My Go-to Writing Books for Historical Fiction by Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift’s website features the following tagline: the past is full of ordinary people with extraordinary stories. She is the author of 11 historical novels to date. Her historical novels have been called ‘complex and engaging’ and ‘rich and haunting’. I’m delighted to host her today as she celebrates the launch of her latest novel is Entertaining Mr Pepys.

My Go-to Writing Books for Historical Fiction by Deborah Swift

When I’m talking to beginner writers about writing, I’m always amazed at how many think they ‘just have a talent for it’ and do no research into the craft of writing itself. As writers producing books, I’m amazed at how few pick up a book to help them with their craft.

I think I’m the opposite, in that I love to read books on writing, and have learned a lot of useful tips from other writers through their books and blogs. I have a large collection of writing books on my shelf, which I also share with the people I teach, but some are better than others for my particular genre, which is historical fiction. So here is a short list for those embarking on writing a historical novel.

How to Start:

If you are just starting out, then I highly recommend Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction by Emma Darwin. [This book by Emma Darwin was featured on the blog.Get Started is very thorough guide and takes into account all the different types of historical novel, from those which are biographical and include real people, to those verging on fantasy with no real people and a loose setting in the past. This is a nuts and bolts book, aimed at beginners with exercises to try out and tips from other writers in the genre.

How to Make it Commercial

In Making it in Historical Fiction, Libbie Hawker focusses on the commercial mind-set, beginning with spotting key opportunities in the market, choosing subjects with commercial appeal and how to create a following for your books that will gain fans and build excitement for your subject. It also talks about branding your books, as well as lots of useful tips on plot, structure and character. As marketing strategies move on so quickly, this is a book that will still be relevant even if social media moves on.

How to Make it feel Authentic

Everyone who writes historical fiction must get used to the fact that readers will find errors in their work (even if there are none) and so another book worth reading for its humour alone is

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths by Susanne Alleyn. The (rather long) title suggests it might be aimed at the writer of Medieval Fiction, but this is a general guide. For more detail onVoicing the past: ‘authenticity’ of voice in historical fiction try downloading this PDF by Kelly Gardiner. The difficulty of modern versus historical values is addressed in this interview where Heather Webb and Lorie Langdon discuss how to bring modern feminism into the chauvinistic past. It can be found on the Entertainment Website here. And on her blog Elizabeth Chadwick gives a great insight into her writing process to create authenticity here. 

How to Research

A huge subject, and one dear to all historical fiction lovers’ hearts. Each novel has different needs, and googling your period will bring a raft of useful leads. If you need to know where to go to look things up, then The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook gives a page about historical fiction with useful research and archive links here.

And don’t forget your local library!

How to Craft a Plot

Writing any novel where you are integrating real historical events into a narrative is going to be a complex act of weaving. Save The Cat Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody is not strictly speaking a book aimed at Historical Fiction writers, but is a book originally created for screen writers about structuring your novel with easy to follow templates. I’m actually a pantser, but I still think this book contains useful advice for those who have ‘lost the plot’. And if, like me, you are a pantser, try Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline by Dean Wesley Smith. As each historical period is unique and has its own plot constraints, it is difficult to recommend one specifically for historical fiction. Have you any tips?

How to Improve your Writing

For the writer seriously interested in improving their writing in more subtle ways – then I recommend Between The Lines –  Master The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell. In this book, the author often refers to historical fiction, and her advice is a step beyond what you get in most writing guides. I also thoroughly recommend ‘179 Ways to Save a Novel – matters of vital concern to fiction writers’ by Peter Selgin. There are some wonderful interviews online with Historical Fiction authors. Try this one with Hilary Mantel at the Huntingdon – ‘I met a man who wasn’t there.’ In this BBC Archive interview, Mark Lawson talks to AS Byatt, author of Possession, in which she claims she learnt her plotting by watching the crime drama ‘The Bill’ and ‘Dallas’ on TV. There are many other interviews on this site which are worth watching, although they are all somewhat dated there are still insights to be had here.

What are your favourite books you have found useful in writing historical fiction?

Photos – All photos from Wikipedia except the picture of a woman writing which is from

Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift ~~ London 1666 – Elizabeth ‘Bird’ Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and music is her chief passion. When her father persuades her to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, she suspects she is marrying beneath her station, but nothing prepares her for the reality of life with Knepp. Her father has betrayed her trust, for Knepp cares only for his horses; he is a tyrant and a bully, and will allow Bird no life of her own.

When Knepp goes away, she grasps her chance and, encouraged by her maidservant Livvy, makes a secret visit to the theatre. Entranced by the music, the glitter and glamour of the surroundings, and the free and outspoken manner of the women on the stage, she falls in love with the theatre and is determined to forge a path of her own as an actress.

But life in the theatre was never going to be straightforward – for a jealous rival wants to spoil her plans, and worse, Knepp forbids it, and Bird must use all her wit and intelligence to change his mind.

