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Choosing A Time And Place To Set Your Historical Novel, by Anne Perry

The time and place you choose for your novel is going to depend a whole lot on your story.  Your story may require an absolutely fixed setting, but it is surprising how many great themes can be placed in all sorts of settings.  You may even find that moving them from the expected to the unexpected will heighten their impact.  For one thing, it can separate the over-arching theme from the immediate drama, and so give it added power.

If the basic passion and message of your story is true only of that time and place, and has no relevance to the rest of us, are you sure it is really what you want to say?  Of course there are settings that may be special for you, or about which you are an expert.  Conversely there are other settings your editor may feel will have little resonance with readers.  (Maybe they need educating that a great story is always great?)

If you move outside what you had originally intended it may require additional research, but that can prove to be well worth the effort – quite apart from the interest and fun.

Have you seen any really good updates of Shakespeare?  It might make you see the universality of Shakespeare’s themes with new eyes.  You are constantly having to alter your focus and attention.  Old scenes emerge with a new vitality.  Or how about the great Greek tragedies?  I have seen them updated superbly.  Shorn of their mythology, but keeping the elements of human nature that the gods and goddesses represent, the passion and urgency of the human stories is even greater.  Our familiarity with the emotions coupled with our surprise at the setting can work very well together.

What about revolutions?  Is there not always a longing for change, to get rid of injustices?  There is violence, the lust for power and excesses.  Always?  Which revolution do you want?  The French Revolution of 1789 – and then again of 1848?  The other ones in Europe of 1848?  The Russian Revolution of 1917?  Or more recent ones such as those in the Middle East?  Many stories could take place in any of these revolutions, such as stories of sacrifice, error, rescues and betrayals.  So could stories of hope and the disillusion, the realisation that so often the naïve idealists are replaced by the excesses of the tyrants.  Are we speaking of France, or Russia, or Iran or somewhere else?  Take your pick.

And civil war?  The American?  Or the British of the 1640’s which ended in the execution of the King, followed by the reign of Oliver Cromwell, and then the restoration of Charles II?  Surely the Spanish Civil War is a heartrending classic?  The elements of heroism, sacrifice, torn loyalties are common to them all.

Choose your time with care but also with imagination.  The basic human passions don’t change; only the settings.  Many political situations go in cycles, and sudden disruption is always a challenge to courage and compassion.  It is in dealing with these issues that your voice and your values are unique.

The decisions we choose and our reactions to circumstances show character, and the writer’s beliefs, better than almost anything else.  You can show us old situations in new and sharper ways so we see more clearly and feel more intensely, if you pick exactly the right place and time to tell your story.  Search all times and places, and if you can’t find one that you think is a good fit you could always invent it.

Have fun.


Anne Perry’s author website:

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The William Monk Mysteries: The First Three NovelsCallander Square (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt Novels (Paperback))A Christmas GarlandCardington Crescent     A Sweetness to the SoulThe Summer HouseWounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels


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