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Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels, by Stephanie Cowell

This is my twelfth and last blog post for Writing Historical Novels. I have been so very happy to contribute to it and hope that my journeys in writing have added something to yours. So I’d like to conclude with a few random thoughts about technique, inner purpose and this profession of ours. I am writing to myself as much as to you.

ONE: THOUGHTS ON WHERE AND HOW YOU SET YOUR SCENES. As much as possible, set your scenes in a different place or, if in the same place, in a different time of day. Somewhere in my drafts I make a list of all the places a character could go so that as the plot is going forward and the characters deepening, we are also touring their world a little.  In my novel Claude & Camille I have at least 20-30 settings in Paris or its suburbs alone: his studio, her parent’s expensive flat in Paris Ile St. Louis, the Pont Neuf bridge, a crowded restaurant, a café, his bedroom, a bookshop, art galleries, museums, the art studio, the streets, etc.  In this way I show their whole world. You could also change something in the room: make it emptier, or more crowded, or make something missing.

TWO: CHARACTER BUILDING. I find this thought on building a character invaluable. It is by Donald Maass from his book Writing the Breakout Novel. “Every protagonist needs a tortuous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an irresistible plan, a noble idea and an underlying hope.” Since I found this a few novels ago, I ask these questions for every protagonist I create. It helps to make them real. I make lists and fill in the answers.

THREE: BUILD MYSTERY INTO YOUR NOVEL. Even if it is not a mystery, withhold certain information for suspense. End every single scene with the reader wondering what will happen next. I especially used this technique in my novel Marrying Mozart, which is written from six points of view, with the central question of which of the four sisters will marry Mozart.

FOUR:  MY OWN PERSONAL CREED ABOUT WRITING HISTORICAL NOVELS. A great deal of writing a novel is slowly discovering its innumerable parts and depths and colors and place and people and moving them around with joy and deep fascination to lay them out in the most compelling way it can be told. Then you slowly reveal it in drafts, paragraph by paragraph, deepening and moving order and revelation until it finally falls together in a perfect form for the reader to enter the story and live there. You discover novels more than write them.

FIVE: GIVE YOURSELF A ROUND OF APPLAUSE. I notice that we novelists never give ourselves enough credit for what we are doing. I have met hundreds of people who sigh and say, “If only I could write a novel!” Then they say, “Oh, but I have no time,” or something like this. Most of you have probably written novels or great parts of one. That is hard to do and takes a lot of discipline.

SIX: ON WRITING CAREERS. There are enormous writing careers and tiny ones. There are books which sell hugely and are lost in time. There are great writers who saw little of their work sell and then are discovered. Nobody can write just as you do. Dig deep into your heart. Most of us want bigger, grander careers. Some of us get them. Most of us have more modest ones. No one can write your novel as you can. The work of writers with both kinds of careers gives enormous pleasure to readers.

SEVEN: MY THREE FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner.

EIGHT: BRING THE PAST TO LIFE. Put a map of London 1800 on your wall or whatever time or place you wish. Live there and come back to our time bringing us your novel of the people you knew and the things you came to love so we can love them too.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

Stephanie Cowell’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     Fortress of Spears (Empire)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome

Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love the quote in #2 and wonder if I have it highlighted in my copy. 🙂 Also, #8 helps me a lot. I’ll have maps if at all possible, floorplans, photos of a carriage or an outfit, etc sitting near or in front of me when working on historical. Right now I have automobiles from 1932-1936, a photo of a small town main street in ’36, etc. It’s a great tool! Thanks for the tips and for the whole series. I learned a lot. 🙂

    December 13, 2013
  2. sdormadyeise #

    Thanks, Stephanie. You can’t imagine how much I needed this article today. It is hard to live in the past right now with Christmas bearing down and all the distractions. But I really appreciated your insights.

    December 13, 2013
  3. This is the first time I’ve read Stephanie Cowell’s comments on writing. Now I’ll be looking for the other 11. And through her comments on Facebook I found this very nice site. I’ve won all around!

    December 14, 2013
  4. Thanks so much, Robyn Eileen and…Susan! What would I do without your friendship!

    December 14, 2013
  5. Fantastic advice here! I particularly love the comment, ‘You discover novels more than write them.’ So true!

    December 14, 2013
  6. Hello Stephanie Cowell – I think we met once, but my memory might be faulty. Did you visit the Ste Chapelle in Paris and speak with your American tour guide afterward? If so, that was me. I seem to recall a charming woman handing me her card and telling me she was writing a novel that would correspond to the title “Marrying Mozart”…does this ring a bell? Funny, I hope it is, simply to be back in contact, but stragnely enough, doctorate finished, I’m branching out into writing an historical novel.

    December 29, 2013

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