How to write historical fiction


01 June 2013
imports_WRI_0-htuq2sha-100000_50662.jpg How to write historical fiction
Popular author of medieval historical fiction Anne O'Brien helps you bring history to pacy, page-turning life for modern readers, with practical examples from her own books ...
How to write historical fiction Images
For a historical novelist, researching an historical event or character is the easy bit. If you are meticulous in keeping records, if you are well motivated to stick at it, if you are of a generally curious nature, it is a pleasurable activity. There are rich pickings in history books and articles accessed through the internet. Google is a magnificent tool for the researcher. And the result? A timeline of factual detail to give your historical novel a solid structure. And then the fun begins. And with it the hard graft to transform a list of facts, figures, opinions, as well as an overwhelming wealth of detail, into a gripping page-turner.

Give readers a story, not a history lesson

There is one basic premise: anyone seeking purely factual detail will go to a history book. On the other hand readers of historical fiction demand a ‘good read’ to keep them entertained, or on edge, or simply captivated by the unfolding of the plot, until the final page has been read. At best, your reader should be devastated that the novel has ended. It is the role of the historical novelist to use their research of battles or peace treaties or political marriages to make history come alive. To give their historical characters a voice that demands to be heard.

The first paragraph, the very first line, of your novel is the place to get your reader hooked. Here is an opportunity to introduce some of your protagonists, making their characters either appealing or appalling. No room for half-measures here. Your reader must become as passionate as you are to discover what these fascinating people might be doing in the rest of the novel. Try a line of conversation to lure the reader in. Or drop your reader into the middle of moment of high drama or future portent.
Here is Eleanor of Aquitaine with her sister Aelith in the very first lines of my book, Devil’s Consort.

‘Well, he’s come. Aren’t you excited? What do you hope for?’ Aelith pursued me with comment and questions.
‘What I hope for is irrelevant.’
I studied the busy scene below with its sea of royal French banners. I had got Louis Capet for a husband, whether I liked it or not.

Just a hint here of a feisty, unimpressed Eleanor. The reader already knows that her future marriage does not fill her with joy.
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Tell the story, not the facts

A novel, particularly one concerning actual historical characters, needs a sense of the dramatic, because, after all, everyone will have some idea of the ultimate outcome. Which are the truly vivid moments that set fire to the imagination? These are the hooks that will keep your reader engaged. These are the scenes that they will live in their memory long after they have finished the book. They are essential to the story, and for me they are the best way to get into the essence of your novel.

Try it. Chose a scene of potentially great drama and imagine you are there witnessing the emotional power of it. Put your characters in place, and allow them to experience it with all the pain or joy that it would bring. As you write it, build the tension to the climax, gaining confidence as you create the sense of grief or excitement or tragedy. Enjoy the moment as your protagonists take control.

Don’t let history get in the way of a good story. This seems to be denying the relevance of historical facts to a novel, but it is some of the best advice I was ever given. Be selective. To overload a novel with too many facts and dates can be a death blow, destroying the pace of the story. I might be interested in the method of stringing a Welsh long bow in battle, but to deviate into a three-page description in the middle of a tense situation between Katherine de Valois and Henry V can be dire. It is a matter of judgement, to work just enough detail into the scene to give a sense of place and time without deluging it. Yes, it is tempting to think ‘I am interested in this, so will the reader be...’ But not at the expense of driving your plot forward.

The same goes for climate and the scenery. Some writers are keen on this for setting the scene. Keep it in bounds, to create atmosphere, but if it adds to neither the quality of the event nor the character development, take care that it does not swamp the action. That is not to say that you do not need the odd thunderstorm or heatwave.

Bring historical characters to life

Use your characters to engage the emotions. Never forget that your characters are living people, and they will carry your readers on through the plot. They laugh and talk, weep and make jokes. They swear and show anger. But they must be true to life and to history. What does your research tell you about your character? If a character appears to be difficult, surly and argumentative, you are not free to make him the life and soul of the party. Be true to the facts, imagine what they will say and do when placed in a critical stand-off, or even in a cosy family situation. Let them speak out.

