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Connecting With The Past When Writing A Historical Novel, by Stephanie Cowell

When I was a child, I wrote in secret. Mostly, my setting was elsewhere. I never felt I entirely belonged in my own life but that I was constantly being called back to another one.

Often when meeting other historical fiction writers, I have been struck by the mystical quality of their experience in writing about the past. It is often a deep and most personal experience which first compels them to undertake a novel.

It begins with a feeling or a dream… you read something, you encounter an old street in Italy or a graveyard or a song and you are there suddenly. You have a strong feeling you have to go someplace and meet someone but that place is hundreds of years before you were born. You listen and begin to hear people speaking. After a while you wake in the middle of the night, turn on a lamp and begin to write what you hear. Page after page gets filled as you write about people who seem to call you. They wake you up and say, “Write me…” Before you know it, you are writing a historical novel.

In my writing world, snow is falling on London houses near the old cathedral of St. Paul’s and on the stalls of the booksellers which cluster in the churchyard in 1662. In my real life, it is spring 2013. I am writing on a computer and drinking brewed coffee. I am writing a historical novel and living two lives. I date my letters in the wrong season. I travel through centuries in a moment.

Novelist CW Gortner grew up in Spain and in his third novel about a Spanish queen, The Queen’s Vow, he writes, “I do feel as if I have a connection with the past; certain places, sights, even smells, can evoke strong emotions in me. I’m very attracted to the Renaissance; I’m drawn to the 16th century in specific and my interest spans several countries. I’ve had a few eerie moments during research trips where I’ve visited a certain place and I’ve known something instinctual about it, as if I’d been there before.”

Writing a historical novel only begins with a passionate interest in another place and time. Between that and the finished work are often hundreds of research books and, if the writer is fortunate, journeys to where the character lived. Susan Vreeland wrote, “There’s nothing like walking where your character walked to discover uneven pavements, mosquitoes, river stench, the smell of plaster frescoes and old wood in a convent. For Artemisia, I climbed the 400 steps of Giotto’s bell tower in Florence not only to see what my characters would have seen (which I had imagined incorrectly), but to be able to describe the steps.”

A sense of place also drew Cathy Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still. She wrote, “I have stood at the brink of the falls, filling with wonder, filling with awe, and I think I strove in writing my novel to pass along a bit of that feeling to my readers.”

Sometimes you know a great deal about a real person you are using as a character and sometimes you know little, no matter how many history books you read. “When research doesn’t provide answers, imagination gets to step in,” says Michelle Cameron, author of The Fruit of Her Hands. “We knew Meir must have had a wife, for example – but because the medieval record didn’t tell us anything about her, I got to invent her completely, from her desire to be a scholar right down to her name.” Sheramy Bundrick created her main character from a one sentence reference for Sunflowers: a novel of Van Gogh.

Judith Lindbergh, author of The Thrall’s Tale, wrote, “For me, it’s more than simply breathing life into the dry facts of history books. It’s trying to slip back into another time. I love going to museums or, better still, visiting historic sites. When I stand in a place where my characters would have been, I start to see the world as they might have seen it. From dusty stone ruins, the spirits of those who once enlivened them begin to emerge. I try to listen for those spirits, to let them enter my body and my mind.”

I called on my years as a Mozart singer when I wrote Marrying Mozart.

Mary Sharratt rode her beloved horse all over the Pendle Forest area in Lancashire which made her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill seem to grow out of the woods and earth where those women once lived long ago.

To sustain the journey of writing a historical novel requires passionate interest, research, many rewrites, great skill and the patience of a saint. Lives do not come with plots. We have to create a plot to take the reader down the path of the story. We have to say, “Come with us. We will show you something wonderful.”


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Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Stephanie-

    Excellent post and timely — as starting on September 1st on the Historical Novel Society’s website/blog begins an 8 week, 8 author blog series “Stories of Serendipity: Writing Historical Fiction”, including authors Maryanne O’Hara, Essie Fox, Erika Mailman, and Alana White (to name a few) who share magical tales of serendipitous experiences while writing, researching, and publishing historical fiction. Each writer speculates as to why possibly these coincidences occurred which coincides with your wonderful post here. Thank you, loved it. And I hope more authors will come forth with their stories as they are engaging and I believe informative in demonstrating that we live in an intelligent and connected universe.


    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

    August 17, 2013
    • I look forward to that series! I am so glad you liked the post. Fondly, Stephanie

      August 17, 2013
  2. Beautifully written, and as a debut historical fiction writer and historian, I completely agree. Connecting with and imagining the past is an experience that is often difficult to put into words – as you say, ‘mystical’ is probably the term to use!

    August 27, 2013

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