3 Challenges to writing historical fiction – by Margaret Skea

Margaret Skea  has written several historical novels – her most recent being Katharina: Fortitude, a sequel to Katharina: Deliverance, both based on the life of Martin Luther’s wife. She grew up in Ulster at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. Thanks for being on the blog, Margaret.


The Katharina books have been the most challenging of any I have written to date, on several counts.

Firstly, my passion is for historical authenticity – providing a ‘you are there’ experience for the reader.  Now, of course, they aren’t there and neither am I, but I want readers to be so immersed in the period and the story that for a time they forget the 21stcentury and feel as if they are. One of the keys to that is extensive and rigorous research. Along with lively and cinematic writing.

(Note: I use the term authenticity because I don’t believe historical fiction can ever claim to be accurate, except in terms of names and dates and so on, and even they can sometimes be a matter of debate.)

So what should we do when sources disagree, or even worse don’t say anything at all? Which was exactly the case when I started researching Katharina von Bora, the subject of the two books set in the heart of the Reformation in Saxony, Germany.

She was clearly an influential character – she is the only reformer’s wife of whom we have a portrait, in fact a famous painter of the day, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted her numerous times and many museums across Europe still hold portraits of her to this day.

And yet there is debate over her parentage and place of birth, and no concrete evidence of the reason why she was placed in a convent at the age of 5, nor why she was moved again at around 10.  There is no verified information, although it is possible to make an educated guess, but no more than that, of how Luther’s writings were smuggled into the convent, triggering her desire to escape, along with eleven others, in the first mass break-out following his teaching.

Even after her marriage, when we have lots of information on what she did, we have no direct information as to why. So how did I go about the task of writing a credible account of Katharina, in the face of such shadowy and insubstantial evidence?

As regards her character, I had to work backwards, both from comments that are made about her by others, and via thinking through what kind of person she must have been to act as she did.  Fairly early on in my research into the Luther marriage, I began to make connections between the interaction of Martin and Katharina, as evidenced in the one-sided correspondence that has survived – we have many of `Martin’s letters, but very few of Katharina’s – and what I remember of the relationship between my maternal grandparents. That felt like a break-through – I now had a model for Katharina that gave me a basis from which to work.

The second, critically important challenge, was how to develop a ‘voice’ for her, that would be both distinctive and in keeping with the little we did know. Normally I write in 3rd person past tense and I started out with that intention here too. But in an attempt to ‘find’ her voice I started to write random snippets in 1stperson present, fully intending to discard them once I felt she was comfortably lodged in my head. Instead, I found that once started, it seemed appropriate to continue.

1st person present is a difficult pov and tense to sustain over the course of a novel, it is very easy to make mistakes and so one entire edit was devoted to checking for pov slippage and any lapses into the past tense. But it gave an immediacy and a vibrancy to the text that helped to breathe life into Katharina and a sense that the novel is her story.

As a result, I now think of it almost as Fictionalised Autobiography, if there can be such a category, though, of course, what readers experience can never be anything other than my version of her. I hope I have done her justice.

And finally, because of the scant and fragmentary nature of the evidence that did exist in relation to her early life, I knew I needed to find a structure for the first novel that would hold it all together. And so, again in a first for me, I wrote a dual time-frame novel introducing key points in her life through flash-forwards to her last three months. That worked easily in Katharina Deliverance when large periods of time required to be bridged, but became much harder to sustain in Fortitude, not least in the decisions of where and when to break up the more coherent narrative.

So, three main challenges and each of them a steep learning curve. I hope I am a better writer as a result.

In honour of the release of Katharina Fortitude, it is on offer at 99p / 99c Now’s the time to grab a copy – or if you’re in KU you can read it for free, but please, please can you do so before the end of August as I’ve entered it in the Kindle Storyteller competition and would love to make the shortlist and get it on Mariella Frostrup’s desk (BBC Radio 4 presenter of book programmes). You would all help to make me a very happy camper if I could get there.

At the moment I am at #11 in Christian Historical Fiction and 12 / 15 in 2 other sub-genres. I think I need to get into single figures in the rankings, so any purchases or pages read will be immensely valuable, as will reviews – also an important part of the algorithm.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea ~~ Eagerly-awaited conclusion to Katharina Deliverance – Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’

Wittenberg 1525. The unexpected marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina von Bora has no fairytale ending. A sign of apostasy to their enemies, and a source of consternation to their friends, it sends shock waves throughout Europe. Yet, as they face persecution, poverty, war, plague and family tragedy, Katharina’s resilience and strength of character shines through.

