, after all.
  • Try to be fair – there is always more than one side to history.
  • You can leave doubt about what happened – history is full of uncertainties.
  • Keep the chronology as accurate as possible – in other words, don’t mess with the timeline.
  • You can leave things out – too much detail slows the pace.
  • Complete historical truth is unknowable.

Susan Vreeland, author of novels like Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party, offered a number of insights in a 2015 post.

  • “There are two types of historical fiction which form a continuum. At one end is the novel devoted to a specific historical event or historical person … at the other end is the more personal, domestic, narrowly focused story which happens to be set in the past.”
  • Decide on a premise and themes. “The sooner one is conscious of the themes, character questions and moral questions … the easier and more naturally the work will take a conscious form rather than grow haphazardly.”
  • For biographical fiction, select “only those events and aspects of a figure’s life which contribute to the established or decided themes and focus, and eliminate those which don’t.”
  • As for research … you need to research extensively, “not only for the sweep of history, but for scenic truth and time period accuracy.” Vreeland goes on to say, that “at times, one must hold one’s ground, and resist the tyranny of fact for the greater good of the narrative, if doing so does not measurably alter history.”

Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire, adds his insights:

  • “Plausibility, of course, is the truest measure of historical fiction, which must invent innumerable scenarios and snippets of dialogue for which there is no evidence in the historical record.”
  • “Suspend disbelief and skepticism about the possible limits of historical knowledge in order to imagine and inhabit a world … you will constantly be treading that fine line between the true and the plausible.”

A quick quote from Emma Darwin, author of A Secret Alchemy and Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, says: “Your readers want to live and breathe history, but they won’t keep reading if the narrative grinds to a halt on a hill of historical detail.”

And finally, Harry Bingham, author of The Sons of Adam and The Lieutenant’s Lover, recommends using an “evocative vocabulary” … “Don’t tell us your character ate a ‘simple dinner’. Tell us that he ate a ‘thin turnip soup’ or ‘rye bread with the first rust-coloured tints of mould.'”

Which of these resonate for you? And what advice would you add to the mix?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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

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9 Responses

  1. Thrilled to see Prof. Holsinger listed. His books are brilliant, and so is his course on the rise of the historical novel (available on Coursera). I don’t work for him, or the platform … but will always recommend that course.

  2. The Vreeland quote “at times, one must hold one’s ground, and resist the tyranny of fact for the greater good of the narratives, if doing so does not measurably alter history” spoke to me, having wrestled many a fact to the ground myself.

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