Based on events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys, this is a historical novel bringing London in the 17th Century to life. It includes the vibrant characters of the day including the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire Of London.

Many thanks, Deborah. What a treasure trove!! I’m sure my readers will enjoy diving into some of these sources. Best wishes for Entertaining Mr Pepys.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

That Essential Element … For a Pirate by Helen Hollick

Helen Hollick has written a series of nautical Voyages based around her fictional pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne and his ship, Sea Witch, but her latest UK release in paperback is a non-fiction book – Pirates: Truth and Tales published by Amberley Press, which explores our fascination with the real pirates and those who are favourites in fiction. Today, she drops anchor for another interesting addition to her on-line two-week Voyage around the Blogs … over to you, Helen.

What would you regard as ‘essential’ for a pirate? A cutlass? A bottle of rum? A buxom wench? No. He needs a ship. Without a ship a pirate wouldn’t be a pirate he’d just be a thief – unless he had a horse, in which case he would be a highwayman.

Most pirates stole their ships, upgrading to something bigger and faster, or something a little more sea-worthy than their current one. They also did not appear to have much imagination when it came to re-naming their stolen prize as there were quite a few vessels named Ranger, Rover or Revenge. But when writing fiction we have the freedom to be a little more inventive. I named pirate’s ship Sea Witch because the lead female, Tiola, is a midwife, healer – and white witch.

I came up with the idea for an adult pirate adventure soon after thoroughly enjoying the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was enormous escapism fun. I wanted something similar to read, but couldn’t find anything: plenty of young adult, plenty of ‘straight’ nautical fiction, nothing with a charmer of a hero and a touch of fantasy written specifically for adults though. So I wrote my own. I had intended it to be a ‘one off’… I am currently writing the sixth voyage in the series, seventh if you count an e-book-only novella prequel, When the Mermaid Sings.

However, writing an adventure/fantasy yarn with strong characters and exciting situations for them to fall into and get out of relatively unscathed was one thing, creating the whole novel with that essential sense of reality, quite another. I did use ‘poetic licence’ with some historical dates here and there, but because I also included a touch of fantasy I needed to ensure the believability throughout. I did this by writing the nautical details as accurately as I could, thus blending fact (hopefully seamlessly) with fiction.

Problem. I have never been aboard a moving tall ship (the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory do not count!) Writers are so often advised ‘write what you know about.’ Which can be somewhat limiting, especially if you write historical fiction. Ah, but that is where the magic comes in: the skill of being able to travel through the mind to the world of Imagination where anything is possible. Although a hefty chunk of serious research helps.

I read all I could about anything that involved sailing tall ships: non-fictioon and fiction. I soon discovered that there are limits to using certain phrases such as ‘clew up there’, ‘ship ahoy’ and ‘weigh anchor’, so the imagination came into play for putting these phrases into different contexts and situations. Interestingly, I rarely came across ‘splice the mainbrace’ or ‘shiver m’timbers!’

To get the right feel of a ship, the sounds, the movement, the hard work involved (maybe fortunately, not the smells!) you cannot do better than watch that excellent movie Master and Commander. A brilliant movie about life at sea.

The craft of creating a good, enjoyable novel is to immerse your readers in the tale from the very first opening sentence, and then carry them on through a journey of wondrous adventure – be it in a novel of historical content, a contemporary romance, science-fiction, a mystery or thriller or whatever genre you prefer to write. It can be an amusing tale, a romantic one, a scary one, sad, nail-biting, thought-provoking – but every novel must be a doorway that opens into another world. Transporting a reader into that imagined place through creating a sense of believability is a wonderfully exciting thing to be able to do. And we, as authors, should thank the Muse every day for gifting us the ability to bring pleasure to our readers. And for helping us to bring such inspiring characters to life. © Helen Hollick

Many thanks, Helen. Wishing you lots of success with Pirates: Truth and Tales. I certainly enjoyed getting to know your favourite pirate in Ripples in the Sand!

Pirates: Truth and Tales by Helen Hollick 

It was a harsh life for those who went ‘on the account’, constantly overshadowed by the threat of death – through violence, illness, shipwreck, or the hangman’s noose. The lure of gold, the excitement of the chase and the freedom that life aboard a pirate ship offered were judged by some to be worth the risk.

Helen Hollick explores both the fiction and fact of the Golden Age of piracy, and there are some surprises in store for those who think they know their Barbary Corsair from their boucanier.

Everyone has heard of Captain Morgan, but who recognises the name of the aristocratic Frenchman Daniel Montbars? He killed so many Spaniards he was known as ‘The Exterminator’.

The fictional world of pirates, represented in novels and movies, is different from reality. What draws readers and viewers to these notorious rogues of the high seas?

What are the facts behind the fantasy?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Loyalist Legacy by Elaine Cougler

the-loyalist-legacyPlease welcome Elaine Cougler author of The Loyalist Trilogy who has just launched the The Loyalist Legacy, novel three of the trilogy. After exchanging Facebook comments for many months, Elaine and I met at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2015 and found that we are kindred spirits.