Look for opportunities to give them free rein. In my novel The Forbidden Queen, told by Katherine de Valois, on the day after her marriage to Henry V a tournament was planned to celebrate Katherine as Queen of the Lists. Henry cancelled it and went back to war. End of incident: three lines in a history book. But what a splendid opportunity here to develop the character of the newlyweds, and more importantly, the conflict between them, to draw the reader into this new relationship. These little gems of opportunity can provide heart-stopping moments in a novel, and your characters will leap from the page. Here are Katherine and Henry:

‘What is happening?’ I asked as soon as he was within hearing distance.
‘I am leaving.’
‘And it has to be today?’ I fought to keep my voice low and cool. ‘I was expecting to celebrate my marriage. Now it seems I am not to do so. I think I should have been made aware of this. Last night you did not tell me.’
‘It was obviously remiss of me,’ he replied stiffly. ‘I ask pardon, lady. If I have given offence.’

It was the nearest I would get to an apology – and I felt he did not make them often.
Thus, an immediate source of conflict to carry the newly wedded pair into their honeymoon.

Your story can have mystery, even if the historical facts are known

Have you ever thought of hiding the direction of your plot? Don’t be afraid to do this. You might know the outcome of your novel. So might your readers if it is a well-known historical event, but your characters do not have second sight. Here is another gripping opportunity to make your reader anxious for the outcome. Who is to say that Eleanor of Aquitaine will achieve her divorce from King Louis? The frustrations of your protagonists can keep your readers glued to the page to discover what will happen next. Don’t forget that many readers are not nearly as clued up on the subject as you are.

Paint a picture, create an atmosphere

A novel needs colour. The pictures you paint must be so vivid that they are visible. Use contemporary poetry, art, songs. Games and pastimes. Dances. Your characters don’t just stand about and talk. Put them into situations that enable them to come alive. These are aspects to their lives that are not recorded in history books but which can add dramatic depth and excitement if tied into the story. Shakespeare had his nobles meeting in a rose garden in his build up to the Wars of the Roses. Is it historical? Does it matter? We all remember it, and there is no proof that they didn’t. Make it sparkle.

One of the most problematical areas is what to do with the ‘background’ to your tale. Whether it is politics, foreign policy or a civil war, it has to be handled with subtlety and made relevant or it becomes simply a narrative add-on, the worst cause of boredom.

The question to ask is: does this information carry the plot forward? If the answer is yes, then you need to find a way to include it. Try a letter, a conversation, a reminiscence, a piece of female gossip or an eavesdropping. Make it personal to your protagonists. Make them react to it – only then does it become part of the story.

Here a dream is used to allow Anne Neville to show her knowledge of the bloody events in Tewkesbury Abbey, when her husband the Prince of Wales is murdered by Richard of Gloucester in Virgin Widow.

I tumbled head-first into the dream that was no dream.
The Prince stared wildly round. ‘Usurper!’ he spat.
And he leapt at the King. With what intent? Impossible to know, but I saw Richard slide a long bladed dagger from his belt. My attention was gripped and held by that bright metal. I could not look away.

Your reader’s attention will also be gripped by Richard’s knife. Isn’t this more appealing than writing an account of the murder?

As for conversation: it must be realistic. Not Shakespearean, or from the ‘gadzooks’ school of history writing, but lively, interesting, and racy when necessary, because of course they spoke colloquially, as we do. I was taken to task for allowing Richard of Gloucester in Virgin Widow to say ‘Watch your back!’ Why wouldn’t he? It would be an obvious warning to give to any noble in the Wars of the Roses, nor is it, to my mind, too anachronistic to be acceptable. Think of the words to use to create bitter grief or exquisite joy. If your reader rejoices or suffers with your characters, you will have them in the palm of your hand. And don’t be afraid of silences between characters. If they have nothing to say – use it. It can be very emotional.

Use tension and cliffhangers

Leave a chapter on a point of tension so that your reader must start the next one before they put the book down. Here is a moment of terrible emotion between the ailing King Edward III and his mistress Alice Perrers in The King’s Concubine when she has been accused of adultery:

As his eyes met mine, I saw that Edward knew. How swift could gossip fly?
‘You betrayed me, Alice. You betrayed my love for you.’ Edward turned his face from me as he had never done before. ‘I don’t want you here.’
I deserved it. All my senses were frozen in guilt.
What would happen to me now?

Doesn’t it make you want to turn the page to find out?

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Writing Magazine, available in print and digital