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Choosing A Time Period For Your Historical Novel, by Adrian Goldsworthy

It is more than likely that the choice of era and setting for your story will have come to you when you first decided that you wanted to write an historical novel.  This can follow a longstanding interest in an era or be sparked by a visit to a museum or site, or perhaps reading or watching something about that period.  This is not something anyone can prescribe for another, but in all probability you will have to work on the specific setting.  For instance, you may want to write about life in manor during the Middle Ages, but working out just when and where to set your story – and indeed how specific you want to be in terms of time and place – takes more thought.

Quite a lot will depend on the sort of story you want to tell.  Is it primarily the story of a big event and the characters caught up in it?  This could be anything – perhaps a natural disaster like the eruption of a volcano or the onset of plague, or something man-made like war, massacre, occupation, or what it is like to live under a harsh and repressive government.  In these sorts of stories the event or circumstance itself will loom very large.  Care is needed to stop it dwarfing all the characters, but even so the resolution of the story is shaped and dependent on the big event, and this can work well.  An example of this is Richard Harris’ Pompeii where the eruption of Vesuvius is central to the entire story and the personal stories of each character – many of whom will inevitably perish – become less significant in the face of this huge danger and challenge.

The approach can work as fictionalised history, and may not really have a central hero or heroes so much as a broad cast of characters.  In some ways this is closer to non fiction, when the point is to try and understand an event and convey what it was like to be caught up in it.  Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort fits into this group, lacking the obvious central hero of his other books.  Another example would be Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels where all the action takes place on the few days and we see the Battle of Gettysburg from a range of different perspectives.  Done well, this is actually a very good way for people to get the flavour of a period.  Professional historians may not like it, but the truth is that plenty of people get the bulk of their historical knowledge from fiction, whether literary or cinematic.  Structuring the story will depend a lot on the timescale of the main event itself.  From this you will know the key phases or incidents you want to include and then fit the personal stories around this.

Other stories will be far more dependent on your characters, and in this case the setting provides no more than a background.  Even then it will be important to consider the things you want to happen, and especially the actual events.  Depending on how much licence you intend to take with the real chronology, this will provide a framework, giving you an idea of where you want your characters to be at different times.  Similarly, it is worth thinking about any real people you want to include and then work out how to introduce them and what role they will play in the story.

Adventure stories will need to set the hero a challenge and then allow the hero to face this, overcome difficulties, and win out by the end of the story.  If you are writing about a war and want to include large scale battles and sieges then you will want to decide why the characters should be there, how this will affect them, and what role it plays in their story.  Simply grafting them on because readers will expect a big battle at the end will not work if the event is not integrated.  If it is not, then the book will become more like the event focused novel.  It may still work well.  Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Waterloo reads like a very lively and well paced fictionalised account of the 15th-18th June 1815, but the Sharpe-based part of the plot is far less central than in the rest of the series.

The author does need to be clear what story he or she is telling, whether it is character or event based or some combination of the two.  You need to understand the balance you want, otherwise it is easy for your interest in the real events or background to take over.  It is possible to be too close to your sources, and this can make it harder to avoid giving a history lesson instead of telling a story.  In my case I chose to write about the Napoleonic era rather than the Roman period even though I have spent my professional life researching and writing about the Romans.  Mainly this was because the Peninsula War has always been a hobby and I simply wanted to write stories about those years.  I also felt it would be refreshing to read up in more detail on another period, and was a bit worried that it would be harder to write about the Romans without digressing into too much historical discussion.  One day I may change my mind, and write some fiction about the ancient world, but for the moment I’ll leave that to others.

There is one last word of advice which bears repeating even though it is obvious.  Do not try to write about something simply because you think it would be the sort of think people like.  If you are going to spend a lot of time researching and writing about an era and particular characters then you need to find them fascinating.  That way you will enjoy doing it, and it will also shine through in your work.

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Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website: www.adriangoldsworthy.com

Adrian Goldsworthy’s bio page

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Enjoyed your post, Adrian. Your last para. is sage advice!

    February 2, 2013
  2. This is a useful way of categorising historical fiction, Adrian. Thank you.

    It’s interesting to consider how people choose what time period they write about. I was rather surprised to find myself writing about the Norman invasion and the Crusades. But I now realise that this is probably due to the Ladybird books I read as a child.

    February 2, 2013
  3. In the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to write a historical. This post has helped me get a handle on how. I know choosing the time period is the first step in that journey.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    February 3, 2013

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