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Forming A Historical Mind-Set For Writing A Historical Novel, by Julian Stockwin

When I’m working on a novel, I find that I imagine myself in past times. I’m a visile: I have to see in my mind’s eye what I’m writing about before I can put the words down. This means I have to mentally go back to the eighteenth century and really feel part of Georgian times.

When I first started writing, I drew up a list of questions to help me with this process of imagination. How did people think of themselves and their place in the world? What things were pleasurable to them? What shocked them? What didn’t shock them? …

I find that I can now cast my mind back in time relatively easily, mentally stripping away the trappings of the twenty first century.

Location research is greatly facilitated for me if there are physical remains such as old buildings. Old maps are invaluable in relocating boundaries that may have changed over time. Museums sometimes have historical models that provide a sort of 3D overview. Old paintings, while sometimes demonstrating artistic licence, are good visual mind-starters.

What a writer must not do, I believe, is to look at another time through contemporary eyes. The eighteenth century was in many ways hard and brutal, both ashore and at sea. It was also a time when humans, with just their wits and courage, undertook great adventures and achieved wondrous feats. Even when I am not specifically writing, I often daydream about the eighteenth century. My wife, Kathy, knows the look well by now, especially when I’m pushing the trolley behind her doing the supermarket shopping.

As well as my extensive reference library of the Georgian era, I find contemporary newspapers a boon. I was able to locate a copy of the Times from Friday, February 8, 1793,  the day I had my hero pressganged in a public house in Guildford. This very issue would have been read that night by a roaring fire in the inn. People were anxious about the bloodbath of the French Revolution at its height and the war which had just been declared – and other things  – and they’d look inside this newspaper.

There is one important caution: never let your research show. It’s very tempting, having found some wonderful fact or other to go to heroic efforts to incorporate it into you story. Readers want to immerse themselves in the historical context of your book to vicariously experience another age and place but they do not want to feel they are back in a history class.

Beware of anachronisms. These can take many forms. Apart from physical items that may not have been invented at the time your book is set in, words can change their meaning and if you use a word in its contemporary sense the modern meaning may give a very different slant to things.


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Writing Historical Novels

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. The issue writers have with history is that the past is a foreign country – a different culture in which those unaware of the point frequently fall into the trap of assuming that shared ancestry and language also mean we share values. The problem is multi-faceted and has been a bane for historians writing non-fiction as well as novellists. Not only do we view the past through the lens of our own time and place – something that happens insidiously, irrespective of the intellectual awareness of the difference and the conscious effort we make to divorce ourselves from our own world – but if we represent the past as it actually was, it is often so strange to readers that they cannot identify with what we write. This, again, is true of non-fiction and fiction alike. The issue is one I have put a good deal of professional thought into because of my work writing history.

    Luckily, history as a discipline of intellectual endeavour is one of the few in which the ‘how’ of analysis is debated; and that gives some useful tools for authors. My teacher in this, Prof. Peter Munz (a student, himself, of Karl Popper) focussed on non-fiction, but the lessons apply to fiction as well…because the history is the same. Personally I think it’s harder for novellists, because the kinds of detail needed to make a compelling story are not so well preserved in the historical record.

    August 16, 2013
    • I’ve personally never been a fan of the saying that the past is a foreign country (although it has been used in an article on this site recently), or at least the way that it’s often used with the connotation that people are to be lumped into a group identity based on their country of residence and time period.

      Values, beliefs and behaviour vary so greatly from person to person that the saying only works in very broad terms.

      I prefer a literal statement rather than a metaphor, as many people tend to blur a metaphor into all sorts of things and people end up meaning different things by the same form of words, often leading to intractable disputes where people misunderstand each other’s meaning.

      Really, the saying boils down to a statement that the past is different to the present, which is a truism that people familiar with the concept of time already understand.

      Alternatively, you could take the saying to boil down to the statement that an accurate portrayal of the past may be different from the present in so many ways that contemporary readers may not understand things unless they translated into more contemporary terms or given enough context to make the writer’s meaning evident. Perhaps a better saying is: “Context can help a reader understand unfamiliar references.”

      Alternatively, you could take the saying to boil down to the statement that understanding something from the past that is beyond your own experience is comparable to understanding something from another country that is beyond your own experience (you can never understand the entirety of a time period or country). Perhaps a clearer saying is: “Research can help you gain a better understanding of things beyond your own experience.”

      The issue then is the matter of research methodology. I find the best written material on research methodology tends to be associated with so called hard science or natural science disciplines, although the word science etymologically means knowledge/truth and science in this sense applies to all areas of knowledge – including history, human behaviour, etc.

      Of course, some things are unknown or unknowable, to any given person and/or to any person at all, or are matters of opinion – it doesn’t make sense to ask if a statement that blue is a better colour than purple is true or false, since colour preference is a matter of opinion. To claim that the statement is true for one person and false for another person (that one ‘knows’ purple is better and the other one ‘knows’ blue is better), in an attempt to make every notion subject to a knowledge value of truth and falsity, in an attempt to cast opinions as knowledge or to claim that all knowledge is a matter of opinion, misses the point regarding the nature and limitations of knowledge.

      August 16, 2013
  2. Quoting from above, “What a writer must not do, I believe, is to look at another time through contemporary eyes. The eighteenth century was in many ways hard and brutal, both ashore and at sea. ” — This seems contradictory. The author assumes it was hard and brutal; people living then might well have thought they had a vastly improved lot over prior centuries! Those alive in the 22d century might well think our century is harsh. Doesn’t make it true. A better effort is to try to capture the Zeitgeist of the era.

    August 16, 2013
    • Hi JSD. I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Julian can personally describe the eighteenth century as “in many ways harsh and brutal” independently how he portrays the thoughts and actions characters in his novels in relation to the things he personally describes that way.

      Someone who does “harsh and brutal” things typically believes they are doing good, whether they don’t acknowledge anything harsh or brutal in what they are doing or whether they think they are doing something undesirable for a greater good – perhaps it’s a doctor doing something brutal because it’s the best way they know to save someone’s life; a soldier who justifies brutality to maintain public order; a ship’s crew member who subjects his crew to upset stomachs, starvation and scurvy, because he stored the ship’s food improperly, leading to mutiny and cannibalism; or a pirate who justifies brutality so the crew can afford to provide for their families.

      August 16, 2013
      • You’ve missed the point. ” Harsh and brutal ” according to whose standards?

        August 16, 2013
      • My point is that although Julian can personally describe something in one way, it doesn’t mean his characters, readers of his novels or anyone else has to think of it in that way.

        August 16, 2013
  3. annvictoriaroberts #

    I thought Julian Stockwin made some excellent points. You do have to do your research as an historical novelist – and you need to know enough so that you can imagine yourself in the period. Getting inside the heads of people then is a different matter – we share the same human emotions, but what we consider to be right or wrong was different in the past. That’s where difficulties arise.

    August 17, 2013

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