I fell into historical fiction writing quite by accident, but once there, I was totally hooked on the events in the past that made us who we are today. Writing this genre follows much the same basic rules as any fiction writing:
The inspiration for the story – what got my juices going.
The characters – who they are, their back stories, their relationships with one another, how I relate to them, and how they develop as people.
The setting – when and where.
The tone – is this a cheery novel, a humorous one, serious, or dark? I suppose most are a mixture.
The plot – how the story unfolds and whether it is character driven or plot driven. In my case, it’s my characters; they throw the plot out of the window and do their own thing leaving me to dig them out of impossible situations. Obviously, when I have real events or real people in my tales, the plot will be governed, at least in timing, by historical fact.
Dialogue – a balance between what is easily understood by a modern reader, and the likely way people of the time and place in question might have spoken.
The research – In no genre is research more important than it is in historical fiction if you want the story to have a ring of truth and be true to historical fact. Research is time-consuming and often frustratingly contradictory, but it drives the direction of the tale, because if you base your tale on true events, these events happened and that gives you a framework and a timeline – a discipline, if you like – to work within that you don’t get with other genres. This can help enormously with plotting, though it often sends you down delightfully convoluted and obscure paths you didn’t expect. Part of the joy of historical fiction for me is that I’m constantly amazed and shocked by what my research uncovers.
So lets explore what makes my own writing tick as an example.
Inspirations These are as diverse as: a cheese sandwich (for a book I may not write as Lucinda E Clarke’s A Year in the Life of series has done this idea so much better than I ever could.)
Climate change and life after it – Where Hope Dares
A television news report. Could I forgive someone I loved for doing something truly unforgiveable? – Touching the Wire
The Great Wall of China and Ogham writing in Nevern Church, Pembrokeshire – The Silence of the Stones
Something my grandfather said to me not long before he died. I can’t tell you what because it would give away the ending – The Dandelion Clock
My great-grandfather having married sisters before it was legal – Kindred and Affinity
An article about chainmaking in the 1900s Black Country on Flog It! – The Chainmakers’ Daughter and its sequel The Chainmaker’s Wife .
A family ‘rumour’ about a poacher who murdered a gamekeeper – For Their Country’s Good Trilogy.
The characters Advice I once received – thank you whoever it was who said this – write about people you know. They didn’t mean write about your grandmother – although I have done this, twice – they meant write about the type of people you know. The lifestyles and cultures you’re familiar with, the hopes and fears, the way they act, think, speak, and interact with others, and the knowledge they have.
I come from a working-class background, and I could no more write about the everyday lives of kings and queens, than they could about the life of a working class woman sweating over a hot boiler with a copper-stick and wondering if the butcher might have a scrag end of lamb going cheap. It helps that I can remember using said copper-stick, and the smell of boiling washing, from standing on a stool, helping my mother on a Monday morning – Mondays were traditionally washdays. I couldn’t have been school age, so Mum was very trusting, or irresponsible, letting a three or four-year-old so close to being boiled alive with the ‘whites’. I knew there was a positive side to growing older. If you have parents and grandparents and are interested in writing historical fiction, talk to them before it’s too late. They will be a wealth of information.
Do I base my characters on people I’ve known? It sometimes helps to have a particular face or character in mind as you will know them and be able to focus on them. Sometimes, it’s better to invent a character from scratch, but do think about ’rounding them out’ by giving them a back story, if only in your mind. It can be very helpful in keeping a character acting in character, and prevent them from being cardboard cut-outs, if you know a little about what drives them. Of course, some of my novels are actually about people I knew, so that makes the characters easy to flesh out. I do make sure, if I include real people in my novels, that I portray them in the best light possible, and I always add a ‘Fact from Fiction’ piece at the end of the novel. It helps that they are all long dead! They may take me up on some of the things I’ve written about them should I meet them in an afterlife. I’ll try not to think too hard about that…
The Setting One of the easiest novels to write, The Silence of the Stones, not historical fiction, was located where I live in West Wales. Knowing the area well meant I could draw on my own knowledge to describe the locations and place people easily where I wanted them. I could visualise it .
