Writing Novels Set In Different Historical Times And Places, by Julian Stockwin
My two current historical novels are set in very different time periods, over a millennia apart. Pasha is the lastest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian. So why did I tackle two such very diverse writing projects?
The genesis of The Silk Tree lies in the magical city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). On location research there for the Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…
My Kydd books are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a wordsmith it’s that all life’s experiences are grist to the mill for a writer. For The Silk Tree I was able to call upon my knowledge of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked for some years in Hong Kong. All those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school also came in handy!
I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree (which I believe is vital in writing historical fiction) was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.
In all fiction, however, there are constants that a writer must bear in mind. The first, I believe, is the centrality of the characters. The reader has to connect with the characters – either love ’em or hate ’em – but feel an emotional nexus of some sort. At least one of the characters must change and develop over the course of the book in a satisfying way. In all my books to date I have had ‘double acts’ in terms of characters. For the Kydd series, it’s Tom Kydd and Nicholas Renzi and in The Silk Tree it’s Nicander and Marius. This is an old literary device, but it’s a useful one.
Another imperative is that the reader needs to be able to pick up on the stakes in the story, otherwise it might as well be non-fiction. A compelling tale sets out the stakes, throws in challenges and then resolves matters to one degree or another at the end of the book.
So what advice would I give to aspiring historical novelists regarding which time to write about? Historical period fashions come and go – some seem to stay quite a while – others are more transient. An established author once told me to write from the heart, not try to follow current trends. He cautioned that if you try to jump on a current bandwagon by the time your book comes out (maybe in two or more years time by the time you actually write it and it gets into print) that particular bandwagon may long since have disappeared.
In the end, of course, it all boils down to passion and commitment. Go with your heart – but be mindful that being a successful author, especially in these challenging times, demands professionalism at all levels.
I feel very privileged to be able to write both an ongoing series set in the Age of Fighting Sail and now, as well, pen an occasional standalone when I come across a story about a pivotal point in history that I just have to tell.
Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com
Julian Stockwin was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see his previous articles.
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