While this book can be read as a standalone, it is also the powerful conclusion to her story, begun in Katharina: Deliverance.

‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched – historical fiction at its best.’ BooksPlease

If you like your historical Fiction to be authentic, immersive and packed with drama, this book is for you. Grab a copy today at the introductory price of 0.99


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 www.mktod.com.

What makes historical fiction tick with author Rhys Bowen

Author Rhys Bowen’s latest novel, In Farleigh Field, was inspired by WWII code-breaking centre Bletchley Park. Today she gives her thoughts on what makes historical fiction tick.

Q: What are the magic ingredients that make historical fiction so unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to “get it right”?

A: My aim, when I write historical fiction is to take the readers there and let them experience the time and place for themselves, not just to tell them about it. No quoting of a lot of facts to show I’ve done my research. One mother, fighting to hold back tears when she receives a telegram about her son being lost at sea tells the reader more about U-boat casualties than any statistic.

I want my characters to be true creatures of their time, not just Miss Marple in long skirts. How they think and act may not be how we would see things.

Among the best writers, I think of Steven Saylor taking us to a galley in Ancient Rome, rowed by slaves. The boy on the end of the great oar is so small that when the oar is rotated he is lifted clean off the ground. A powerful visual picture. I love learning small but salient facts of everyday life. That they used urine to bleach togas in Rome.

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

A: Basic human emotions are always the same. A story of good and evil is always the same. The historical writer has to juggle with making sensibilities and prejudices true to the time while not overly offending the reader. I get letters from time to time criticizing me for the things I say about a certain race. I write back, “I didn’t say that. A person who lived 100 years ago said it.” 

Q: Most of your novels are set in time periods other than the present era. What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your books?

A: I suppose it is always the social history: the relationship between the classes, between men and women, rich and poor. How life really was. That is what I want to achieve.

The Molly Murphy series is set in New York in the early 1900s. I try to portray the immigrant experience, the sights, sounds, smells of a crowded city, the contrast between haves and have nots. The Royal Spyness books are set in the 1930s, and in those books, in addition to entertaining my reader, I focus on the British class system as well as the underlying tensions in Europe that will one day lead to war.

And in In Farleigh Field, my new standalone novel, I want to show the impact of war on life in rural England. Also the strain on those who worked in secret occupations who could share their work with nobody. 

Q: 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? Do you have any fun anecdotes from the research you did for In Farleigh Field?

A: Obviously it is important that dialogue and social behavior ring true to the time. It annoys me when I read a historical novel and find characters casually calling each other by their first name. Such rules were so strict in the past. My grandmother lived next door to a woman for 20 years and they addressed each other as Mrs, even though they were good friends.

I read biographies of characters who might appear in my books. I read novels set in the time period. A good novel gives me the feel for the dialogue of the time. I go to the scene of my book. I spent time at Bletchley Park, Churchill’s war rooms, the Imperial War museum that had recreations of war time living rooms, ration books, fashion.

And for In Farleigh Field, I came with a lot of knowledge. I was born toward the end of the war. I had personal stories from my family. Also I lived with my grandmother and great aunt and remember the way that they spoke and their manners. My husband comes from an aristocratic family who once owned houses like Farleigh. I know the manners and opinions of the upper class well. A fun piece of research? Seeing Alan Turing’s teddy bear. He kept it on his desk while he invented the computer at Bletchley. I thought that was lovely. And so many good personal stories about the women who worked there.

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

A: The physical description, both of character and place. Accurate dialogue, faithful character interaction and thought—in short, you need to build a complete world.

Q: Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

A: Apart from Tudor, Tudor, and more Tudor, you mean? I think that both World Wars have become really popular. The first half of the 20th century is fascinating for many people, because in some ways it was so similar to our lives and in other ways it is so different. I think we want to make sense of our own world by reading about theirs.

Q: Can you tell us a little about In Farleigh Field and what you find so compelling about the WWII era? 

