Sunday 6 November 2011

How I Write Historical Fiction

Although there are books on the subject of How To Write Historical Fiction, which are useful, I am sure that novelists develop their own techniques.

I read history books and sooner or later something triggers my imagination. For example, I read that most of the English nobility disliked James II, his politics and his religion. After James fled to France, first his older daughter, Mary, and her husband and then her younger daughter Anne succeeded to the throne. Some peers refused to swear oaths of allegiance to James’s successors during his lifetime. Their refusal provided the historical trigger for my novel Tangled Love, first published as Tangled Hearts, which will be released on the 27th January, 2012.

After I decide on the period for a novel, I compile a chronological timeline with a narrow column on the left with the heading Date and two wide columns on the right with the headings National and International events.

Two of my dislikes when reading historical fiction about real or imaginary characters are historical inaccuracy, and characters who do not act in accordance with their time. Recently, I began a reader’s report on a historical romance. The first two chapters were so full of flaws that I returned it to the author with the comment that, although the plot is interesting, she needs to concentrate on research before rewriting it. I really don’t enjoy novels by authors who despoil history.

While I am working on a novel, I begin my research for the next one. I read about the economics, politics, social history, religion, clothes and everyday objects as well as reading fiction and poetry pertinent to the era. By the time I have finished a novel I have completed the groundwork for the next one in which I will use only a fraction of the information I have garnered. The advantage of such thorough preparation is showing the reader life as it was through my characters in an interesting way.

The more I research the more I realise how different modern day attitudes are to those of the past. However, even if attitudes and surroundings are different, we share the same emotions, love, ambitions, hope, hatred, envy, grief, hopelessness and misery.

As well as a difference in attitudes, there is also a difference in language which is a trap for the unwary author who should avoid sprinkling a novel with ‘la’, ‘methinks’ and ‘gazooks’ etc. In my novel, Sunday’s child, set in the Regency era, my well-born characters speak formally without contractions. In Tangled Love I use a few words such as oddsbodikins that give the flavour of speech in Queen Anne’s reign, and I avoid anachronisms.

I enjoy researching historical fiction through reading and visiting places of historical interest, including gardens, and also enjoy bringing the past and its people to life in my novels.


Barbara Elsborg said...

I think this is why I like reading historical fiction but don't like writing it!! It does require more thought and planning. I just launch myself into a story like a rocket - sadly it splutters a few times before it reaches orbit!!
I agree its very aggravating when authors get the details wrong in an historical book. The language particularly can make me cringe.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Two excellent articles, Rosemary, very useful and informative. Thanks so much for sharing.