Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (March 2013)
Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its third month of articles, from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.
The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:
– provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to
– relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.
This month’s articles and writing my historical novel
This month’s articles and writing my historical novel
Jane Kirkpatrick wrote: One of the things I like best about writing historical novels is creating a new historical experience for readers that also has relevance for today’s world.
Paul Dowswell wrote: If it’s your ambition to be published then it pays to have a hard-edged think about your subject. What’s worth asking, even before “Why would anyone want to read my book?”, is “Why would anyone want to publish my book?”. We write for many reasons – but I think the secret to ‘being published’ is writing the book you want to write and that a publisher thinks they can sell.
Douglas W Jacobson wrote: As the old saying goes, “The devil is in the detail.” One of the reasons I have always loved historical fiction is that it is a truly marvelous way to learn a bit of history. Some authors of non-fiction (Stephen Ambrose comes to mind) have a flair and style of writing that make their work enjoyable and easy to read. But, in my humble opinion, there’s nothing quite like curling up with Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance or Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth for the ultimate reading experience . . . and a great way to learn history.
That brings us to the issue at hand. Writing good historical fiction places a special burden on the author to get it right. Getting it right doesn’t stop with the big stuff; the dates and locations, the battles and who won the war. It gets right down to the detail. For example, what would a serf in the thirteenth century be likely to eat for breakfast? What type of profanity would a soldier likely have used during the Napoleonic wars? Did the troopers of the Polish cavalry carry lances during World War Two?
‘Creating a new historical experience for readers that also has relevance for today’s world’ is a good summary of what I’m aiming to do with my own historical novel in progress, set in 1939 Poland and discussed further in the January and February Month In Review Updates.
Paul has hit on an important point with: “We write for many reasons – but I think the secret to ‘being published’ [with a mainstream commercial publisher] is writing the book you want to write and that a publisher thinks they can sell.” This can be a touchy subject, as many writers are adamant that giving thought to what a publisher can sell will compromise the writing or ruin the joy of the writing process. My personal attitude is that there is a lot of crossover in what I am interested in writing and what publishers can realistically invest in to publish. Exploring those common areas provides ample scope for lots of stories. Then, of course, authors have the option of self-publishing or starting a new publishing company to publish what others aren’t publishing. WW2 happens to be one of the more a popular settings for historical novels, but that is not why I chose 1939 Poland to set my novel. Looking at it another way, western Poland is not a popular setting for historical novels – at least not in English-language historical novels, unless they are about the Holocaust. Although, Alan Furst’s novels, set primarily in Warsaw (which, for those unfamiliar, is in eastern Poland), are very popular. The Silver Sword (aka Escape From Warsaw) by Ian Serraillier – which covers Warsaw, Posen (aka Poznan) and a path through Germany to Switzerland – has seen enduring popularity. So, while the WW2 setting might make the novel an easier sell commercially, my interest has more to do with exploring a time and place so many people around the world have heard of in relation to its significance to the large-scale events of WW2 but about which most of these people have little understanding of the day-to-day details.
As Douglas has suggested, the everyday details of a historical novel’s setting are crucial to many readers’ enjoyment of the novel. Many readers enjoy reading historical novels to get a sense of a time and place, and to get pointers about things to explore further about that time and place. If such a reader is confident that a historical novelist is knowledgeable about the subject matter of their novel and skilled in sifting through historical evidence to create a credible depiction, they are more likely to immerse themselves in the story and engage with the characters on an emotional level, in the confidence that further investigation will show that the little details stand up to scrutiny. Getting the little details right in a historical novel does a lot of intellectual leg-work for a reader and provides them short-cuts to conceiving questions that can further their understanding and appreciation of the world around them.
Writing Historical Novels