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Writing Novels Set In Different Historical Times And Places, by Julian Stockwin

My two current historical novels are set in very different time periods, over a millennia apart. Pasha is the lastest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian. So why did I tackle two such very diverse writing projects?

The genesis of The Silk Tree lies in the magical city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). On location research there for the Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…

My Kydd books are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a wordsmith it’s that all life’s experiences are grist to the mill for a writer. For The Silk Tree I was able to call upon my knowledge of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked for some years in Hong Kong. All those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school also came in handy!

I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree (which I believe is vital in writing historical fiction) was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.

In all fiction, however, there are constants that a writer must bear in mind. The first, I believe, is the centrality of the characters. The reader has to connect with the characters – either love ’em or hate ’em – but feel an emotional nexus of some sort. At least one of the characters must change and develop over the course of the book in a satisfying way. In all my books to date I have had ‘double acts’ in terms of characters. For the Kydd series, it’s Tom Kydd and Nicholas Renzi and in The Silk Tree it’s Nicander and Marius. This is an old literary device, but it’s a useful one.

Another imperative is that the reader needs to be able to pick up on the stakes in the story, otherwise it might as well be non-fiction. A compelling tale sets out the stakes, throws in challenges and then resolves matters to one degree or another at the end of the book.

So what advice would I give to aspiring historical novelists regarding which time to write about? Historical period fashions come and go – some seem to stay quite a while – others are more transient. An established author once told me to write from the heart, not try to follow current trends. He cautioned that if you try to jump on a current bandwagon by the time your book comes out (maybe in two or more years time by the time you actually write it and it gets into print) that particular bandwagon may long since have disappeared.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to passion and commitment. Go with your heart – but be mindful that being a successful author, especially in these challenging times, demands professionalism at all levels.

I feel very privileged to be able to write both an ongoing series set in the Age of Fighting Sail and now, as well, pen an occasional standalone when I come across a story about a pivotal point in history that I just have to tell.

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

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Julian Stockwin was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see his previous articles.

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Why I Write About British Redcoat Soldiers, by Paul Fraser Collard

I have been fascinated with the British soldier for as long as I can remember. I can still vividly recall the first time I saw the film Zulu on a grey and wet Sunday afternoon when I must have been around ten years old. The images that I saw filled me with a desire to know more of these fabulous red-coated soldiers, one that is still with me to this day.

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Greek Mythology As Historical Fiction, by Glyn Iliffe

While watching Arthur Christmas the other month I remarked to my wife on the modern trend for demystifying all things supernatural. In the film, Santa Claus is no longer a lone agent who uses Christmas magic to circumnavigate the globe in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, heaving his ample waist down chimneys to leave presents for every (good) child on earth. Instead, he is the figurehead of a high-tech organisation populated by thousands of elves who, like an army of miniature Tom Cruises, are able to rappel into homes, plant presents with military precision and exfil before you can say “Happy Christmas”. Gone is the mystery, gone the innocent belief in something numinous. In their place is the cold logic of science.

The same might be said for mythology in modern historical fiction. People don’t stop reading books about Robin Hood just because historical evidence for the main character – and the stories that surround him – is shaky. It’s still a great story. But today’s audience also expect their Robin to be “historically accurate”. They don’t want Lincoln green and merry men anymore; they want thirteenth century mud and a host of cut-throat rogues.

Similarly, how tolerant would today’s readers be of the Arthur of Sir Thomas Mallory’s day, a king in plate armour who fights giants and goes on quests to find the Holy Grail? Aren’t they more attuned to the Arthur portrayed in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles: a pagan warrior, rather than a Christian king, fighting Anglo-Saxon invaders on the one side and – ironically – the spread of Christianity on the other? In Cornwell’s retelling, the armaments, rudimentary technology, culture and attitudes are all intended to meet the modern reader’s expectations of historical accuracy. Obviously, as a writer in the Information Age he has decades of historical and archaeological research at his fingertips, something Mallory never had the benefit of. But Cornwell also chooses to play down the fantasy element of the Arthurian tales, portraying such things as Merlin’s magic in a way that can be read as illusory or the result of superstition.

