Ten Tips on Writing Historical Fiction
Historical fiction has an ancient pedigree; it is, quite literally, the stuff of legend. In English literature, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’ of Arthur in his Historia Regum Britanniae (1135AD) is much more fiction than fact, while subsequent revisions by Wace, Layamon, Sir Thomas Malory, and Edmund Spenser push the legend further into the realm of historical romance. Then there are Elizabethan tales of chivalry (Thomas Nashe is good), historical dramas (most notably Shakespeare’s), and ‘accounts’ of historical events, such as Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which purport to be eyewitness testimonies but are largely fictions. Today, it remains a popular mainstream genre, as seen in the recent success of The Revenant, a film adapted from the novel by Michael Punke. At the ‘bestseller’ end of the market, readers still love Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe and Saxon series, the late Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, and Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome,’ while more ‘literary’ historical novels, such as the on-going Thomas Cromwell trilogy by national treasure Hilary Mantel, and Michael Faber’s stunning The Crimson Petal and the White achieve both commercial and critical success. This is a genre I particular love as a reader, writer, and academic, and I count several very talented historical novelists among my friends and colleagues, for example Sarah Bower (The Needle in the Blood, Sins of the House of Borgia), who I worked with for years at UEA and now at Unthank;Martin Lake (Land of Blood and Water, A Love Most Dangerous, the ‘Lost King’ series), who worked closely with us at Green Door; Erica Lainé (Isabella of Angoulême) and Anne Shilton (Barricades), both students and now friends, andAmanda J. Mackenzie (Scorpio), my brilliant cousin.
Writing historical fiction offers a unique set of challenges: How far should you let the historical record dictate your own plot? Should you dramatize famous historical figures, or should your central character or characters be fictional? How do you build a lost world in the pages of your book? This is also a task that requires meticulous research, but at the same time you must avoid what Walter Scott described as the ‘dragging in of unnecessary historical details.’ It can also be rather lucrative if you get it right, so if you’re thinking about writing a historical novel, here are a few tips to get you started…
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