Setting the Scene for a New Novel by Elaine Cougler

We writers think long and hard about those opening lines to our books, so long, in fact, that sometimes we just can’t get started. That would be the famous blank page phenomenon. We struggle and strain, write and rewrite, all to start the story in a way that will “hook” the reader with the first lines.

I was no different with The Loyalist Legacy. I wanted to show immediately the plight of my heroine left alone on an isolated piece of land where danger was the closest neighbour and back-breaking work was all that kept her and her children alive. You can see what I did with some of the details below to emphasis the danger.

Her anger was another feature needed for the opening of the story. What better way to introduce that than with her slapping a huge mass of dough on the table? If you’ve ever kneaded dough, you know exactly how heavy it can be. That worked to set the scene physically as well as setting up tension between Catherine and her missing husband, William.

Here’s how it all came out:

Catherine stood against the wooden table and pounded the grayish dough into a glutinous sticky mass. With each stroke her anger rose. She picked the bits of batter from her fingers and pushed them into the dough with more force than usual. And heeled her hands into the ball once more. Slapping it into the meager flour bits on the table, she saw the loaves begin to take shape and, in spite of herself, breathed a little easier.

William Junior glanced up from his numbers at the other end of the table. She felt his eyes on her and the question he dared not ask. Not until she simmered down anyhow. The loaves slipped easily into the greased pans and she smoothed the tops before spreading a cloth over them and lifting the whole lot to the warming shelf above her great black beast of a stove. William’s stylus scraped on the slate. She turned to face him, this child who would rather perfect his letters than play jacks in the corner with his brother and sister.

“Go ahead, William. Ask me.” She forced a smile and was rewarded with a softening of his features.

“Why did Daddy go? Who is Uncle Robert? What will we do if the Indian comes back?” He took in a quick breath. “You’re so angry, Mama. Why?” The stylus dropped to the table but he paid it no mind. His head tipped up toward her as though the very angle of his holding it could slice into her thoughts and make her answer.

“Slow up, my son. One day all your questions are going to get you into trouble.” She tousled his dark hair and felt his tension ease. Her own did, as well. “Uncle Robert is your father’s brother who lives far away. In the United States. We told you that, William.” He didn’t need to know why she was so angry. Only a child, even though he was her eldest, he didn’t have to shoulder the worries of their world just yet. Far be it from her to pass her burdens and fears to his thin shoulders even though he was almost eight years old.

“But Mama, I saw you punching that dough. The whole table shook. I couldn’t make my letters straight.” He stood before her, up to her chest, his green eyes wide. He needed an answer. She reached for him but he edged back.

“Come outside with me, away from your brother and sister.” She brushed past him and grabbed the door handle.

Sunlight swept across the expanse of the lowlands on either side of their river making a golden path right up to their porch. Thames, the river was called, named by Governor Simcoe after the main shipping channel in London far across the ocean. John, her father-in-law, had told her about his trip to Detroit with the Governor so many years ago. She could see him now sitting in the rocking chair by that giant stove in the house by the mill. His face shone and his voice rose and fell with each new detail in the story. She shook her head and tucked a stray strand of hair under her cap. What had happened to them? No word in almost two years.

Excerpt from The Loyalist Legacy.

When the War of 1812 is finally over William and Catherine Garner flee the desolation of Niagara and find in the wild heart of Upper Canada their two hundred acres straddling the Thames River. On this valuable land, dense forests, wild beasts, disgruntled Natives, and pesky neighbors daily challenge them. The political atmosphere laced with greed and corruption threatens to undermine all of the new settlers’ hopes and plans. William cannot take his family back to Niagara, but he longs to check on his parents from whom he has heard nothing for two years. Leaving Catherine and the children, he hurries along the Governor’s Road toward the turn-off to Fort Erie, hoping to return in time for spring planting.

With realistic insights into the challenging lives of Ontario’s early settlers, Elaine Cougler once again draws readers into the Loyalists’ struggles to build homes, roads, and relationships, and their growing dissension as they move ever closer to another war. The Loyalist Legacy shows us the trials faced by ordinary people who conquer unbelievable hardships and become extraordinary in the process.

Praise for Elaine Cougler’s writing:

“….absolutely fascinating….Cougler doesn’t hold back on the gritty realities of what a couple might have gone through at this time, and gives a unique view of the Revolutionary War that many might never have considered.” Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

“….an intriguing story” A Bookish Affair

“I highly recommend this book for any student of history or anyone just looking for a wonderful story.” Book Lovers Paradise

“Elaine’s storytelling is brave and bold.” Oh, for the Hook of a Book


Elaine Cougler can be found on Twitter, Facebook Author Page, LinkedIn and on her blog at

You can also check out the VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR for The Loyalist Legacy on Elaine’s website.


book-tour-logo-finalMany thanks, Elaine. Wishing you great success!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING 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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website