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Historical Fiction - How, What, When & Why?

Triskele Books

As an author collective with a brand catchphrase of ‘Time & Place’, the writers behind Triskele Books like to think that, collectively, we know a thing or two about historical fiction. In this article, we would like to pass on some of our own tips and advice, plus some thoughts from a selection of HF writers at the top of their game, and also take a look at the inspirations behind writing historical fiction.


Back in time

From a Triskele perspective, the furthest back in time we go is with Gillian Hamer. She includes Welsh history in her cross-genre crime novels, from the Roman invasion of the island of Anglesey in her novel Complicit, to the dramatic sinking of The Royal Charter in 1859 in her novel, The Charter. In this section, she discusses researching your novel.

One aspect that seems to dissuade writers from tackling historical fiction is research. They dread making a massive slip-up that will shatter the reputation of their novel. (Yes, it is important to check that if your character enthuses on the view from the top of the Empire State Building then it was actually built at that time!) But you can allow yourself a degree of leeway. This is fiction after all, and unless you are lucky enough to have a Ph.D in the year you choose to set your novel, that means a lot of reading and note taking - but no more so than if you were setting your novel in the present but in a foreign country you’d never set foot in. 

Immersing yourself in your chosen period is one great way of ensuring you carry your research across in a believable fashion. Philippa Gregory is the author of twenty-four novels to date, around the Plantagenet and Tudor periods, so undeniably knows her stuff. Does the weight of research ever weigh down her writing style? "No, because I try to read so much I know it, until it becomes almost like a memory. A common error in historical fiction," she says, "is for people to do the research but never digest it."

So, although research isn’t something we think you should beat yourself up over, here are a few tips to remember.


Top research tips

  • Have fun with research, but do your homework. Use reference books, watch films, read novels of the period. Make sure you’re comfortable with all aspects of the time from politics to illnesses, from food to fashion, from local geography to language (even if you choose not to use it.)
  • Let your characters engage with both historical details and their place in society. Not only have them interact with the politics or religion of the day – but allow them full use of their senses to recreate their environment, the smells, sounds and feel of their surroundings is just as important as having them know who was King at that time.
  • Be aware of info dumps. It is arguably more important to ‘show not tell’ in historical fiction writing than any other genre. Use your characters to relate events - take your readers back in time through your characters, not just relating your research.
  • Use the internet wisely. We are so blessed nowadays with the amount of information at our fingertips, the access we have to old maps and stats is amazing. But ALWAYS triple check your facts, be aware of false information and never rely solely on Wikipedia!
  • Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy and double-check everything. Bad mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
  • Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up.
  • Don’t over-stress the detail. Strive for accuracy to add gravitas to your writing, but if on occasion you have to rely on best guess, so be it – that’s what disclaimers are for! Besides, you weren’t around in 300AD Syria, and nor was your reader.
  • Enjoy and embrace the experience – and don’t hate the haters. Because no matter how much you check your research, I guarantee you will make mistakes – and your reader will find them. Thank them, smile, and move on to the next story!

Visual approach

For some writers, visiting a location, feeling the presence of the past is a necessary part of the creative journey.  One such writer turns to film to bring alive a period in history. Triskele member, Jane Dixon-Smith, author of the Overlord series, set in Palmyra circa 250AD, takes a visual approach to research. She lists films as her greatest resource. She says. “I’m a very visual person. When I write, it’s how I see a story playing out on a screen, how they are acting and what they are saying. Films play a huge part in my reference material – I can imagine the scenes of battles and the climate and the friction between the characters from good films and TV series, and that helps me to imagine constantly what the past might have been like.” 

It must have been daunting and thrilling to write not only in the past, but also a distant land, so how did she decide on the subject matter? “Zenobia is a third century queen of Palmyra. I found her story in a book on warrior queens by Antonia Fraser and I was immediately fascinated by the ambition and drive of a woman who would go on to lead the greatest, most threatening, rebellion the Roman Empire ever faced.” 


Inspiration

Why do writers choose to write about people, places or events of the past? For many writers, it is location that triggers enough emotion to make them delve into the past history of a place they hold dear. For others, it’s a particular period in history, or a character of the time, that fascinates them.

As we move forward through time, Triskele author, Liza Perrat comes next in the timeline. Her novel, Spirit of Lost Angels, was set in revolutionary France, whilst the follow-on, Wolfsangel, was set around the same location but much later during WWII.

One location, two completely different eras – so why did she choose to write about these particular periods? She says “In the late 18th century, the world was changing fast. Pre-revolutionary France was a time of great turmoil on all levels of society as people were, finally, questioning the old regime. I wanted to explore what led people to revolt, and how this affected the mass of the population: the peasants and the poverty-stricken. And in particular, how the women reacted to this conflict. In Wolfsangel, I wanted to move away from the huge amounts of books published on the WWII Occupation of France, and explore what impact it had on a rural village, and its inhabitants.”

Two periods of history both caught up in conflict and living with its aftermath, with both stories told through the eyes of women. How did Liza handle the research needed and, in particular, the question of language? “For the French Revolution, I read many articles, letters and books from the time, to try and emulate the type of language and vocabulary. For the WWII setting, this wasn’t an issue, but as regards the French language, I felt I needed to include a smattering. For my current WIP, which is set in the 14th century, language is a totally different, and more complicated issue, as the people in the region the novel is set spoke Franco-Provencal rather than French!”


Reliving the past

Moving forward in our timeline, Triskele author, Catriona Troth, set her novel, Ghost Town, on the dangerous streets of Coventry during the 1981 race riots. This was her soul project, a chance to revisit her past and perhaps a chance to put right a few wrongs. Catriona was in the city in 1981 but admits she was totally unaware of the seriousness of events unfolding around her. Writing about those events from the perspective of characters caught up in the riots was an emotive and yet satisfying experience. 

But despite the novel taking place within living memory, Catriona was still faced with some hard decisions regarding research. She says “Even today there is very little on the Internet about the events in Coventry that summer. I spent a lot of time scouring newspaper archives and the small section of the Scarman report that refers to Coventry. Apart from that I read a lot of books about that period, and now luckily we have social media, and I’ve had chance to talk to a few people who lived through the events which has been invaluable to me.”


Resources for historical fiction writers (UK-based)

UK National Archives

British Online Archives 

British Newspaper Archives 

British Parliamentary Archives

Old Bailey Archives (from 1674 – 1973)

European Historical Links 

British Records Society (archive)

British Museum (archives) 

British Monarchy (Royal Archives) 

Reading The Past (news, reviews) 

Literary Liaisons (archives)

Writers Write (resources) 

Victorian Research (resources) - http://victorianresearch.org/ and http://www.mostly-victorian.com/


About Triskele Books 

Triskele Books became an author collective in 2011. Since then, we’ve published fourteen books, appeared at literary festivals, taught at writing workshops, built a loyal readership and earned ourselves the tag of ‘The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing’. (Jeff Norton, Byte the Book, January 2014)

For more detail on the other vibrant collectives mentioned here, as well as useful writing and publishing industry information, check out the website.

Members of Triskele Books are: Gillian Hamer; JJ Marsh; Liza Perrat; JD Smith; Catriona Troth.