Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Historical novel research’ Category

Location Research In Morocco To Write A Novel, by Jane Johnson

The flight had taken less than four hours from London, but I felt as if I was a million miles away. All around me in Casablanca airport people milled around: men in turbans and robes, women in veils and kaftans and headwraps, lively dark-eyed children, old men with beards to their waists, louche lads in sharply-cut suits, girls in traditional dress with modern high-heeled shoes peeping out beneath the hems of their djellabas. All of them chattering away in languages of which I understood either nothing at all or caught just a word here and there. Morocco was the most foreign place I had ever visited: it would have been easy to be overwhelmed, but I was on a mission.

Having discovered that an ancestor – 19 year old Catherine Tregenna – had been stolen out of a church in Cornwall by Barbary pirates in 1625 and taken to North Africa to be sold into the white slave trade, I had determined to research the subject and then write my first historical novel, The Tenth Gift. Trouble was, I knew next to nothing about the 17th century and even less about Morocco. I had done a lot of reading in the six months since I’d decided to write the book, though, and it had led me here.

Morocco picture

There are writers in the world who are sufficiently confident in their skill to evoke a place without ever having visited it, and I was going to have to write about the 17th century without being able to go there, no one having been thoughtful enough to invent a working time machine yet; but writing about a time AND a place of which I had no experience felt like too great a challenge. So here I was on African soil for the first time in my life.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I set about my research with the precision of a true historian, but it would be a lie. I did what any new tourist does and wandered the town of Salé at random, finding myself trapped in cul-de-sacs and walking in circles, getting lost in the maze-like streets, suffering sensory overload in the bizarre bazaar. I took a hundred photographs and a thousand notes: the way the spices in the market were piled in multi-coloured pyramids and dried chameleons hung from strings from the stall of a herbman selling cures and ingredients for magic spells; how an old man sat cross-legged on the cobbled street weighing out raw wool in an ancient brass balance; women with seamed faces on upturned crates with hobbled sheep and pairs of ducks and chickens trussed and squawking at their feet. How men sat in tiny openings in the walls, stitching by hand; children sat on stools in the street having their hair cut with shears. At the butcher’s stall goats’ heads stared sightlessly with filmed-over eyes; calves’ feet stood waiting for a thrifty housewife to happen by and take them home for supper. The cries of hawkers, and the smell of frying onions and baking bread were in the air

It was a heady experience for a first-time visitor: but a perfect gift for a novelist. For in some quarters of Morocco, and the medina in Salé in 2006 was one of them, some things have not changed a jot since that day in August 1625 when the corsairs sailed down the coast of Portugal and Spain, up the River Bou Reg-Reg and through the great arched river-gate through which Alexander Selkirk – Defoe’s source for Robinson Crusoe – was taken to be sold in the Souq el Ghezel.

boats in Morocco

Back across the river is the Moroccan administrative capital of Rabat, and it is here, in the Kasbah des Oudaias, that the corsairs of Salé – known in the English annals as the Sallee Rovers – made their home. The winding streets here are picturesque and colourful, painted to waist height in that particular shade of turquoise blue with which the Moroccans also paint their fishing boats. Talking to one of the local fishermen in my pidgin French, I found out the colour is considered protective – against the elements, and against djinns, those spirits of smokeless fire who live parallel to our world and can be mischievous or even downright dangerous. I don’t know where I expected these violent, marauding, slave-stealing pirates to live, but it certainly wasn’t in these demure, whitewashed houses with their pretty pantiled rooves and extraordinary hidden courtyard gardens in which fountains played and vines and bougainvillea tumbled from carved balconies. I was assured very little had changed here since it was rebuilt as the corsairs’ stronghold in the early 17th century. They had, I was told at the museum in the Andalusian Garden, recreated the way their families had lived in Spain – just visible across the straits on a clear day – before being expelled by King Philip III when forcing through his policy of ethnic cleansing of Catholic Spain in 1609.

I am a great fan of immersive fiction. As a reader I like being plunged into the settings of a book to experience them as the characters might. I want to know what they look like and what they smell of. I want to know what the protagonist might eat, what they are wearing and where they live. Such nosiness comes in useful to a writer of historical fiction: add to that a love of museums and a propensity to get chatting to curators and visiting academics and by the end of three weeks in Morocco, I had a surplus of background material. More than this, I had a proper flavour of the country itself, of its people, their attitudes, superstitions, beliefs and customs, and their pride in their history. Everyone I talked to wanted to tell me stories: every one of those stories rendered up a gem that would make it into The Tenth Gift or into one of my other Moroccan novels. Their passion inflamed my own passion: I wanted to get the book right for their sake as much as for my own and my readers’.