Touching the Wire and The Dandelion Clock are both set partly in the town where I grew up, and childhood memories reminded me what the town was like and would have been like in the period I was writing about. I can remember the horses and carts, the rag and bone man, the little shoe factories, the horse troughs, and the man going round with a long pole lighting or putting out the gas lamps in the town centre. Yes, I am that old, apparently.
My other novels are written about places I’ve never visited, and they required a lot of research to discover not only what they are like now, but how they would have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. The internet is a wonderful tool for writers; I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to write the For Their Country’s Good trilogy, for example, if I’d had to use the reference library in my local town.
Another useful tool for getting the feel of a place you don’t know is Google Earth. I used it a lot while writing the trilogy – it took me over the Blue Mountains on the old Cox’s Road in a way I could never have done without it, and it showed me the Impression Bay penal colony site and the forests of Van Diemen’s Land. Google images are also brilliant for seeing detail of clothing, hairstyles, historical buildings, architecture, the kind of trees there might have been in a particular park, what you could have seen from the Embankment in London, what colour stone a particular house is, etc, etc. It’s the tiny details that make a setting feel real, and if I can be historically accurate, I will be. Every time I go to write something that mentions an historical description or fact, I check it. An hour’s research will often result in only one sentence that I’m satisfied is historically correct.
The Tone This depends a lot on the subject. I like to tackle difficult subjects – Auschwitz, convict transportation to Australia, the terrible lack of women’s rights in Victorian England, the appalling wages and conditions of sweated labour – so my books don’t tend to be light in tone. In fact, some are quite dark. I do try to infuse a little humour where I can, but I strive to connect the reader emotionally with the people and the time. I have been known to reduce a grown man to tears! Several times, in fact.
The Plot I usually have an idea for a beginning, a bit of a feel for my characters, and a rough idea of how the story might end, beyond that, the plot is dictated by my characters acting and reacting as I believe they would to any given situation or action. The actions are largely regulated by the historical data I’ve unearthed before I begin that I think need to be included along the way – unless of course the characters do something I wasn’t expecting and take the plot to negotiate a different set of historical events. Whichever course they choose, the surrounding historical landscape has to be kept intact so far as it impinges on the events with which my characters are involved.
The Dialogue I’m more interested in it being understood and sounded natural to my character than it being correct dialect. My grandmother’s dialect was totally unintelligible unless you’d grown up with it. ‘She’etstuevit’, for example, translates as ‘She has to have it.’ I’ll let you guess at ‘She’etstugooaccordin’ . She also had some delightful sayings, which I have used in writing. ‘Well, I’ll goo to the foot of air stairs.’ I like to give a flavour of the time, a light seasoning of dialect, without making it too hard to read.
You also have to be conscious in historical fiction to use words that are of the time and the person’s knowledge in dialogue, narrative, and description. For example, you can’t ask someone to ‘call the doctor’ if telephones haven’t been invented, or describe something as ‘fast as a speeding bullet’ if all they know is spears, bows, and arrows, or ‘smooth as silk’ if they’ve never felt silk. Every word has to be considered – is it appropriate?
Research I love the research. Once I know what period and subject matter I shall be writing about, I search the internet for reading material. I generally buy a few reference books to get a feel of the period and a notion of the important events and the subject matter.
I make notes with references to a specific place in an e-book, so I can find the information when I want it – or tear up bits of paper , scribble notes, and stick them in between pages if it’s a real book. I’ve been extremely fortunate to date in finding excellent reference material, mainly on Amazon, from a book listing the sailings, crews, and passengers of every convict ship to leave England, to how to make a cow chain. From first-hand accounts of the horrors of a Nazi death camp in Poland, to the captain’s log and First Officer’s reports of HMS Tortoise, the convict ship that took Jem to Van Diemen’s Land. From Ruth Dee’s courageous account of a sufferer of Disassociative Identity Disorder, Fractured, to the Book of Common Prayer for the church law of Kindred and Affinity and the campaigns of the Queen’s Own Worcestershire Regiment in Egypt 1916-19.
