By Beth Roberts
So, you want to write some historical fiction? Well, whether you’re a prose, poetry or drama writer, there are a few things worth considering before you delve into that long old writing process. Fear not! We at the Surrey New Writer’s Festival are here to provide you with some tips and tricks for writing historical fiction. Strap in and travel back in time with us!
Tunsgate Arch, Guildford High Street in the 1800s
One of the first things that you need to think about when building any type of world is setting. To create a world you need, well, a world! When thinking about how to construct your setting, you need to think about the details. You can start with the absolute basics: what does the countryside look like, what types of buildings/dwellings do your characters live in, what animals reside within the locality? Maybe start off by making a mood board or doing some sketches to help visualise the setting.
Once some of the basic visuals start appearing in your head, it could be helpful to think about the cultural and social aspects of your historical world. As a reminder, whilst you may be writing a historical narrative, you are still writing fiction. Whilst you may want to do your research to find out every piece of cultural and social information about the era you are writing about, you don’t have to! Think about what aspects of culture and society will inform your story and flesh it out for the better.
We all know that dialogue is an essential part of character creation. Providing your characters with a voice can provide your readers with a plethora of information: their background, how they interact with others, how they present themselves to the outer world. This is perhaps why many writers struggle with writing dialogue – it’s so important!
When writing historical fiction, the idea of writing era-specific dialogue can be scary. You may be asking yourself, “do I really have to make my seventeenth-century pirate say “arrr, me hearties” every five seconds?” and the answer is – no, of course not! You may decide that you would like your characters to speak exactly like they just popped onto the page from the particular historical period you’ve chosen, or you may like to use more contemporary language. It’s your choice because you are the one writing!
The one piece of advice we would suggest is to keep your dialogue consistent. If you decide to use language from a specific era, make sure that you don’t slip into twenty-first-century slang. If your nineteenth-century heartthrob has been telling his lover that she is a “Top-of-the-Trees” lady, don’t have him turning around and exclaiming “that’s sick!” in the next scene. You’d give your poor reader whiplash!
The best piece of advice I ever received on a piece of historical fiction was to sprinkle in a few era-specific references or images, to make the experience more visceral and expansive for the reader. For example, when writing about an immortal being who was accessing a memory from the past, instead of saying they were remembering “ancient wine”, it was suggested that I pick a specific era and harken back to it. I ended up with “sweet, Babylonian wine”, which is a much more solid image that definitely added to the story!
This technique is something you can achieve throughout your story by scattering little details in when you are describing a person, place, or thing. Maybe the woman your main character has just met is wearing a costume that would only be recognisable from a specific era, in a particular part of the world. Maybe the sword your antagonist is using has markings that show which house or creed he belongs to. The possibilities are endless!
To Research or Not to Research?
Now, considering what era-specific references to make should lead you down a rabbit hole of research, but how much research do you need to do? As with all of our tips, this depends on what type of story you are writing.
One of the aspects to consider is how much of the historical record you are borrowing in your writing. Are you writing biographical fiction or is your story completely made up, but set in a particular historical period? If you are doing the former, then people will probably be taken out of the illusion if certain key facts aren’t mentioned and if key events in a person’s life aren’t at least alluded to. However, if you are simply setting your story in a historical era, you may not need to cover all the big events of the time. For example, if you are writing a story about Marie Antoinette based in fact, then you wouldn’t want to marry her to Louis XV instead of Louis XVI, but if you are writing a story about eighteenth-century France, Marie Antoinette’s marriage may be completely irrelevant to the story. One caveat is that biographical fiction can be completely revisionist, but if you are dealing with a particularly harrowing biographical story, it’s probably wise to be sensitive and not to be too careless with the facts. (No one wants a repeat of the awful 2019 Hilary Duff film The Haunting of Sharon Tate). That’s not to say that you can’t write the next The Man in the High Castle! It’s just worth thinking about the original historical source material and considering whether a revisionist take would be insensitive.
Form can also impact the extent of your research. Are you writing an information-heavy historical political thriller? Well, then the details of the political backdrop in which your story is set are probably quite essential to the plot. Are you writing a poem about the emotional response to a historical event? Well, then the chronology of the event is probably not as important as the striking visuals and metaphors.
The last piece of advice we’d like to give you is an easy one: read widely! The wonderful Ruth Brandt delivered a masterclass at the festival a few years ago and one of the key things she advised was to read and re-read some of your favourite authors, poets, and playwrights; see what they do well and learn from it. Now, Ruth is not suggesting you plagiarise – far from it! Here, she suggests that the best way to learn the process of writing is to acknowledge the strengths of the writers you already love.
There are a plethora of historical novels, poems, and plays out there in the world, and much more to come. Check out our blog on ‘The Ten Books We’re Most Looking Forward to Reading in 2023’ for some suggestions of great pieces of historical fiction coming out this year!
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading through some tips and tricks for writing historical fiction! What type of historical piece are you thinking of writing? In what era and place is it set? Are you following the historical record verbatim, or are you telling a completely new story? Let us know in the comments below!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Roberts (she/her) is a PhD student at the University of Surrey researching historiographic metadrama and contemporary American feminist playwrights. She is particularly interested in the works of Lauren Gunderson and Jaclyn Backhaus, on whom her thesis is focused. Beth is also a writer of historical fiction in the form of short stories, novels and plays. Her short story ‘Her Last Temptation’ was published in MTP’s August 2020 Anthology and her article ‘Fragmentation as Methodology: Subjectivity, Objectivity and Romantic Love in Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (2010)’ will be published in Feminist Encounters’ special edition on ‘Situated Knowledges of Gender and Love’.