Writing Historical Fiction: A Beginner’s Guide, by Emma Darwin
The thing is, you’re writing fiction – historical fiction – not fictional history. The worst writing you’ll ever do is what you write when you’ve got a history book in the other hand. The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.
So you know you must research your historical facts, because they are that stuff. And the facts aren’t just stage-coaches and corsetry, but manners and beliefs: how people behave in matters of sex or prayer, where they feel they are in a what-shaped world, must be as convincing as how they cook or bet or fight.
You’ve kept a sharp eye out for things you didn’t know you had to check: you don’t make your medieval peasants eat potatoes or your Regency heroine tell her betrothed to ‘step on the gas’ – and he’s not a ‘fiancé’ because that word doesn’t come in for another half-century. You haven’t forgotten that everyone always covers their head outdoors and you know why benefit of clergy might save your murderer’s life. You understand when the same character would be called ‘Harriet Wimsey’ and when ‘Lady Peter Wimsey’, when ‘my lady’ and when ‘your ladyship’.
But ‘convincing’ isn’t the same as ‘accurate’; accurate is no good if your reader doesn’t believe you. So how you write your facts into the story is just as important. It’s in showing and telling, in psychic distance, and above all the voice of the narrative, not the weight of research, which will make the world convincing, so that the reader trusts you and stays with you for the whole novel.
That voice is the product of a consciousness: the combination of what the narrative wants to say and how it wants to say it. How much will you try to evoke the cadence, the vocabulary and grammar of your period? How much the attitudes and beliefs, even when they’re abhorrent to us? How do you avoid sounding too modern, but avoid twee pastiche? By all means look at how historical novelists you admire do it, but then go back to the real voices and people of the period, and try to work out what gives them their characteristic flavour, and what of that you can use.
So find it all out, work it out, and then, in a sense, forget what you’ve found, and write. In the end – and the beginning – writing a historical novel is the same as writing any other novel. It starts with a promise that what follows will be worth the reader’s time and trust in you: an inherently unstable situation where there’s lots at stake for your characters. To get what they want and need they’ll have to become the characters-in-action that Aristotle said was the foundation of all storytelling. You’re telling stories, not histories.
Emma Darwin’s author website: www.emmadarwin.com
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