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Posts from the ‘New York Times bestselling historical novelist’ Category

Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

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Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers 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 Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel, by Anne Perry

I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation.  But in what sort of language will your characters speak?  Will it be correct to the time and place of your story?  Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.

The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time?  Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries.  And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries.  And what do you do if your characters travel?

The choice is between being accurate and being understandable.  My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them.  Writing is, above all, an art of communication.  Some meanings can be guessed at.  In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story.  This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character.  The same can be true of accent.  I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference.  You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is.  Never break the spell, if you can help it.

Actually that just about sums it up.  If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work.  You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care.  You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship.  If you want to do that, write a text book.

You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another.  Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me.  Some people use few words, some many.  People have favourite expressions, and so on.  (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’  or such phrases.  Did anybody ever say that?  With a straight face?)

The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.

I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to.  I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.

My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase.  It happens now and then.  They are in my thoughts.  There is also the issue of modern grammar.  (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’.  (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)

They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour.  It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write.  Polishing, tidying up can be fun.  Make it the best it can be.


Anne Perry’s author website:

Anne Perry’s bio page


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A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

Writing Historical Novels

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels, by William Dietrich

As a journalist, I had to go to the place I was writing about.

It works for fiction, too.

When I write historical novels, I want to feel the heat and cold, smell the markets and sea, walk the old parapets, caress the iron of the cannon, heft the slave chains, finger the sword hilt and even sample the food. There’s a restaurant in Trier, Germany, which serves ancient Roman recipes.

I enjoy travel. Research takes me places I wouldn’t otherwise go, and forces me to notice things I might otherwise miss.

Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. I arrived near Newcastle, England, to research the story of a young Roman woman on Hadrian’s Wall… only to learn there was a university lecture that very evening about that very subject.

A livestock disease meant there were pyres of burning animals as I explored, lending a grisly March mood to Hadrian’s Wall.

I took a guided tourist jaunt in the hills above a Tibetan town, only to have a Himalayan squall drive us into a Buddhist nunnery – which inspired a new location for my thriller Blood of the Reich.

I was pleasantly surprised to find signs in Israel pointing out that Napoleon marched this way and that, a useful aid in exploring for The Rosetta Key.

While I didn’t like the lack of air conditioning in a humid summer stay at Antigua’s English Harbor, a colonial British naval base, it did give me a feel for the humidity that my hero experiences in The Emerald Storm.

Everything is potentially useful. A urinal at a Portsmouth naval museum had a poster above it on historic sailor alternatives to toilet paper.

Unless you have unlimited time and money, research travel should be carefully planned. I usually have an outline of my novel. I buy guidebooks and plot out forts, castles, palaces, historical neighborhoods, museums, and battlefields. This often requires driving. Nowadays I bring along a GPS, but I’ve had plenty of misadventures in the past, like trying to reach a Crusader castle and finding myself the wrong way in a Jordanian town with goat herds, market stalls, and swarms of curious children surrounding me.

I read ahead to gain direction, and buy more histories when I’m there. Guides and maps are easy to buy on site and almost impossible to find at home. Museum bookstores are goldmines. I look not just for historical first-person accounts, but guides to local plants and animals that my characters might encounter.

Local guides can provide wit, color, and insight. That quaint Irish harbor? No longer a seaport because overharvesting of oak trees for warships started erosion that silted it up. History becomes not just political, but environmental and social.

Stop and stroll. What does the place feel like? How does the light reflect? How turgid is the water, what size is the old tree, what do cobblestones sound like (rolling suitcases are a substitute for wagon wheels and horseshoes) and how about wood smoke, beer halls, and garden plantings? How dim is the lighting?

That lovely dress weighs forty-five pounds? That musket is as clumsy as a two-by-four? I interviewed a historical re-enactor in Britain who described being run over by a horse in a mock battle.

Can you find a night sky away from electric lights? Or walk a battlefield instead of drive it to get a sense of its size?

Your impressions will worm into your book.


William Dietrich’s author website:

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The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the ReichHadrian's Wall: A NovelNapoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)     The Leopard Sword (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels

Why Care About Characters In Historical Novels? by Anne Perry

Why should anyone care about characters in historical novels?  It all happened to other people, a long time ago, and very likely somewhere else.  The people involved are possibly not even ancestors of mine.  Plus, I live in the here and now.  So do you – but, at the very least, you stand on the shoulders of all those who went before.  You reap the harvest they sowed, physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, politically and artistically.

Does it have to be about you to be interesting?  The world is infinitely bigger and more beautiful than any one person’s horizon.  As Shylock, a fictional Jewish money-lender in Italy, written about by a 16th – early 17th century Englishman, asks: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?”  The most powerful experiences of humanity are common to us all.  That is what you want to build on in your stories.

By all means, get the history right.  For heaven’s sake, avoid major errors.  They will destroy people’s ‘suspension of disbelief’.  But keep your history lesson discreet.  The reader should feel: ‘I am there!  I feel it and taste it!’, not ‘I could pass an exam on this period if I wanted to!’

In all the books I have read on writing fiction of any sort, the instructors say that all kinds of error can be mended, except a lack of passion.  Setting, dialogue, character and even plot can be remedied with hard work.  Not lack of passion – that is a disease to death.

We need to know who we are rooting for, what they want and why it matters to them so much – then it will matter to us also.  We need to know what stands in the way of them getting it, therefore we need some common ground:

“I’m tired and cold and my feet hurt.  I can’t go another step!”

“I’m alone and I’m lost.  I’m scared stiff.  There’s somebody pursuing me!”

“I stare at the sunset and it is so beautiful, the last light on the fields tears at my heart, what will I do when it passes?  How do I hold on to glory?”

“How do I deal with grief, failure, the fear of death?”

“I look at the stars, countless even in the imagination.  How do they come into being?  Did somebody make them? If so, who am I to them?”

“I’m hungry.  Who will feed me?”

These could be anybody, anywhere and any time since the dawn of human life.  Tell me a story about them and I care.  It could be me.

Make the setting real, urgent and different.  Make it belong to a time and place where other things were expected.  But keep the heart the same.  The things that change are interesting and fun.  It is the things that are the same that make us care.

Enjoy the time travel – and take us with you!

Bon Voyage!


Anne Perry’s author website:

Anne Perry’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelA Christmas HomecomingThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three NovelsAcceptable Loss     AuslanderClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Writing Historical Novels

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