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Writing In A New Period Of History As A Historical Novelist, by Henry Venmore-Rowland (guest article)

I was described by one of my teachers as an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one pretty flower to the next. This is not to be encouraged in a historian. Thankfully my degree was in Ancient & Modern History, allowing me to write papers in anything and everything, from Alexander the Great to the rise of nationalism in 19th century Europe, the American Civil War to the Year of the Four Emperors and any number of things in between. It’s fair to say then that I am a generalist, not a specialist.

However, aside from writing a cracking good yarn, the thing that readers of historical fiction crave the most (judging from the legions of Amazon reviewers out there) is authenticity. Reading the newspapers sometimes you would be forgiven for thinking the authenticity comes first. I admit I’ve only seen half an episode of The White Queen, but most of the press reaction has focussed not on characterisation or the story, but on whether you can glimpse pieces of Velcro, a handrail, or the general indignation of seeing a Queen of England not wearing a headdress.

After writing two Roman novels on the back of a childhood filled with Asterix & Obelix, eight years of studying Latin and an almost unhealthy interest in Roman history, I am now embarking on what I hope will be a new series set in the Middle Ages. Visiting the battlefields is going to be quite a bit cheaper, but that’s pretty much the only advantage at the moment. I find it helps to visualise a scene when writing, and I’m probably not alone in that, but with historical fiction you have to be able to visualise accurately. Say your scene is a Roman banquet. You have to know about the triclinium, glorified chaise lounges for reclining dining, not to mention the food on offer, the role of the slaves, the entertainment, the clothes, the etiquette, and that’s just for one scene.

Writing for a whole new period means throwing yourself headlong into a new world and immersing yourself so fully that you can confidently take new readers into it by the hand and show them it’s delights. I imagine it’s like having a tourist guide in a foreign city. Nobody wants to be shown around by a twenty-something winging it after reading a few crib sheets, but nor do you want some fusty don reeling off facts and figures. You want someone to show you the city’s soul. Julian Fellowes admitted his trick for conveying the polished world of Downton Abbey is to drop in little facts that the audience are unlikely to know, say the numbers of forks needed for a full five course dinner, encouraging the viewer to think ‘Ah, this chap knows what he’s talking about’, then they began to relax and enjoy the story on its own merits. Or so the theory goes…


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Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I find it intriguing that historians (and historical novellists) are inevitably classified by whatever they are best known for, when they are always capable of so much more. It happens to me all the time; I am relentlessly supposed to be limited by whatever my last book was about. Whereas I don’t see myself that way. My two main specialties have been New Zealand’s colonial society and its twentieth century military activities, both of them offering explanations as to why the society of New Zealand in the twenty-first century has its particular characteristics. That did not stop me writing a general history of the place, a decade or so ago.

    The reality, of course, is that the analytical and research skills are transferrable between periods. Once we view history as an interpretative discipline, rather than an exercise in listing ‘one damn thing after another’, so are many of the fundamentals. Time, society and place change, but the fundamental realities of the human condition do not.

    July 29, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Whispers in the Wind.

    July 29, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    A twofer yesterday for great articles on Writing Historical Novels website. I like that he mentions he is a generalist. Personally, I can’t imagine just staying in one time period because there are too many people, places, and events that have gone on throughout history.

    July 29, 2013
  4. Henry V-R #

    Reblogged this on Henry V-R and commented:
    Here’s a piece I wrote for the excellent Writing Historical Novels blog:

    July 29, 2013
  5. Though a self professed intellectual butterfly, it seems that you did devote a significant amount of time and brain power to the Roman period and I was starting to feel a ‘tad’ intimidated until I read your last line quoting Julian Fellowes. That is definitely more my style, to research enough to set the scene, drop in some nuggets for authenticity and hope that the ‘few’ errors that are made can be forgiven. But as a first time unpublished author, I suspect I have a lot to learn. I can appreciate the strategy of learning a lot about one time and running with it, but like a true butterfly, I set my first novel in the Victorian era and in my second I am moving backwards to medieval Spain, set at the Alhambra just before the Christian conquest.

    August 6, 2013

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