I’ve researched subjects as diverse as the internal layouts of churches and the number of bells they ring, the times of curfews, how to store dynamite and handle nitro-glycerine, the breaking strain of anchor chain, the difference between suffragettes and suffragists, the trades’ unions of the 1900s, the religion and government of the Oromo people in Africa, the process for trying and executing a deserter in WW1 Egypt, the slaughter at Gallipoli, and only yesterday, how to kill, pluck, and dress a chicken. This morning’s research? How to make Mills’ Bombs and handle TNT and picric acid explosives – if the bomb squad raid my home ‘It was research for a novel, honest guv.’
How do I go about research? I usually begin with the reference books aforementioned, and then, as I begin writing, I find one thing leads to another as the plot unfolds. The trilogy For Their Country’s Good was probably the most rewarding because it was personal. It began with me researching my family history after my mother died. I wanted to know if there was any truth in the family rumour about the poacher. I began with Genes Reunited and local census records, and birth, marriage, and death records, and traced my grandmother back her birth in 1892 in Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire, a place I’ve driven past many times but never visited.
My next step was to research Yardley Hastings, and I was incredibly lucky to come across a Milton Keynes local history site. The site chronicled many of the local families and in particular three young men transported to Australia. Were these my relations? A little further digging re census and B,M, & D records revealed that one was my grandmother’s great uncle, Jem, and the others were his cousins. The rumour was true, as my grandmother knew full well but stayed extremely closed-lipped about.
Now I knew the story was true, I wanted to discover more – there was a tale to be told here if I could unravel it. Local newspaper archives produced reports of the boys’ committal hearing, trial, and sentencing. I also found trial transcripts with an account of the murder in the boys’ own words – that was spooky hearing voices from the grave, especially as I heard them in my grandmother’s native dialect.
Once I knew they’d been transported, I turned to my book of convict ships and the Australian Government’s convict site, where I discovered the ship, HMS Tortoise, on which the boys had been transported. I now had their convict numbers and could access their convict records complete with when they’d sailed and arrived, which penal colony they’d been sent to, behaviour, and even a physical description.
I researched the ship and discovered the name of the captain, first officer, and the make up of crew, passengers, and cargo. I learnt how to tell by a sailor’s earrings if he was a ‘Cape Horner’ or if he’d bested the Cape twice. I knew the journey had taken four months and that they had a barrel of Thames water per man to last the sailing – 400 convicts and 100 crew on an old four-masted sailing ship that had spent time as a coal hulk in Milford Haven, ironically not far from where I now live. Google images gave me diagrams and images of a typical convict ship and even a postage stamp with HMS Tortoise on it. My research had peopled my story, given me a setting, and brought my characters to life.
Google Earth took me to Van Diemen’s Land, present day Tasmania, where Jem and his two cousins landed in 1842. More research found dates of their conditional pardons, permissions to marry, and the records of their marriages, their children, and their deaths, and even where they are buried and the description on their burial records. A conditional pardon meant they were free but could never return to England.
With a love interest, Ella, introduced early on, there were always going to be at least two threads to this story running alongside one another. With letters being the only mode of correspondence, and a letter taking four months by sea and a reply four months back again, the timing of people receiving and sending letters, and the information contained in them, needed a chart all of its own.
Talking of charts, I use a table with a column for each character who has a POV of their own, and cells within the table for each section within a chapter to briefly describe the action/setting of each character. I try to date each part historically so I can keep the timing in strict order. I’m a bit OCD about this, or I get in a terrible muddle.
Give Ella an abusive husband, a local farmer, and I needed to know about Lord Northampton, the local squire at Castle Ashby, and the rent quarters for the local farms, the weather in the 1840s, the harvests, the farming practices of the time, cattle breeding, Merino sheep, and the landscape and crops around Yardley Hastings. I have been to Castle Ashby and Yardley Chase, where the killing occurred, so that was a help.
For Ella to be part of the story, it was necessary to know not only her background, (based on another of my forebears) but a woman’s role in 1840s England and her rights, or rather lack of rights. I was shocked that a woman of that time had no right to property, her own body, or her children – she and anything she may have had before marriage, also belonged entirely to her husband, and she could be put aside at any time and left penniless. She was expected to put up with him having mistresses, taking her wages, beating and raping her, locking her up, and treating her as a slave. It didn’t make easy reading, but it made for a fascinating and sometimes dark story.