The trend doesn’t seem to have spread to Greek mythology. The main character in my books is Odysseus, a mythical hero with less historicity than either Robin Hood or King Arthur; and the backdrop is the Trojan War, a Bronze Age conflict for which there is only sparse evidence. Though I’ve always tried to incorporate what little is known about the period – evidence of armaments, political systems, religious practices and so on – I’m more than happy to follow Homer’s example and include elements from later periods if I think they fit the story better. Neither am I averse to the odd mythical beast or interfering Olympian. Yet my books are still classed as historical fiction rather than fantasy.

So why is it more acceptable for gods and monsters to appear in novels about Bronze Age Greece than ancient or medieval Britain? An editor once asked me to consider rationalising the immortals et al as the effects of superstitious beliefs on primitive psychologies, very much in the vein of Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. I admit I gave the suggestion thought, but not much. To dismiss the gods in a retelling of The Iliad is one thing, but what about The Odyssey? Odysseus and his crewmates would need to be on a constant diet of LSD to explain away the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis!

There’s another thing about removing the mythical from Greek mythology – what’s left is just Greek. For those of us weaned on the milk of Jason and the Argonauts before going onto the solid food of Homer, the supernatural is what makes sense of this almost pre-historic world. As archaeology begins to reveal more about the Greece and Troy of three thousand years ago, novels about the era can add more historical fact to the fiction. But to strip out the supernatural would be sacrilegious to readers, as doomed to failure as renaming Christmas Winterval or as bad as telling kids that Father Christmas isn’t real.

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Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com

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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.

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Tim Willocks’s author website: www.timwillocks.com

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Tell Me A Story, by Paul Fraser Collard

It may seem odd that I should bother to take the time to write a blog piece with such a title. I am, after all, attempting to write things of interest to other creative minds that are involved in the world of writing historical novels. But it was one of the first subject titles that came to my mind when I first thought of writing this series of blogs. I shall attempt to explain why.

Historical fiction is a hard genre to get right. Not only must we create wonderful stories with characters that can grab a reader’s attention and a plot that will leave them gasping for more, but we must do this against a historical background that we know intimately enough to bring to life in a reader’s mind.

This is no easy thing. Research can be overwhelming. It can consume you. The effort we put into discovering every detail of the past taking us longer than it takes to write the actual novel we are planning. Yet it has to be done. Research is crucial and details simply have to be correct. If we want to be taken seriously then we have to convince everyone that we know what we are talking about. We need to breathe life into the dusty, dry words of history, giving it a life force so that readers can not only see the world we are describing but they can smell it, hear it, feel it and, hardest of all to achieve, understand it.

But (you must have known that this was coming) there is a central tenet that we must never forget. We are writers not historians, entertainers not teachers. We are there to tell a story.

Now for a confession; I pillage the past. There, it is out in the open and I hope you are not too shocked. I take history and thrust my fictitious character, Jack Lark, into its midst, using his eyes to see the events of the past whilst taking him on a journey through what actually happened to real people. I do not do so lightly but I am trying to do one thing, and one thing only; I am trying to tell a story.

I like to think I am honest about my dreadful act of robbery. I will always include historical notes that should explain where I have deviated from the real history or whose stories I have stolen for my Jack to enjoy. I feel bad for using the past in such a way. This is why I could never write a novel around a real character from history. That would feel too impertinent. I feel that I would be claiming that I know what a real person felt, said or thought, when I am sure they alone know exactly what that might have been. Still I take the past and adapt it for my own use, and for that I always feel the need to apologise.

It has been said that I am a writer “who wears history lightly enough for the story he’s telling to blaze across the page”. This is a wonderful line that, to my mind at least, has two meanings. A few people have read it and come up to pat me on the back to console me and to tell me to ignore the nasty man who wrote it. After all, I am a historical writer and wearing history lightly may not be a good thing at all. I take it as a great compliment (and I hope to goodness it was meant this way or I shall look a hopeless fool). I have set my stall out to write fast, pacy and punchy fiction. I want my story to blaze across the page. I long for nothing more than to set a reader alight with my passion, for my characters to be so real that they leap off the page and into their mind.

I want this because I see my job as being to tell a story. I shall try incredibly hard to get every last historical detail correct, yet I shall never be a grand historian. My stories will run fast and hit hard, and if you enjoy that, well, then I am doing my job. For I am a storyteller and I have no ambition to be anything more.