A: In Farleigh Field is a thriller set at the home of an English lord and his family during the early days of WWII. It starts with a man who literally falls from the sky when his parachute fails to open and lands in Lord Westerham’s field. So the thriller aspect of the story is “Who he was and why he had been sent?” But the plot follows Lord Westerham’s five daughters as they are all caught up in various aspects of the war. One is spying in France, another working at Bletchley Park. We see what living in wartime means to a country village and its inhabitants. We see what it means when someone is not allowed to divulge what they are doing for the war effort. Oh, and there is an undercurrent of romantic interest going on!

I find the period so fascinating because I think it was the last time we had a real concept of good and evil. Evil had to be stopped or it would swallow the world. Everyone was dedicated to “doing their bit” even if it meant sacrifice. This noble feeling of joint purpose was wonderful.

Many thanks, Rhys for adding your thoughts to the topic. Urine to bleach togas in Rome – how intriguing. Best wishes for In Farleigh Field. 

IN FARLEIGH FIELD by Rhys Bowen – World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

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 www.mktod.com.

Author Nicole Evelina on Writing Historical Fiction

Daughter-of-Destiny-CoverIn December, Nicole Evelina responded to my open request for thoughts on the topic ‘inside historical fiction’. After a few email exchanges, I invited her to bring her ideas together for a post. Nicole is the author of Daughter of Destiny and three – not one, not two, but three – soon to release novels. Now that’s productivity!

MKT: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

Nicole Evelina: The most magical thing a historical fiction writer can do is transport me to their time period and location. I’m reading a book right now that takes place in Manhattan in the 1930s and I feel like I’m there with the corrupt politicians and cops, the dizzy Broadway chorus girls who double as molls and the menacing gangsters. But that’s not just a matter of saying your book takes place in the past and throwing in some pretty dresses and a few words of slang. You have to make the reader feel like the slang is on the tip of their tongue, too, the stench of the streets is something they can actually smell, and the political or cultural views are their own. You have to take them back in time in as many ways as possible.

In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

For me, it’s a combination of things: a transporting setting as I mentioned above, characters that I care about and a plot that I can’t wait to see how it ends. Now, that is probably the same answer I’d give for the best contemporary fiction, but historicals are special because they are showing you a different viewpoint on life. If the author does his or her job, you’re seeing what it was like to live when kingdoms were constantly at war, slavery was accepted, women couldn’t vote or hold a job, or people didn’t know where their next meal would come from. The best authors help you live the lives of the characters in their novels.

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

Yes, because, like fantasy, they put their readers in another world. Having written both historical (four novels) and contemporary (one), I can state firsthand that there is so much as both a writer and a reader that you take for granted when reading/writing contemporary. It can be as simple as having a character text someone or speaking current slang – you do it without thinking. When you write historical, you may want your character to have the same communication or say the same basic thing, but you have to stop and think (and maybe research) how they would have done so. No texting, so would they have written a letter/telegram and how was it delivered – bike messenger, pony express, carrier pigeon, by a trusted friend? Or would they have had to find the person and tell them face to face? What would that have entailed? As for slang, you have to consider what it is you are really trying to say and then find out how they would have said it during your time period. Some periods are rife with slang (like 19th century America) and others we just don’t know (like pre-Conquest Britain). If we don’t know, what’s the plainest way you can have your character say it and still get your message across? And those are just two examples of the extra considerations that come with writing historicals.

As a reader, I’ve found that those same details make me stop and think (and sometimes marvel) at how much life has changed (or how much it hasn’t.) There’s a certain introspection that comes with reading a historical because you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in that situation or if you could have survived in that time, things you can’t do with contemporary novels – at least not to the same extent.

Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

Well, the traditional publishing industry still seems to like Tudors and WWII, and books mostly set in Europe (especially England). Interestingly, I’m seeing the indie market turn those on their ears by publishing a lot more ancient and early medieval history and exploring new geographic areas like Asia and Africa. Indies are also not afraid of American history, which I’ve heard some agents and editors say they don’t think sells.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I always immerse myself in the culture by doing copious research before I write. I examine the political atmosphere, the way law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how), the familial dynamic, transportation, food, clothing, daily life, geography and weather patterns, religious beliefs, technology, etc. Because I write primarily about women, I pay special attention to their rights under law, family responsibilities and expectations, and what those who were considered subversive were doing. Most of that ends up on my blog because it’s just too much to put in the story, but it’s important for me to know, because my character would know it.

