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

Author Roland Colton on writing historical fiction

Author Roland Colton stops by today to talk about historical fiction. Roland is a lawyer, a pianist, an author and, at one time, a terrific baseball player. He has the good fortune to live in Southern California and France. His novel Forever Gentleman has just released.

MKTod: What are the magic ingredients that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible?

Forever-Gentleman-by-Roland-ColtonRColton: Perhaps the most critical ingredient in making historical fiction unforgettable is attention to historical detail. I believe a reader must be transported back to the time and setting of the story. The manuscript should not offer a single word, phrase, or description inconsistent with the era, or the illusion of time displacement will be compromised. A writer must be able to create the sights, smells and sounds of the era that he or she is writing about.

Another important ingredient is to subtly reference events of the time as a backdrop for the plot and action. For example, in my book, which takes place in 1869-70 London, the city is on the verge of emerging from chronic sewage failures and cholera and typhoid epidemics wrought by the unsanitary conditions and overflow of the malignant Thames.

A further ingredient is to create a narrative voice consistent with writers of the time. For me, I attempted to use a voice reminiscent of nineteenth century authors, in order to lend more authenticity to the story. In addition, it’s important that characters behave and interact with others in a way that is believable and rational for the period. Of course, an ingredient applicable to all novels is a great story with proper pacing that keeps the reader engrossed until the last line is read.

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

In my experience, contemporary novels normally don’t involve as much attention to detail as do historical novels. For a historical novel to be successful, the reader must truly believe she is traveling back in time and witnessing the events unfolding in the book. For a contemporary novel, there is not the need to paint the story’s landscape in as much detail, since there is no time displacement. The reader is generally accepting of the current era, and there is not as much need to weave in contemporary events, inventions, or other mores. In most instances, contemporary books are written in contemporary verse; there is no need to create an altered dialogue or accent to mimic a bygone era.

What aspect about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel?

One area highlighted in my novel is music. I have a passion for music, which I attempted to weave into the story. Today, we listen to classical work written during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, as if it were a voice from the distant past. I attempt to make those compositions more current and relevant; I want the reader to experience classical music as contemporary works of the era. This happens dramatically in my novel when Nathan first hears the lovely strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, written just a few months before.

I also endeavored to portray the explosion of genius in music that occurred during the nineteenth century. Describing music with words presents a unique challenge, and I did my best to describe the harmony, nuances and dynamics in such a way as to help the reader appreciate the beauty and significance to the story.

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?

As the plot began to germinate in my mind, I wanted the voice to be reminiscent of nineteenth-century authors, so I immersed myself in novels written in that era. I also wanted to create realism involving concerts, plays and other events the characters attend. I had the good fortune of locating weekly periodicals for the era, including The Athenæum and The Musical Word (which I describe in in the Author’s Note at the end of the book), that not only provided the concert program, but also identified the performer and critiqued the performances.

I was also fortunate to acquire old maps of London to ensure that the boroughs, locals and streets were properly named for the year my story occurs, such as Weller’s Map of London 1868. One exceptionally value tool was Claude Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Property 1889, which graphically portrays, by color, the lowest class to the upper class. These maps were instrumental in identifying the economic areas where events took place and navigating the main character through the streets of London. Another marvelous resource tool was The Victorian Web which helped describe the street vendors, food offerings, street sweepers, and a host of other facts necessary to depict London as it was a hundred and fifty years ago.

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

I believe that all aspects of the world need to be created, including a depiction in detail of the sights, sounds and smells of the era. The clothing, home decor, food, table settings, all need to be authentic. If the characters go to a museum, the author needs to insure that the pieces of art were present in that museum during the time the story takes place. If characters go to a park, the author needs to describe it as it was in that day. If the characters frequent a building or place that no longer exists, then it’s important that the author learn everything about that building/place in order to describe it accurately. As I stated above, dialogue of the times is important, as well as the character’s motivations for the actions they take.

Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

One trend I see in historical fiction is the inclusion of a person or persons famous enough to allow the reader to identify with the time the story takes place. In some instances, it seems as though the writer is taking a short-cut to circumvent the very serious and detailed research necessary to properly construct the past. I believe such books sometimes suffer as a result and become too heavily dependent on the historical personage(s). Another trend involves authors writing multiple books containing the same characters and plot; sometimes, sequel after sequel inhibits the freshness and creative freedom of the story.

Please tell us about your latest novel.

