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Historical Fiction -Three Top Tips for Writers

Three tips – research, research, research

That sounds like a joke, and an excuse to avoid writing. But, when it comes to historical fiction there’s not much alternative to lots of research. Unless, of course you already happen to be an expert in the period you’re writing about.

Why?

  • Because, as authors, we create worlds which we want to be believable. In science fiction and fantasy, the world may be another planet or a dystopian future. In historical fiction this world is the past. L.P. Hartley, in “The Go-Between” wrote:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

It is our job to ensure our reader understands the place they are visiting. Even if they don’t always feel entirely at home.

  • Because readers are intelligent and educated enough to know when things aren’t right. There are readers who have detailed knowledge of specifics, for example, when a particular model of car was introduced. It is hard to be accurate enough for them. However, most readers have an idea that cars were not around much before 1900 and not really widespread until later.
  • Because referring to something which didn’t exist, or wasn’t common, at the time you’re writing can break the spell.

Research for historical fiction falls broadly into three areas:

  • General research about the period
  • Specific research on issues arising as you write
  • Language and idiom research

General research:

Whether you’re working on a piece set in ancient Rome, in 18th Century England or during the Second World War, it is important to have an overview. I’ve written five novels in this last period, so know how tricky it can be.

This may come from reading books about the period, digging around on the internet or watching documentaries. Drama is another good source – though be careful that the dramatist hasn’t built in mistakes which you repeat.

Specific research:

Ten times a day, or more, when I’m writing, I’ll come across an issue where I’m uncertain of historical accuracy and need to check.

This can sometimes be even more important when the past is fairly recent. Just when, for example, were home telephones commonplace? When was fingerprinting, or DNA, part of the toolbox of detectives? Were theatres and bowling greens operating during World War II?

In the more distant past, there are things we take for granted which were not widely available. Like newspapers, banks, cutlery, needles, etc. Always check – would your character have access to what you want them to use?

The internet, of course, is great for this kind of factual detail. But try to check at least two sources because mistakes are repeated as if they are true. Don’t just dive into Wikipedia – even though it is good.

Language and idiom research:

I recently read a piece of writing which included the line “he fell like a sack of potatoes”. A bit of a cliché but nothing much wrong with it. Until you realise it was set in early mediaeval England – before potatoes were introduced into this country in the 1580s.

Modern English language includes lots of words and phrases, as well as a rhythm and structure, which we did not use in the past. There is, of course, also a difference depending on the variant of English (e.g. UK, USA, Australia, etc, and the regional variations within these). A modern reader might not be completely comfortable with the language of previous centuries. But it is possible, through the use of properly researched terms, to give a flavour of those times. The author can be achieve this by reading work from the period they are aiming to emulate and learning the rhythm of the language and the way ideas are expressed.

Each of these areas could be a subject for an entire book on its own, but I hope the ideas have provided some food for thought.

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