Ella’s determination to be with Jem, her lover, led me to research how, as a woman alone with a child, no rights, and no money, she might make the perilous journey across the globe. That meant exploring sexual diseases and their somewhat revolting cures, more ships, discovering the terrible conditions in the convict nursery in Launceston, Van Diemen’s Land, and the only sure way to escape it, the route of the largely forgotten Cox’s Road and the stopping places over the Blue Mountains to the gold fields of Australia, and the murderous bush rangers who waylaid unwary travellers. Meanwhile Jem was involved in logging native trees as part of his penal labour – more research and discovering where the terms ‘top dog’ and ‘underdog’ came from, wandering into a coal mine – don’t take me back there – and Thylacines and, sadly, the £1 bounty that led to their extinction.
I stick to historical fact and accuracy wherever I can – I actually like the restrictions it imposes and the challenge of working within the confines. I used actual sailing times and destinations for every ship mentioned in the story, real ships peopled with real people – Trove’s historical records list the names, sailing times, crews, passengers, destinations, and cargo of every ship, sloop, and cutter sailing into and out of Australian waters – it became a personal challenge to get Ella where I wanted her to be, in time for a very important historical date, using the actual transport of the day, and I very nearly came unstuck. No ships sailed from England to Van Diemen’s Land when I needed them because of the prevailing winds! I was forced to use an historically correct roundabout route that was barely physically possible to get her there, and she arrived with only a day in hand after ten years of separation and various journeys to and from the Antipodes. Phew!
So Jem and Ella’s story was as much an emotional roller coaster for me, as it was for them and the reader.
Now, back to my work in progress, The Chainmaker’s Wife and plucking that chicken. I need the feathers for a dastardly and well-researched purpose, and the TNT will come in handy as well.
For Their Country’s Good trilogy:
http://mybook.to/FTCGboxset (3 books for the price of 2)
Coming soon The Chainmaker’s Wife.
14 thoughts on “Writing historical fiction”
Being an honoured chapter by chapter beta reader, I could tell you about the plucked chicken…
I will tell you I’m rarely glad to be so far away, but I am when Rebecca researches TNT. I know how thorough her research is… so if you hear a bang in Pembrokeshire, tweet me @sasspip or I’ll be blaming my awful email service wrongly for once.
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Shhhh. Some TNT and picric acid in the post. Handle with care! 😉
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I have a parcel arriving today. I’ve no idea what I ordered from where – I shall warn Him Indoors to handle with care, bucket of water to hand; he usually gets to the door first.
I reblogged this because I found it utterly fascinating, so you are very welcome.
Ha Ha. Very wise. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Reblogged this on Sarah Stuart – Romantic Suspense and commented:
The inside story of historical fiction.
Thank you, Sarah.
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the thought of writing historical fiction is enticing, but I would never have the patience to research as thoroughly as you do Rebecca. I think your books are brilliant and I snap up each one as soon as it comes out. Thank you for the mention, but I’m in awe of your skills.
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Thank you, Lucinda. I’m looking forward to Book 3 in your series. The cheese sandwich episode I referred to was my husband taking the cheese out of my sandwich and putting it back in the fridge. He does love his practical jokes, and I do occasionally think I’m losing the plot. 🙂
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On balance, I’ll keep my “Him Indoors”. I’m used to his ghastly sense of humour – the wrong words to carols – happy birthday – and he isn’t into practical jokes. I haven’t lost the plot, just a credit card I MAY have binned whilst in a temper with a hairdresser… Never mind; I shan’t be going back and important people, like Amazon & Tesco, accept it online.
I’d be panicking if I’d lost a credit card. I did once leave one in the pay machine at Tesco….
Great post, very informative. Good insight into the pros and cons of historical writing.
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Thank you, Nicola. I’ve been researching Mills bombs and the Navy recruiting procedure today – tomorrow? Cannons and the battle of Jutland 1916. It’s all go and quite a lot of bang… I never know quite where I’m going to end up when I begin a tale. Serendipity plays quite a large part in it.
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I love historical fiction and more so when you know that the author has done in depth research. Nice post!
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Thank you. I love the research though what I’m researching now is proving very contradictory. I’m having to come at it from a lot of different angles. 🙂
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