In Forever Gentleman, readers will travel back in time and experience Victorian London at its best and worst—a city of beauty and brilliance, yet steeped in filth and despair. Nathan Sinclair, a struggling young architect and gifted pianist, lives in the two vastly different worlds, mingling in high society while dwelling in suffocating debt and poverty. While performing at a gathering of London’s elite, Nathan meets Jocelyn Charlesworth, a breathtakingly beautiful but temperamental celebrity heiress. He is smitten, though she publicly humiliates him; their paths intersect again later, and they form a tentative friendship centered on their mutual love of music.

Meanwhile, Nathan makes the acquaintance of Regina Lancaster, a woman of remarkable inner beauty, despite her pedestrian appearance. He must decide whether to follow his heart and pursue Regina, or flee England altogether to avoid imprisonment from a miserly creditor.

In his darkest hour, Nathan is offered a tantalizing proposition that might change everything, but that comes at considerable risk. Nathan must play his role perfectly, or he may lose his reputation, livelihood, and very life to the powerful echelons of Victorian society. Full of unexpected twists and turns, Forever Gentleman races towards a thrilling climax that will determine Nathan’s ultimate destiny.

Many thanks for being on the blog today, Roland. I wish you great success with Forever Gentleman.

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 will be 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

Windmill Point author Jim Stempel on writing historical fiction

Windmill-Point-Jim-StempelThe grit, tragedy and bold strategy of the American Civil War play out in Jim Stempel’s Windmill Point. Am I glad I read it? You bet. Stempel’s writing is vivid and meticulous. He tells the story of the pivotal events that took place in little more than two weeks in such a compelling fashion that even knowing what happens, you still feel the inexorable pull of tension.

But this isn’t a book review, rather Jim Stempel is here to talk about the writing of historical fiction. So, over to you, Jim.


I have written nonfiction, satire, and historical fiction, but when you asked me to write a post for your blog it immediately dawned on me that I had never spent much time (honestly, any time at all) thinking about how I actually go about writing. So first I had to step back and analyze my own approach, and secondly I wanted to be sure that whatever I came up with was not going to waste someone else’s time – as in, thank you Captain Obvious! I say that because I take writing very seriously and, as an extension, I take the efforts of other writers seriously too. I would like to treat every author’s efforts – whether that means a first or twentieth novel – with the same consideration I would like my own work to be treated. But writing is a personal business, we all have our unique approaches, and I know that the way I go about things may or may not be of use to someone else. With that disclaimer now a matter public record, I will suggest a few things that I hope someone might find helpful.

Research: The importance of this aspect of writing historical fiction has been amply documented on your blog before with detailed and excellent lists of elements to consider, but I would go those even one further. To write compelling historical fiction I think you need, not only research a particular time period adequately, but literally immerse yourself in it. I write about the American Civil War, for instance, but I have never technically researched it. I didn’t have to. I have been fascinated with history since I was a kid, and I read and wrote about the Civil War from the time I was in junior high school, through college, and (obviously) beyond. I read hundreds of books on the topic – fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and biographies – traveled to all the major battlefields, attended lectures, reenactments, etc., and all of this before I had even thought about writing a single line. I would recommend that anyone interested in writing historical fiction choose a time period that fascinates them, then immerse themselves until they feel entirely comfortable calling themselves an authority. Then write.

Character Development: Much has been written about character development, and I have but a few thoughts to add. We come to know people slowly in real life, and I think it best that we come to know them slowly in fiction too. Give the reader a little at a time, with twists and turns that will make the character far more interesting than if the character was entirely divulged at the outset. Also, actions speak far louder than words, so the way a person moves, or sits, or responds to a statement or situation can say far more about a character’s persona than an entire descriptive paragraph.

Less is often more: Likewise, in describing a scene or situation or character there is often a tendency to initially overwhelm readers with details, when less would be far more effective. Pick out the key elements you need to convey then add to those as the scene develops.

Visualization: Lastly, I tend to visualize the scenes I write then jot them down just as a newspaper reporter might describe an actual scene he or she is witnessing. If you are truly familiar with your topic, characters, scenes, etc., this can work wonders. If you don’t like the results, you can back it up and run it over till you get something that you feel is right.

Mary, I hope these few suggestions prove helpful for some of your readers.

Many thanks, Jim. I wish you great success with Windmill Point.

Windmill Point is gripping historical fiction that vividly brings to life two desperate weeks during the spring of 1864, when the resolution of the American Civil War was balanced on a razor’s edge. At the time, both North and South had legitimate reasons to conclude they were very near victory. Ulysses S. Grant firmly believed that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was only one great assault away from implosion; Lee knew that the political will in the North to prosecute the war was on the verge of collapse. Stempel masterfully sets the stage for one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War, contrasting the conversations of decision-making generals with chilling accounts of how ordinary soldiers of both armies fared in the mud, the thunder and the bloody fighting on the battlefield.