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Do You Need To Be A Historian To Write Historical Novels? by Mary Nichols

I write historical novels, but I make no claim to be a historian in the academic sense. I am sure I am not unique in saying I hated history at school. All those dates and wars and politics left me cold. It was the only subject of the those I took for School Certificate that I failed. Why then, did I end up writing historical novels?

Two people had a lasting influence on me. The first was my father. He was Dutch, so English was his second language, but he was meticulous in its use and would brook no sloppiness in his children. He maintained reading was the best way to learn and subscribed to a book club which produced classics like: Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels, The Woman in White, Barchester Towers, etc, plus the complete works of Shakespeare, and I was encouraged to read them at a very early age, long before I could understand what they were all about. It was no hardship. I was an avid reader and read everything I could lay my hands on whether it was suitable reading for a child or not. I think these books coloured my writing style. I was told by one editor, that my ‘voice’ didn’t work well with a contemporary novel and I ought to stick to historical.

The second great influence was my grandmother. I was sent to stay with her during the Second World War and spent some of my most formative years in the country, living on a small holding with no electricity, gas, main drains, sewerage or telephone, just four walls, a roof and a few acres of land.  The loo was down the garden, the bath hung on a hook on the back place wall and the cooking was done on the kitchen range.  When it got dark we sat by the light of an oil lamp and lit our way to bed with a candle.

Grandma was an indomitable lady who was midwife, nurse and confidante to the whole village of Necton in Norfolk from before the first World War until the coming of the National Health Service in 1948.  She was not unique in what she did, there were thousands of women doing the same job. They were referred to as ‘the handywoman’ or ‘the woman you sent for.’  And when she was sent for, she always went, whatever the time of day or night.

She was a fund of stories and when she began with, ‘That time o’ day…’, she wasn’t talking about hours and minutes but times gone by and I knew there was a story coming. She was the soul of discretion so I never heard much about her work, which was probably not fit for childish ears in any case, but about her early life and times. She told me she had run away from home when she was eight.  Her mother had died in childbirth and as the eldest of four girls, she was expected to help in the running of the home.  ‘I  didn’t reckon a lot to that,’ she told me. She walked the four miles from her home in Swaffham to Necton where her grandparents had a brickmaking business. They told her she could stay on condition she helped make the bricks. She never went to school again.

I heard about making bricks, my grandfather’s work as a shepherd, their disastrous wedding day told with the humour that never left her, my mother’s illness as an infant, helping the doctor take out a child’s tonsils on the window sill of a cottage during an earthquake, about the first World War and the Zeppelins. I soaked them all up. What she was telling me was social history, made more interesting because it was told by someone I knew and loved. Later, I wrote her biography, The Mother of Necton.

It was only a short step from listening to stories of times past to reading about them and then to writing my own, though success in writing took some years, a lot of hard work and dogged persistence. Whether the history came first or the need to write, I can’t tell, but both have served me well over the years.

So the answer to my own question is, no, you don’t need to be a historian to write historical novels.


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The Summer HouseThe FountainThe Kirilov StarThe Girl on the Beach     A Name of Her Own (Tender Ties Historical Series)The Mathematics of LoveThe Dressmaker

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post. I too hated history at school, and that stayed with me until only recently.

    I think it’s more of a disadvantage to be a historian, given some of the novels I’ve read written by academics. No names 🙂

    January 19, 2013
  2. I loved history at school, but it was a bit like being a detective – asking yourself what the evidence showed really happened (and, with a good teacher, WHY) rather than what it felt like to live then. What it was like was always the missing dimension.

    So grateful to novelists like Mary Nichols who bring a sense of warmth and common humanity to stories set in the past.

    Of course, that has to be an added skill for academic historians. Not surprising if they don’t all share it.

    January 20, 2013
  3. Great post, Mary. Thanks.

    January 21, 2013
  4. I’m an historical novelist too, Mary – your article reminded me of my childhood even though it was much later than yours. My gran told stories about her early life – giving me a picture of how life was lived pre WW1. Like you, I read all the classics, whether I understood them or not – a great grounding for a writer, historical or not. And like you, I’m more comfortable writing about the past than the present. Besides – there’s nothing new, history just keeps on repeating itself!

    February 1, 2013

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