As for what makes it into the final novel, I try to give a flavor of the location and time and an accurate picture of daily life no matter what the story is. The rest depends on particular characters and plot. Using the five senses to build your world is a must, as is showing the beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic, what have you) that motivate your characters’ actions.

It’s interesting to me that basic human relationships (the need for love, the importance of family and friends) don’t change over time even if what is socially acceptable does (i.e. the acceptance of spousal abuse, marriages of convenience, the warmth between parents and children, etc.)

What research sources and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

If I can afford it, I love to travel to the place where my books take place. I was lucky enough to do that twice for my Guinevere trilogy. There’s an energy that you can’t get any other way. The light looks a certain way, the water tastes a certain way, etc. Being there even in contemporary times is helpful because you can stand in the place your character was and peel back the layers of time. Imagining the car park when it was a forest or the ruins of a castle in its heyday is so much easier when you’re there than if you’re just looking at a photo. Talking to locals is priceless as well (which you can do on the internet if you can’t be in your setting).

I am a big fan of books in research because they are vetted much more strongly than web pages are. I use Amazon as a way of seeing what all is out there, then I get what I can from my local library or through inter-library loan. If I know I’ll need to use a book over and over, I’ll buy it, used if possible, to keep expenses down. Also, the bibliographies of book are goldmines that lead to others or to expert authors I can talk with. For me, web pages are a last ditch effort, fine to get a basic overview or do a quick fact check (but only if it appears in multiple sources). For anything more in-depth, I refer to books and experts.

If my characters have a skill or expertise I don’t possess, I talk to the experts, either by email, online message boards/Facebook groups or in person. Never underestimate the power of re-enactment groups. Those people take their detail and accuracy VERY seriously. Taking lessons (even if only once) gives you a first-hand experience of what shooting a gun or an arrow or riding a horse is really like. There is no substitute for experience.

For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches (in addition to people who have the accent) can be very enlightening. I honestly think every writer should have to take acting classes because they teach you a lot about what’s realistic in dialogue and blocking, not to mention bolstering your self-confidence for readings and workshops.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Daughter of Destiny is the first book in a trilogy that tells Arthurian legend from Guinevere’s point of view. Set in the war-torn world of fifth century Britain, it’s basically her life story beginning when she is 11 and going into her 50s.

The first book deals with her early life from the ages of 11 to 15, the “hidden” time before she married King Arthur. Though raised to govern and wield a sword, Guinevere had no idea she’d become queen. She had other plans, other dreams for her life, and a love before Arthur that he can never replace. As a priestess of Avalon, she has the sight, but cannot foretell her own future, one in which both the love and rivalry that began in Avalon will haunt her future and spell her doom…and possibly that of all of Camelot. Here’s the back cover copy:

Before queenship and Camelot, Guinevere was a priestess of Avalon. She loved another before Arthur, a warrior who would one day betray her.

In the war-torn world of late fifth century Britain, young Guinevere faces a choice: stay with her family to defend her home at Northgallis from the Irish, or go to Avalon to seek help for the horrific visions that haunt her. The Sight calls her to Avalon, where she meets Morgan, a woman of questionable parentage who is destined to become her rival. As Guinevere matures to womanhood, she gains the powers of a priestess, and falls in love with a man who will be both her deepest love and her greatest mistake.

Just when Guinevere is able to envision a future in Avalon, tragedy forces her back home, into a world she barely recognizes, one in which her pagan faith, outspokenness, and proficiency in the magical and military arts are liabilities. When a chance reunion with her lover leads to disaster, she is cast out of Northgallis and into an uncertain future. As a new High King comes to power, Guinevere must navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and seemingly innocent actions can have life-altering consequences.

You may think you know the story of Guinevere, but you’ve never heard it like this: in her own words. Listen and you will hear the true story of Camelot and its queen.

Fans of Arthurian legend and The Mists of Avalon will love Daughter of Destiny, the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy that gives Guinevere back her voice and traces her life from an uncertain eleven year old girl to a wise queen in her fifth decade of life.

This book has been short-listed for the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.

The second book in the series, Camelot’s Queen (available April 12), covers Guinevere’s time as Queen, as well as her affair with Lancelot and the finding of the Holy Grail. Book three, Mistress of Legend (early 2017), encompasses the fall of Camelot and Guinevere’s life after Arthur, which most certainly did not end in a convent!