24 September 2021
Avoid the five common pitfalls of writing historical fiction with advice from author Alec Marsh
1. Don’t overdo the historical exposition
Of all the mistakes you can make that are specific to the writing of historical fiction there is one sin that stands out above all others. It’s the excessive use – or abuse – of exposition. You need to rein in your natural enthusiasm and resist the temptation to load your paragraphs with descriptive scene setting – albeit the creative product of hours of labour. Your novel is a story set in the past, not the past set in a story. You need to edge the reader towards a sense of specific time and place through every syllable of your text; so, it’s about using the action, your characterisation, dialogue and the judicious use of specific verb or noun words to evoke the era. In other words, let the scene do the talking, let your characters thrive and the sense of place and time will follow naturally. If the above are authentic the reader’s willing imagination fill the rest.
2. Avoid having 21st century time-travellers
Sigmund Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis was not published until 1917. Before this point you can assume that people did not have a highly developed concept of the subconscious. They had feelings. They had God, most likely, or if they didn’t they might have ‘doubts’. But I’m not sure they had much concept of – let alone the whole lexicon of – the interior world. Remember Ford Maddox Ford’s description of his protagonist in Parade’s End: The basis of Christopher Tietjens’ emotional existence was a complete taciturnity – at any rate as to his emotions. As Tietjens saw the world, you didn’t “talk”. Perhaps you didn’t even think about how you felt. And Tietjens was a man of his time.
Likewise, we must ensure that our historical characters do not think or talk anachronistically. They are of their time, unless, of course, they aren’t in which case they are actual time-travellers, although that would render your novel a fantasy or science fiction. Or if they aren’t actual time-travellers then there’s got to be a good reason for it – they are eccentrics, mavericks or visionaries, and regardless of which their attitudes need to be remarkable.
3. Beware hard truths
In the past, depending on which part you’re talking about, it was perfectly acceptable for respectable people to hold extreme racist, sexist, homophobic, sectarian or anti-Semitic positions. Yet while it might be historically accurate to imbue your characters with one or more of these positions, it won’t do anything to promote your readers’ affection for the characters concerned. Indeed, if you’re not careful you can end up shocking your readers out of the story, too. Why would we want to spend time with a homophobic misogynist? So, pick your battles. Unless it’s critical to the plot – or indeed, the point for the plot – you might do well to avoid unnecessary and overtly challenging aspects of the worldview of the past. Of course, it depends on the tone of your work and the motivation for your writing (if the objective of your work of fiction is to highlight a specific past wrong, you can’t avoid it). However, you might be better off sidestepping taboo-breaking aspects because of the negativity and poisoning effect they can have on the appreciation of the whole work.
4. Get your facts right
There’s a journalistic saying: accuracy always, truth if possible, which applies here.
Unless you are writing fantasy or a story set in a counter-factual reality like Fatherland or Dominion, respect historical fact. If no facts exist and we don’t know what really happened then you should assume the most likely course.
Similarly, I urge you to tread carefully with real people in your historical fiction. If your work of fiction is focused on a given figure – take Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s incredible Wolf Hall series – then the known facts oughtn’t be changed, with the inventive creativity of the fictionalised version emerging in the details about which it would never be possible to know categorically what the truth was. This is a massively fecund area of exploitation for historical writers – the interior minds of famous real-life protagonists within the context of their known lives and acts.
But of course the more that is known about the person (and their state of mind), so the trammels of fact further limit – in some respects – what you are able to achieve and get away with in the fictional realm.
Ultimately you owe a debt to truth. As Philippa Gregory recently said to me on the topic of historical accuracy in historical fiction: ‘I personally prefer complete accuracy to the facts, when known, and when they’re not known then an adherence to the most likely explanation.’
In my first Drabble and Harris novel, Rule Britannia – which is set against the backdrop of the Abdication Crisis of 1936 – Winston Churchill makes an appearance. Of course, the reader, if he or she were to stop to think about it, would know that he did not do anything of the sort because this is a work of fiction. However, they will quite likely permit it if it’s a fleeting visit in the text. But dwell too long and their brain will start to lapse momentarily into a wrestle: between known fact and known fiction – and suddenly their suspension of disbelief is blown. So be careful with real people and the facts in general. Get them wrong and you will bump your reader out of the narrative.
5. Verisimilitude not realism is the aim of the game
Ultimately what readers want is not realism, so much as verisimilitude. If you want to experience the eighteenth century as it really was then read Henry Fielding or Tobias Smollett. And then you’ll get it warts and all, as well as in an epistolary format. But what historical authors are aiming for today is to give their readers something different: it’s not a facsimile of an imagined past so much as the seamless appearance of reality as it was whenever their stories are set. In other words, it’s a cultural synthesis of the past for the consumption by the present. Interestingly that makes historical fiction as much as work of its own time as of the one it’s ostensibly about. Your story therefore belongs to two times, the narrative past and the reading present.
Alec Marsh’s new Drabble & Harris novel Ghosts of the West is published by Headine Accent in paperback and ebook format.
How do you turn historical fact into gripping historical fiction? Read how Ellen Alpsten tackled it in her bestselling Tsarina series.