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“How long does it take to write a historical novel?” by Stephanie Cowell

Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a historical novel?” ― in fact, people ask me that a lot! I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the writer and their life circumstances. Three months? Twenty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in a newspaper some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his e-mail, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.

“Are you still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “Hasn’t it been ten years?” Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and you’ve already finished? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.

Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight in parts and crooked in others. If you take a wrong turn, you could end up a long time out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going, and you run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.

When you write a novel, you are developing characters, creating a complex plot, filling it with hundreds of fascinating details and deepening as you go. As a writer you create the whole world. If your novel were a film, think of how many people would contribute their work to it: director, costume designer, electricians, camera crew, wig specialist, fight specialists, accent coaching, sound effects, set designer, drivers, caterers, editors and of course music and lighting effects and actors. Think of the make-up needed! Even the dab of powder on the nose! And now look down at your own work-in-progress. All of those jobs are yours.

Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing, but Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet took five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. (He would always say things like, “I liked the ninth version of the fourth draft best.”) And when I finally had it published, a friend wrote and said, I am sorry you left out this and that scene! ….and so help me, I could not remember that version! And I am still afraid to look at the printed copy to see what was left out.

Why did this book take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for his muse Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.

I admit to jealousy when a fellow novelist posts on Facebook, “Well, wrote 3000 words before lunch.” But we all have our own speed. And as I said, like children, novels each require something else.

There is a t-shirt I once saw which I have always regretted not buying. In big black letters across the front, it said, “Just working on my novel.” Or mine should say, “Still working on my novel. How about you?”


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

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Claude & Camille: A Novel of MonetMarrying Mozart     Napoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)The Mathematics of LoveThe Keeper of Secrets

Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nancy Jardine #

    Abolutely true about the time scale, which can be very dependent on extraneous factors like family commitments and living a life. I’m currently writing what is in effect my second historical novel (not counting a time-travel novel for early teens that goes back to Celtic/Roman Britain AD 210) and I’m ‘sort of’ gaining pleasure from the fact that it’s progressing slowly. I’ve set a deadline but will I make it?

    February 23, 2013
  2. Having loved your “Claude and Camille,” I was particularly pleased to read this line: “There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it.” Gives me hope for the novel that has eluded me for 25 years now, in spite of my being able to write the biography of a medieval storyteller in 9 months.

    February 23, 2013
  3. Ann Victoria Roberts #

    Another enjoyable post on writing historical novels – I’m nodding in agreement with all Stephanie Cowell has to say. I do hope readers of historical novels read these posts too!

    February 23, 2013
  4. My sympathies are with you, Stephanie. I thought I wrote a lot of drafts for my last book ‘Outcasts’ but this was a trifling number compared to you. it’s good to remind people how variable a time it takes to write a novel.

    February 24, 2013
  5. Glad I stopped off to read your post – was just wondering whether I would ever get to the second draft of my historical novel…. 🙂

    February 24, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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