Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction … with Kate Quinn

I’m launching a new series today and delighted to have Kate Quinn here to kick things off. The series? I’ve asked a number of well known authors to reflect on their years of writing historical fiction. Some of these authors have been writing successfully for more than thirty years. Some are based in the US, others in the UK. And they all have wonderfully successful novels.

Today, Kate Quinn discusses several topics and offers an in-depth look at what it’s been like to switch time periods.

Changing Horses Mid-Stream: An Ancient World Author Jumps To The 20th Century

“What’s a girl like you doing in a time like this?”

It’s a question I’ve grown familiar with, as a historical novelist who has made a recent, monumental jump in time periods. My first love was the ancient world, and that was where I gravitated when penning my first novels, eventually writing four set in early Imperial Rome. I made a two-book jump after that to the Italian Renaissance and the delicious cesspit that was the rule of the Borgia pope, yet it was still Italy, still Rome, still comfortably pre-modern. But my latest books “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” pole-vault all the way into the 20th century, telling respective stories of a World War I spy ring and the World War II all-female bomber pilot regiment known as the Night Witches—and a jump that big will give you whiplash, believe me. Why, readers asked, did I make such a big change in subject and research matter?

Part passion, and part practicality. I have always been a writer with far more story ideas teeming in my head than I can ever get round to writing, and there were always some 20th century notions lurking among the plots about Roman empresses and Renaissance courtesans. I started giving those fledgling ideas some serious consideration when I looked at the market and saw the recent boom in 20th century historical fiction. 

Now, I can’t write what I don’t love—I don’t think any author can—but the question here wasn’t “Can you write in an era you don’t love?” It was “Can you learn to love a new era?” The answer turned out to be “yes.” I like the 20thcentury a lot, and once “The Alice Network” bloomed into a full-fledged story in my mind, it positively begged to be written. “The Huntress” followed right on its heels.

Making a jump this big does have its scary moments, though. After writing four books in ancient Rome and two in the Renaissance, I was very comfortable in those worlds. I know the courtship customs, the vocabulary, the period-appropriate coinage and clothes and food, and I have it all at my fingertips without needing to look much of anything up. Writing in a historical era you know well is like lounging around in your favorite Pjs, or dog-paddling through the shallow side of the swimming pool. Taking on an entirely new historical era feels like being tossed head-first into the deep end: I was researching everything in a frantic effort to acquire the kind of familiarity with the era that novel-writing requires. Because it isn’t getting a battle’s date wrong that will sink your story; concrete dates and bare-bones facts are for the most part easy to look up—it’s the tiny details like not knowing if a zipper would be on the back or the side of a woman’s dress in 1947, or how much afternoon tea would cost with rationing laws in place. Those are the things that are hard to dig up, and I sweated bullets researching “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.”

But it was worth it. I’m proud of my 20th century novels, and I hugely enjoyed writing both. I still love ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and I plan to pen more -stories set there . . . but for the time being, I’m enjoying my jump to the 20th century, and have no plans to leave just yet!

What aspects do you love about writing historical fiction? It’s a way to examine universal human issues through a lens of the past–and a way to make people realize that humanity has not changed, even if it dresses in different clothes and uses different language than we do in the modern era!

What advice do you have for new authors? Embrace the suck–i.e., give yourself permission to be bad! Because all first drafts are bad, and that’s ok, but I see many new writers get so paralyzed by the inner voice that says “This is so terrible, I can never show it to anyone” that they never really get off the ground. It’s ok if your first draft is bad; it will get better. And you don’t have to show your work to anyone until you’re ready, so just write without fear of what anyone will say–especially that critical inner voice.

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction? I want to see more diverse hist-fic, not just European history. I want to see stories out of Asian history and African history, Native American history and South American history. There’s so much out there waiting to be told.

What are you working on now? My next book is titled THE ROSE CODE, about the female codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It should release early 2021. 

Many thanks, Kate. I love your perspective on changing time periods. I should mention that my book club had a lively discussion of Kate’s The Alice Network on Monday – everyone loved it! You can also read an earlier post featuring Kate Quinn and The Alice Network.



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


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

Popular Posts 2016

Continuing to bring together popular posts on A Writer of History. These are from 2016.

The Art of Esoterica or Historical Fiction Research Using Paris in Ruins as an example, this post illustrates the research required for historical fiction, showing books read and on order, historical timelines, topics explored, topics still to explore, other planned research activities.

Author tips on writing historical fiction from around the web 

A brief summary of books read during 2015

8 Steps for Outlining a Novel – the post uses Paris in Ruins as an example and includes comments on story concept, story outline, chapter outlines, themes, structure, character, time period, and conflicts.

The kind folks at Writer’s Digest selected AWOH to be on their 101 Best Websites for Writers

Historical fiction is time travel for readers. But what does this really entail? How do writers inhabit the mindsets of their characters to create that feeling of being there?

10 Thoughts on Favourite Historical Fiction the post looks at attributes of favourite historical fiction based on reader responses to the 2015 survey

10 Substitutes for an FMA in Writing or how I taught myself to write

Evolving world of book reviews – or where readers go for book recommendations

Derek Birks, author of a family saga set during the Wars of the Roses, discusses the unique challenges of writing family sagas

Beginning in December 2016, I published all the WWI letters of my husband’s great uncle. This post contains the first letter, which was written ‘Somewhere in France’ in October 1915

I hope you enjoy many of these.


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