Noodling on theme

I attended Surrey International Writers’ Conference this year – a first for me and the first virtual conference for them. They did a superb job of offering interesting and inspiring content to writers at all stages in their writing careers. Although circumstances prevented me from attended more than a few live sessions, I’ve seen several recorded sessions and enjoyed them as well. Of particular interest for me:

  • Crafting a Page Turner with Hallie Ephron
  • Building the Character Network with Maria Reva
  • Embracing Conflict with Eileen Cook
  • Refining Your Theme with Susanna Kearsley

In Refining Your Theme, Susanna Kearsley said that a lot of writers keep trying to work out the same issue in their novels. Her own issue centres on the meaning of home: Where is home? Where do I belong? Who are my people? Kearsley doesn’t begin with theme. Rather, she finds the theme grows organically as she writes, often emerging unexpectedly in dialogue–what Kearsley refers to as an ‘aha moment’. Susanna Kearsley believes that her subconscious is at work while she writes, which is why her characters often reveal the theme through dialogue.

This session got me thinking about theme as it relates to historical fiction. Theme is one of the seven elements of historical fiction, but to my way of thinking themes are universal; they transcend time and place. Themes like the one Susanna explores are just as relevant now as they were hundreds of years ago.

Popular themes addressed in today’s fiction include: love, death, good vs. evil, coming of age, power and corruption, survival, courage and heroism, prejudice, individual vs. society, and war. While the historical context and events surrounding these themes vary depending on the time period, I would suggest that the way people react, cope, and change is the same.

My own novels – Time and Regret, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and the soon to be published, Paris in Ruins – address war, courage, and love. They feature ordinary people in extraordinary times, a theme that asks each of us what we would be willing to do to defend our country and those we love. The Admiral’s Wife – as yet unpublished – deals with love and prejudice. The story behind You Don’t Know Me, a contemporary novel currently in my editor’s hands, considers power and corruption as well as survival.

At one point in her talk, Susanna Kearsley advised attendees to “let your story be what it wants to be.” Good advice.


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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Apparently, more than 10,000 people have read this post since I wrote it in March 2015. Who would have imagined? As it seems to be so popular, I thought I’d repeat it today. Enjoy!

All writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.”Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.”Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5thcentury China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story.

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell: “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

If this post was helpful, you might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

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. 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

Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Lucille Turner has been on the blog before talking about Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery, The Fall of Constantinople, and most recently offering insights on Research in Historical Fiction. Today she talks about theme in historical fiction. Welcome back, Lucille.

Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Writing is a very subjective activity. A writer becomes immersed in the fictional world he or she creates for the time it takes to finish the book, be it a few months or a few years. But however dedicated a writer you are, one of the greatest challenges you face is how to communicate the core of what your book is really about to the reader, because not every reader emerges from the same book with the same understanding of it. This can be frustrating; it can mean negative reviews, or even no reviews at all. Sometimes the significance of a book can be entirely lost on a reader. The plot may be thrilling, the characters may seem real, but the reader still needs to make sense of the book at a deeper level in order to enjoy it, and this is particularly true for literary and historical fiction, which are often driven by character and setting more than by plot.

What is theme, really? It is easy to say that theme is the central idea of the story, but in fact theme is not so much an idea as what the book has to say about an idea. Several ideas may emerge from a good novel, but where do they lead the reader, and how strong are they? A weak theme leaves you feeling there is something you have missed, or something the author has missed. A strong theme delivers that deeper level of enjoyment and understanding; it is the key to the book, which must be unlocked by the reader. Once unlocked, it will take the reader to that core of the book: its message, which is what the reader takes away once the book is finished.

In my recent historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, one central idea that arose from the book was the struggle between good and evil. As the characters evolved and the plot moved forward, the emerging theme and message (hopefully) became apparent: that the struggle between good and evil is not played out in a church or a mosque or a monastery, but in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is about the choices that we make throughout our lives, and how we act on them.

A good historical novel uses setting to power theme. Setting is not just where and when events happen, it is also why they happen. It is the underlying context to events. Without the context of the American Civil War, for example, Gone With the Wind would be nothing more than a love story. Instead, the setting of the novel shapes the character of Scarlett O’Hara, making her the bearer of a message and a theme: to survive a civil war you must be ruthless and strong-willed; if you cannot change with the times you will die with them. Gone With the Wind, like the Civil War itself, was about the death of one way of life and the rebirth of another. The theme was so powerful and the message so relevant, that the book soon became a classic.

To grasp the message of any book requires a little bit of thinking, but not too much. Ideally it should dawn on the reader slowly during the course of the book; it should linger longer than the plot and longer than the characters, who cease to exist as the book ends, even if we will them on as readers long after the final page is read. A character cannot live on beyond the scope of the book, but fortunately a message can, and only a well-developed theme or themes will deliver one.

For a writer, theme doesn’t always reveal itself at the moment a story is conceived. It usually arises during the writing of the novel, organically. Imposing a theme from the outset can be a mistake because it means putting the cart before the horse. The best themes are those that work themselves into the story naturally, as a result of other elements. While setting may deliver the background to a theme, it still has to be played out by the character(s) of the novel. They are the ultimate drivers of theme, deciding on a left turn over a right one, and so leading the outcome one way or another towards this conclusion or that one. When Scarlett O’Hara decides to get Rhett Butler back at the end of Gone With the Wind, she is not only being true to herself, but also to the theme of the book, which demands the kind of strength and purpose only true adversity can fuel. Many things may be ‘gone with the wind’ but Margaret Mitchell’s Southern heroine will certainly not be one of them.

Further thoughts on theme in historical fiction can be found at 8 Steps for Outlining a Novel and Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction.

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. 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