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Paul Fraser Collard’s author website: www.paulfrasercollard.com

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Researching The Trojan War For My Novels, by Glyn Iliffe

Research is all about getting a feel for the period, place and people you are writing about. Get the research right and not only will you convince your reader they’re in Byzantine Rome, Napoleonic France or the middle of the Korean War, you’ll convince yourself. As a writer, there are few feelings more uncomfortable than writing out of your depth, so having confidence in the characters and scenes you’re creating is essential.

It helps, when choosing the period you want to write about, to have a passion for it. This makes researching it a joy rather than a chore. If you love Jacobean Scotland reading about it will be easy and you’ll hoover up the facts; if you don’t, it’ll be hard work and the little details won’t stick. It’ll show in your writing. That isn’t to say you can only write about eras you’re familiar with. A basic fascination with history should be enough to drive research for a book about the past.

There’s also the old adage write what you know. If you intend to pen a novel set during a specific period in history, having a baseline to build on will serve you well. This can be a simple interest fuelled by years of reading around the subject. Such interests are often sparked in childhood, perhaps from listening to granddad’s war stories or watching films on TV. My love of the ancient world started with Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus, and re-enacting the battles with my Airfix Romans.

The single greatest advantage I had in writing books about the Trojan War was studying Classics at university. Being steeped in a topic for three years is invaluable. You feed off the knowledge of others – from lectures, seminars, books and commentaries – and are surrounded by people who share your passion. All that exposure to a single topic gives you more than just head knowledge. It leaves you with an instinct for your subject. The same deep appreciation is gained by those in re-enacting societies or other historical focus groups.

Whether you have a deep knowledge of the period you want to write about, or just plenty of enthusiasm for a new era in history, you’ll need to establish that feel for period, place and people that I mentioned at the start. When I planned my series of books on the Trojan War, as seen through the experiences of Odysseus, I had already studied Homer and Greek mythology in detail at university. So, from the perspective of retelling the Trojan myths in a single narrative, I re-read many of the texts I was familiar with and tried to come up with ways of bringing the disparate sources together. I also looked at modern summaries of the legends – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths was particularly useful for this – to give me an overview.

This helped me to form the structure of the story and plan all six books in the series. Next came my research about the Bronze Age itself. This was not something I had studied in detail as part of my degree course, so the first thing I did was to look for books that would provide a good historical outline of the period. The best was Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War: a well-written, readily digestible introduction to the available information about the era. From here I was able to follow threads into specific areas of importance for the story I wanted to tell, such as details about sailing, agriculture, religious practice etc.

One point of note here is my reliance on books, rather than the internet, for research. Personally, I think that taking the time to read a book pays dividends in increasing your understanding of a subject or period. This is because books form structured arguments that explore topics in depth, usually backing themselves up with references and evidence. Internet research, on the other hand, frequently involves a trawl of different sources, sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and often based on conjecture or personal opinion. Where the internet comes up trumps, I find, is when topping up research that has already been carried out – a quick fact here and there, useful images or just for refreshing something half-forgotten.

Another important – and enjoyable – aspect of research is to travel to the places you are writing about. This isn’t always an affordable luxury, but I think a book benefits hugely if the writer has visited the place he or she is depicting. Although I have taken a few liberties with my depictions of Ithaca, Delphi and the Peloponnese (based partly on the fact they would have looked different three thousand years ago), having been there, smelled the air, felt the warm wind on my cheek and seen the sun setting over the mountains is something that has helped me to fix those places in my imagination.

Finally, despite advocating the benefits of research, there are a few get-out clauses when writing about the Trojan War. The first is mentioned above, namely that the physical geography of places is very different now to then. Second is that historical facts about the Bronze Age are still limited, in spite of the achievements of archaeologists in recent years, so you’re not writing in a strait jacket – there’s room for a bit of imagination. Another is that what we know about the Trojan War comes from myth, which by its nature goes against the factual approaches of history and archaeology. The most celebrated source of these myths is Homer, who is known for being a mismatch of different eras. So if a Classical era temple suits your needs more than a Bronze Age cave, then you can always say you’re just being “Homeric”!

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Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com

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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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