Not everyone has the opportunity or means to visit the site of their historical novel. In many cases locations have changed beyond all recognition, leaving next to nothing from the time of your fiction behind. But Morocco is a very special country: when you go there you are not just travelling in space but also in time: one moment you can be picking up wifi and drinking an excellent espresso in your distinctly 21st century hotel; the next you walk around a corner into the 15th century. In that, Morocco is unique. It makes research a pleasure and I came away from that trip confident in my ability to write accurately about my subject.


Jane Johnson’s author website:

Jane Johnson’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

The Sultan's WifeThe Tenth GiftThe Salt RoadGoldseekers     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels


Discovering While Researching To Write Historical Novels, by Jane Kirkpatrick

Someone once asked physicist Albert Einstein how he worked.  “I grope,” he answered. I like that answer because I feel like I grope too. I write mostly about real people, dead people one might say, and “groping dead people” doesn’t seem like a good way to spend one’s time, but it’s my way.

I have a process.  I read everything I can find about the person.  I answer my three questions before I begin about intention, attitude and purpose.  I make my timeline of events known about the character and the historical period. I read non-fiction written about the period or the place. Since I usually write about real people, women primarily, I’m always trying to find out not just what they were doing, and where, when and why.  I’m always asking as I research, was this the defining event in that woman’s life?  Why did she leave the place where she’d always lived?  Why is she on the census living with only her daughters while her two sons are living with the very person she earlier had great conflict with? What brought about this change?  Sometimes I don’t find the answer until well after I’ve started to write. Sometimes I never find the answer and must speculate.  This feels very awkward, like I’m groping in research.

Writer Katherine Ann Porter says she writes the last page first.  She says if she didn’t know where she was going she couldn’t begin. “I know what my goal is.  And how I get there is God’s grace.”  I’m like that.  I have this general idea of where I’m going but not the last page. This distressed me for a time.

Then I came across this Arthur Miller quote: “He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain.”

So maybe it’s all right that I don’t have all the answers when I begin.  I can be delighted and surprised even as my readers are. In fact, that happened while working on a historical novel about an American communal society in the 1860s.  While visiting with a descendant – yes, I interview descendants if I can locate them, seeking out family stories. Anyway, I picked up a letter that the descendant’s  grandfather received.  The descendant had been slowly having the letters translated from German into English.  One letter came from a great uncle who was an ambassador to France, England and Germany.  Another from a member of the colony they were involved with. But then I picked up a letter signed by Emma, the very woman I’d been researching and writing about!  Her great nephew was as startled as I was as he’d had no idea he had her letter. To see what she’d written and even her post script brought delight all over and I’d merely groped upon it.

I’m inclined to believe that many of my greatest discoveries in researching my historical novels are the results of groping.  As writers we make the commitment to tell the story and then we make discoveries, groping our way toward the story. If Einstein has no trouble with groping (and he discovered the theory or relativity) why should we historical novel writers be chagrined by the occasions when we grope? Who knows what we might discover about the human condition in the process?


Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website:

Jane Kirkpatrick’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

A Sweetness to the SoulAn Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Where Lilacs Still BloomOne Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a Novel     The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureNecessary Lies

Writing Historical Novels

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.


Julian Stockwin’s author website:

Julian Stockwin’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

ConquestVictoryQuarterdeckBetrayal     EquinoxA Secret AlchemyTrue Soldier Gentlemen

Writing Historical Novels

Month In Review (July 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its seventh month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

Writing Historical Novels contributors Ben Kane, Emma Darwin, Anthony Riches and Paul Dowswell are attached to two novel writing retreats each in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for July 2013

Finding A Literary Agent by Julian Stockwin

Cover Design For Novels by Giles Kristian (guest article)

On St. Petersburg And Catherine The Great by Eva Stachniak

Story And History In Historical Novels by Adrian Goldsworthy

Plot And Characters In Historical Novels by Mary Nichols

Balancing Research And Imagination When Writing Historical Fiction by MC Scott (guest article)

