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Starting To Write Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Apart from being set in the past, historical novels need have little in common with each other and there is no set genre with its own rules – as there is to some extent with crime novels.  An historical novel could also be a mystery, a thriller or adventure story, a romance, a tale of political intrigue, a family saga or a soap opera and so follow some of the rules for these genres.  It may be set in the distant or recent past.  It’s sometimes easy to forget that books like A Tale of Two Cities, Vanity Fair, War and Peace and The Last of the Mohicans were all historical novels when they were written.  The place and the era provide a setting, but ultimately the novel will depend far more on the story you want to tell, and in that respect it is the same as writing about the modern world.

The advantage of the past is that it provides such a varied canvas and a host of situations ripe for drama.  This means that there is plenty of scope for adventures with plenty of action, whether set during full scale wars, or dealing with duels and jousts, or simply times that were violent.  Our characters risk serious injury or death – and perhaps torture, imprisonment, or slavery depending on the era – and may also be fighters themselves, confronting their rivals or enemies in an obvious and direct way.  There is a long tradition of such adventure stories, embracing Dumas, Forester, and many, many more, and, apart from their setting, in some ways they have a lot in common with adventure stories or action thrillers set in the present day.  However, they do have an advantage over these in that the violence is less immediate.  You can write about the Romans slaughtering tens of thousands of people, or of Vikings killing, raping, and looting and it will not upset the reader in the same way that a similar story set in an African warzone today.  The past helps to make things distant enough to be safe.  The best authors who write about these periods invoke the horror well, and show even their heroes doing dreadful things, but still keep the reader’s interest and sympathy.  Examples that spring to mind are Bernard Cornwell’s Dark Age and Medieval novels and Robert Low’s Oathsworn Series that begins with The Whale Road.  These books can be grim at times, and both authors use the trick of making the enemies in them clearly worse than the heroes, but the balance is delicate and harder to achieve than it might look.

Detective stories set in the past are now common.  Some emphasise the history side of things more than the mystery element of the story.  Steven Saylor’s Roma sub rosa  series about Gordianus ‘the finder’ offer one of the most convincing fictional portraits of Rome in the first century BC ever written.  The atmosphere is terrific and I tend to read them for this more than the story.  Other authors chose to emphasise the crime-solving far more, often at the expense of atmosphere.  This is one of the many choices you make and there is no right or wrong way.  Like most writers of mysteries set in the present day, the writers of historical mysteries tend to play down the tragedy of the murder itself.  Once again, this prevents the reader from being so overwhelmed by the horror of the violent act itself that they do not want to read the story of the crimes’ resolution.

None of this means that you have to sanitise the past, but these are choices dictating the sort of novel you want to write.  Setting a story in the past can be as good a means of looking in detail at the human condition as writing about the present day and your novel could be about the details of life and relationships or moral judgements.  Once again the past can present more extreme situations.  Forced marriage and slavery, or the cloistered lives of monks or nuns are obvious examples of extreme relationships and lifestyles.

Almost all periods of history present backgrounds that are far more dangerous than the modern world.  At a basic level life expectancy was far lower, with strong risks of early death through disease, accident and childbirth, apart from the greater possibility of violence.  Even behind the genteel world of Austen’s heroines lay the dangers of a bad marriage, or worse public disgrace and after that such grim alternatives as the poorhouse or prostitution.  In the past people had to live without the many safety-nets thankfully offered my modern western society.

It is really up to you whether to make your novel light and entertaining or grimly realistic and deeply insightful.  These are different ends of a scale meeting in the middle and each sort of story faces its own challenges.  Never think that a really good adventure or mystery story is something easy to write.  Such tales tend to be formulaic and to an extent predictable, but some authors lift these and simply write them far better than anyone else.  If you read one of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels you have a fair idea what you are getting and it all looks deceptively simple until you think of the many authors trying to write similar military adventures, whose work comes across as clumsy by comparison.  Doing the apparently simple very well is a mark of great craft and talent.


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