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On The Craft Of Writing A Novel, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing is a craft.  Inspiration and the ability to dream up a story are both essential, but the creation of a good historical novel – or any piece of writing – requires you to use words well.  The only way to hone this skill is to write frequently.  In many ways it does not matter too much what you write about.  Simply try to learn by a willingness to experiment and rewrite any piece of work, honing it gradually to make it better.  I have learned something about the craft of writing from my non fiction histories, and have aimed to make each one an improvement on the last in terms of style and structure.  When I came to try writing fiction, this did give me an established routine, as well as an idea of how to proof read, check and self-edit so that you can send a better prepared manuscript to the publisher.  In turn, writing novels has improved the pace and storytelling style of my non fiction.  Many journalists write novels and often do well because they already have this background of using words and writing to deadlines.

Yet writing a novel is a different thing to either media work or non fiction history, and such experience is a help, but also can be a hindrance.  My first efforts at an historical novel had far too many long passages that boiled down to little more than description of a scene – fine for straight history, but killing off the pace and weakening the story.  Some description is good, but a novel should read like a novel and not a history book.  So sometimes you have to change your approach quite drastically.  In a novel the characters need to do and say a lot more.  You also need to be far clearer about the good old ‘point of view’ – essentially from whose perspective we are ‘seeing’ a scene.

Try to help the reader as much as possible.  At a basic level this is a question of thinking about how easy the book will be to read.  So think about things like the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, and of chapters.  If someone is reading as they commute to work they are more likely to start a new chapter that is ten pages long than one that is thirty or so.  On the whole, keeping things fairly short helps the pace of the story, allowing readers to read more quickly, and so making it more likely that they will become involved with the story and want to read on.  On the other hand it is better not to make it look too regular with everything of the same sort of length.  The look of each page is also important.  Paragraph after paragraph of description can blur into one.  A mixture of short and long sentences and paragraphs, and particularly the insertion of dialogue in and around the description and action will read better.

All of these things you learn by experimentation and experience.  Planning your story is fine and often well worth while, but it is a rare author who will plan absolutely everything before they sit down and start to write.  As the months and years pile up and you are still planning and researching it will become harder and harder to sit down and begin writing.  It is far better to start writing something, even if it is very rough.  It is easy to change it and may even find that you reject the whole thing and start again, but having to think about the story and characters in a concrete way will have helped you to think it all through far more than simply planning and musing over it.

You can also learn from other people’s experience by taking a look at whatever you are reading and looking at how they lay things out and tell the story.  Even more importantly, at some stage get a few people to read your work.  They need to be honest, and you need to be prepared to accept criticism of your cherished work, however much this may – and almost certainly will – sting.  People who come fresh to a story will react to it in a very different way to its creator.  Remember that you have spent a very long time living with this story and it will all seem clear to you.  It is extremely valuable to get a response from someone who does not know who the characters are or what they are doing.  After all, you will always know what you MEANT to say, and that can make it very hard to check your own work and see whether or not this is clear to the reader.  (As an aside, reading the text out loud can be a more effective way of checking your own work than reading it silently because it forces you to pay more attention to each word).

Practise, think about words and layout, and be prepared to be utterly ruthless in changing your work, rejecting passages if they do not need to be there.  This can be hard, as it is easy to become fond of particular scenes or bits of dialogue.  Constructive criticism is of great value, and a good editor who understands what you are trying to do is priceless.  All of us have to learn, and it is wise to take advantage of advice from others.  That does not mean that you have to accept absolutely every suggested change, only that you should only reject them if you are absolutely convinced that it is vital to leave things as they are.  In the end, it is important to write your book in your way.


Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website:

Adrian Goldsworthy’s bio page


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Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lots of great suggestions here, Adrian. I particularly liked the advice about helping the reader as much as possible. Making it easy for them to enjoy the story is key here. And I think you’re right about putting the research and musing to one side and getting down to the writing.

    November 10, 2013
  2. DP #

    Love this site and love this post!

    My interest in “historical fiction” was recently rekindled after reading “Augustus,” by John E. Williams. It won the National Book Award in the 70s. Truly is a master class in voice and capturing the HUMAN CONDITION on the page. (Human condition is something you don’t hear talked about much in historical fiction circles – which could be the source of some of the cracks in the armor, why some stories don’t resonate and transcend..)

    Williams did a tremendous amount of research for “Augustus,” yet, for the most part, it was invisible on the page. And still, I got the sense that I was very much in the Roman Empire.

    I’m also reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how gripping it is. No long paragraphs about what people wore, or embroidery, just sheer emotional angst right there on the page.

    So my question is: in the great historical novels, is the goal to HIDE the research as much as possible? Like a good seamstress or tailor, if they’re good, you can’t see the seams?

    Also, why I loved “Augustus,” was because the novel wasn’t about a particular material goal. Some novels are about finding the Eagle standard, others, assassinating an Emperor, destroying Macedonia, saving a nation. While those are wonderful, are there more historical novels where the protagonist’s goal is not a “material goal,” but an “emotional goal”?


    November 26, 2013

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