Writing My Novel ‘A Secret Alchemy’ by Emma Darwin

My Favourite Historical Novels by Ben Kane

Plot Development When Writing A Novel by Stephanie Cowell

Details Of Daily Life In Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Taking 14 Years To Get My First Novel Written And Published by Anthony Riches

Writing In A New Period Of History As A Historical Novelist by Henry Venmoore Rowland (guest article)

Getting The Story Idea For My Novel ‘Sektion 20′ by Paul Dowswell

How Curiosity Can Spark A Story Idea by Jane Johnson

Discovering Odd Facts When Researching A Novel by DE Johnson

Writing Villain Characters In Historical Novels by Gary Worthington

History Repeating Itself And Historical Novels by Anne Perry

On Future Historical Novels by Michael White

On My Experience Of Learning History by Timeri Murari

My Favourite Historical Novelist by Judith Cutler

The Vexed Privilege Of Writing A Historical Novel by Jane Kirkpatrick

Getting Dates And Details Right In Historical Novels by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels

Getting The Story Idea For My Novel ‘Sektion 20’, by Paul Dowswell

I got the idea of my novel Sektion 20, set in East Berlin in 1972, on a trip to Prague researching my Renaissance novel The Cabinet of Curiosities. I was in a scruffy back street bar with a Czech-speaking friend waiting to watch a rock band. We got talking with a bunch of middle aged men who had been teenagers back in the early 70s. They told me how important rock music was to them, as a symbol of freedom and a life that was forbidden to them by the communist regime that controlled Czechoslovakia. They went to clandestine gigs but the cops would break up any they found and give the participants a good kicking, at the very least, for their rebelliousness. One cop told one of them that they liked to listen to the band for a while, outside, before they went in to break up the gig.

This made me feel extremely lucky to grow up in a place where citizens were allowed to have their own opinions and listen to whatever they liked. I’d always known this, of course, but sometimes talking to people who have been denied these freedoms makes you appreciate them afresh.

My book’s about an ordinary East German boy who has no particular beef against the regime. His parents are both keen Party members and his life is perfectly comfortable. But he is singled out for persecution by the Secret Police – the Stasi – because he likes to listen to Western rock music and he wants to grow his hair a bit. This, along with his sister’s interest in breaking away from the structures of ‘socialist realism’ in her photography course at school, causes no end of trouble for the family and ends with them desperate to leave the country.

I set my book in Berlin, rather than Prague because I knew it better. I had read more about the East Germans and the Stasi. I’d also written a novel, Auslander, about living under the Nazis in Berlin and thought a follow up book about the communist regime would be a logical choice.

When I take creative writing classes in schools I always ask the kids, ‘Which is the most important part of a book – the start, the middle or the end?’ They’re all important but a poor start will ensure your reader never gets to the middle or end, no matter how brilliant they are.

I got my opening chapter in Sektion 20 from a very instructive visit to the Stasi headquarters on Normanenstrasse one freezing Spring Sunday.

The main building in this great complex is now a museum. I was especially struck by the drabness of the décor, even in the offices of those at the very top of the hierarchy, but what sparked me off was a little hand drawn diagram in the Stasi Museum booklet, showing how Erich Mielke liked his breakfast prepared.


Paul Dowswell’s author website:

Paul Dowswel’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Sektion 20AuslanderThe Cabinet of CuriositiesPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor     The Salt RoadThe Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels

Month In Review (June 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its sixth month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for June 2013

Using Historical Research To Support A Good Story by Adrian Goldsworthy

Characters And Novel Writing by Julian Stockwin

Inspiration For My Historical Novels by Eva Stachniak

Being A Historical Novelist In The UK by Ben Kane

Writing Personal, Evocative And Novel Historical Fiction by William Dietrich

Writing Characters-In-Action by Emma Darwin

My Writing Place by Anthony Riches

Clothes In Historical Novels by Anne Perry

Setting In Historical Novels by DE Johnson

How Much Publicity Does Your Novel Need? by Stephanie Cowell

Writing And Selling Historical Novels by Mary Nichols

Using Real People In Historical Novels by Judith Cutler

Mental Health And Historical Novels by Jane Kirkpatrick

On Setting My Novels In Renaissance Italy by Michael White

My 3 Favourite Historical Novels by Jane Johnson

Using A Checklist To Help Create A Character by Gary Worthington

Choosing Character Names For Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Telling The Story Of Mumtaj Mahal and Shah Jahan by Timeri Murari

