In some ways, writing historical fiction has a lot of similarities with writing science fiction and fantasy. You get to explore a completely different (you might even describe it as alien) world that looks and works quite unlike our own. The people there look differently, behave differently, even talk differently.
That’s also why writing in either of these genres can be very, very hard – something you might not realise until you try it. The blank page is scary enough when you are writing about normal people living in the modern world. There’s an assumption about writing sci fi and fantasy that you can just make up any old thing as you go along, but that’s no more true than it is of historical fiction. The world of your story must have its own internal logic, rules and constraints. What makes writing historical fiction perhaps even harder than writing sci fi and fantasy is that the constraints are historical facts – and you probably won’t know all of them.
I spent a long time researching the Great Fire of London for my children’s historical novel The Thieves of Pudding Lane. I had over 100 pages of notes by the time I started writing and when I finished the novel I smugly thought to myself that I had researched the topic so well that I almost felt like challenging someone to fault my facts.
And then it came back from the editor with a large slice of humble pie for me to eat whilst I read her comments. I had several references to characters silhouetted in front of flames – the word ‘silhouette’ didn’t even exist until a century later. I had young characters telling each other to meet back up in five minutes – poor children at the time wouldn’t have known how to tell the time. I had people swimming – most people didn’t know how. I had characters discussing a kidnapping – there were no specific kidnapping laws in 1666.
I should have done more research, shouldn’t I?
Yes, but also no. I researched those 100 pages of notes before I even started writing the story. And at an estimate I would guess perhaps 7 or 8 of those pages had any bearing on the story I ended up writing. I got things the wrong way round.
Whilst you have to know the period better than your readers do, you should research around your writing, not write around your research. Let the characters and the plot lead the way.
Nobody wants a guided tour of the past rather than a story, and one of the temptations when you’ve worked so hard on learning all the facts is to show off about it and put it all on the page. Imagine reading a novel set in the modern day where the author describes everything as if they don’t think you’ve seen it before (‘The street was tarmacked. He walked along it and looked through the windows, which were made of glass’ etc). It would be jarring, and far from drawing you into the world, it would probably be quite alienating. The same is true of historical fiction.
Pick up your favourite historical novel and with a pencil (it is your favourite historical novel, after all) underline every bit where the author’s sole intention is to describe something about the world e.g. ‘The street was cobbled.’ You probably won’t need to use an eraser very much afterwards.
However, go through it again and underline every bit where the author mentions something about the world in passing, casually, almost incidentally e.g. where a character is described as walking down a cobbled street, rather than a description of a cobbled street. You will probably want to stop before you make too much of a mess of the page.
Let the action lead the story. Historical fiction is absolutely identical to any other genre in that sense. When writing it the key is to slip in enough references to clue the reader in almost subconsciously, without including too many references so as to make it obvious what you’re doing. It’s a thin line to walk, and you basically have to do it blindfolded. Don’t be afraid to go back afterwards and delete references. The aim is to include only the minimum amount of information needed to convince a reader the world is real.
All that said, research can suggest new plot twists, new scenes, even new characters. But that will be research about historical periods events – the big picture – not research about what kind of windows people had in the seventeenth century. If you ever find yourself researching windows, it’s time to stop reading and start writing.
One aspect of writing historical fiction that can be a minefield to navigate is how to handle social change. You have to decide for yourself how much you want to whitewash history, because that’s what it may well look like you’re doing. There is a danger in assigning modern values to the past and ignoring the fact that it wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for the poor, women and anyone who wasn’t white. There are plenty of great dramatic stories to be told about all of these groups, but that might not be what your story is about. Yet if you don’t make any reference to such issues because they’re not issues any more, you might fear you are doing a disservice to the truth. There’s no easy answer to this one, unfortunately.
That said, a little artistic licence never really hurt anyone. You’re not writing a textbook, and if someone is sufficiently interested in the truth behind the events and period you are writing about, they will look for it elsewhere. In The Thieves of Pudding Lane I actually accelerated the spread of the Great Fire of London slightly. I imply that flames reach certain streets several hours before they actually did.
Everything I’ve written above is even more important when writing historical fiction for younger readers, which may mean it’s even harder. You can’t assume they have any knowledge of the period, so you might as well be writing science fiction. The temptation might be to make it more obviously educational, but the truth is it’s even more important to focus solely on your characters and the plot.