Accuracy In Historical Novels by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels

Using Historical Research To Support A Good Story, by Adrian Goldsworthy

I like historical novels to be accurate.  A really good historical novel can often give you a far better flavour of the period than reading quite a few non fiction histories.  Other people are less worried by the accuracy and that is fair enough.  Every reader will want a good story, and during the whole writing process you need to keep focused on the story you want to tell.  The essential narrative – who are characters are, what happens to them, and how they cope with it all – is the single most important thing you have to create.

During your research you will have gathered a lot of material, and in probability will have far more than you can ever use.  It can sometimes be hard to let go of all these little nuggets.  If you have spent weeks, months, or even years reading up and learning all about an era, then you are bound to have become entranced by it all.  However, just because you know something, does not mean that you have to tell the reader about it.  Instead it is something that you have at your disposal, and can be deployed to make the background to a scene more vivid, or to provide things for your characters to do or talk about.  In each case it needs to add something to the story or atmosphere and not simply be there for its own sake.  So if you learn a lot about something, for instance how to make a sword or how a machine spins cotton or whatever it might be, only go into detail if it helps to flesh out a character and his or her story.  This could be a description to tell you about their life, or reveal a lot about their character by the way they do something.  Alternatively, it may provide a setting for a conversation or other plot element.

So some detail is very good and useful.  The tradition of naval adventure stories often include a lot about how to sail a ship, usually with quite a few technical terms.  Quite a few readers find this interesting for its own sake, but it also served the useful purpose of showing the competence and skill – or lack of these – of the main characters and supporting cast.  Probably in early chapters they will be sailing in peaceful waters, but this helps the reader to learn about the situation, and so makes it easier to follow when they are doing such things in the dramatic moments of storm or battle.  It is well worth drip feeding the information a reader needs to follow the plot.  Ideally it happens gradually, as the story progresses and they get to know and become involved with the characters.  I tried to do something similar in my first novel, making the characters train and drill so that when the battalion went to war the reader would understand how it manoeuvred.  On the whole, writers of land based military adventures tend to skim over this sort of thing, but it is a fine line between having too much and too little technical detail of this sort.  On the other hand, some readers clearly find this a bit slow.

The biggest mistake is to inject a few pages of straightforward description of historical events, politics, or strategy that reads like non fiction.  In Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood, his first novel about Gordianus the Finder, the narrative pauses to describe the rise of Sulla and his dictatorship in a passage resembling a textbook.  It is quite strange that his editor let this through, and it jars because the rest of the book flows very well.  The lesson is that even very fine writers like this can stumble now and again, especially in their early work.  Saylor’s later books all flow very well.  The principles of writing are really very simple.  The practice is not.  As an example of a good way of getting such information across, look at some of MacDonald Fraser’s explanations of recent history and context, delivered by his Harry Flashman with plenty of cynical wit, which at the same time helps to convey his character.  It is perfectly possible to convey a lot of information quite quickly and still blend it in to the story, perhaps through a mixture of conversation, explanation and action.

Having said all that, you will still find that you do not end up including some wonderful material.  As an example, I stumbled across some terrific stories about Joseph Napoleon, the older brother of Napoleon who was given the Spanish throne.  He is mentioned now and again, and appears as a character in a couple of chapters of All in Scarlet Uniform, although he only says a few lines.  For a while I tried to devise ways to fit in stories about his interests, and especially some of his colourful love affairs.  In the end I had to face up to the fact that I was simply trying to work them in because they were good stories, even though they were not really relevant and did not add anything.  You need to be ruthless with yourself and cut anything that is unnecessary.

Such detail is never really wasted.  On the one hand you may find it useful if you write again about the same period.  Less obviously it will help to add depth to your fictional take on the period and help you to write more convincingly about the real people of those times.  You want to create an impression that the world of your novel is more than just a film set, designed to look fine from one angle, but really just a facade.  It is always good if the reader is left with the feeling that they could turn in a different direction to the main story and yet still find something there.


Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website:

Adrian Goldsworthy’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     The Sultan's WifeThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))An Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Spartacus: The Gladiator

Writing Historical Novels

%d bloggers like this: