Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world

Welcome to the first of three guest posts by RS Downie on writing historical fiction. Ruth is the author of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (‘Medicus’ in the USA) and Ruso and the Demented Doctor (‘Terra Incognita’ in the USA), the first in a series of historical crime novels set in Roman Britain. Now over to Ruth:

Twenty years ago I knew nothing at all about historical fiction except that some of the novels I’d enjoyed had been set in the past. I’ve learned a great deal since then, mostly from other writers and sometimes from my own mistakes. I still have much to learn and frequently don’t practise what I preach – but if you too are fascinated by the past and want to set your story there, I hope you’ll find some useful pointers in this series of articles. If you have anything to add or questions to ask, feel free to post your comments below.

Historical fiction – where is it?

Despite there being a Historical Fiction Society, there’s no Historical Fiction section in my local library. Instead, Society members’ novels are nestling in amongst Romance, Action and Adventure, General Fiction, Crime, Fantasy and Horror. If there were such a shelf as ‘Literature’ – which there isn’t – there would be plenty there, too.

Setting your novel in the past doesn’t determine what kind of book it will be, nor who might want to read it. All the usual wise advice about novel-writing – which you can find elsewhere, some of it in The Crafty Writer Bookshop – will still apply. As ever, much can be learned from reading widely, including reading outside your own genre. There are, though, some points that will be particularly relevant to ‘historicals’, whatever kind of tale you are telling.

Know where you’re taking your reader

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee (author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting) tells his students that it’s essential to know the world of your story. This applies whatever you’re writing, but especially in a novel where you want to take a reader to a place that’s deliberately distant from your own.

What does your world smell like? Feel like? Taste of? Who’s in charge? How do people earn their living?

You may need to do less homework for a light romance than for a novel about the battle of Waterloo, but you will have to do some. (I’m not insulting romance writers here, but assuming romance readers are less likely to care about the finer points of weapon design.) Most of what you know may never appear on the page, but it will underpin whatever you choose to reveal to your readers. This has two benefits – firstly, the more you know, the wider and more original your choices will be.

Secondly – it will help to ‘ground’ your story on a convincing base. For example, if your characters are travelling on horseback, there will have to be arrangements in place to care for the horses. We don’t need to see this happen. We don’t even need to be told that it’s happening. But you can’t send characters galloping from Dover to Hadrian’s Wall in an afternoon. Oh, wait a minute – you can if you’re Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. But that was light entertainment, and unless you’ve got Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman up your sleeve, it’s best to stick to what’s possible.

The point is, the more confident you are about how things work in the world you’re creating for your readers, the more comfortably you and they will be able to move around in it.

If you don’t know, don’t fret

You can worry too much about all this. Someone – if anybody can remember who, please say so – once bemoaned the difficulty of getting his characters in and out of rooms if he didn’t know what the door handles were like. This is not a problem for me: I have pictures of Roman door handles. (Yes, it is sad.) But I’ve wasted inordinate amounts of time wondering whether to put sheets on ancient beds.

In retrospect, this was more about avoiding writing than doing it. If you wait until you know everything, you will never write the novel. If you’ve tried to find out and can’t, it’s best to move on. Often the answer – or an unexpected solution – will pop up when you’re not looking for it.

Leave space for the reader

To sum up, the writer needs to know enough, but not too much. Even in the ‘real’ world none of us takes the time to notice everything, and we’re telling stories here, not writing textbooks. Try sketching in some details and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

Here’s an example, chosen for practical reasons rather than literary ones (i.e. I own the copyright).

Ruso was still pondering the body in the mortuary as he walked out of the East Gate of the fort. He was barely aware of his progress until he was abruptly recalled to his surroundings by a shout of ‘Get up!’ from further along the street. A man with a large belly was glaring at a grimy figure lying across the pavement just past the fruit stall. A woman with a shopping-basket put down the pear she was examining and turned to see what was going on.

The man repeated the order to get up. The woman stared down at the figure and began to gabble in some British dialect. The only word Ruso could make out was, ‘water’.

‘Burn some feathers under her nose,’ suggested the stallholder, bending down to retrieve a couple of apples that had tumbled off the edge of his display.

Ruso veered into the street to avoid the commotion and narrowly missed a pile of animal droppings. He frowned. He must try to concentrate on what he was doing. He had come out for a walk because he was unable to sleep. Now he was walking, he was having trouble staying awake.
(Chapter 2, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, published in the USA as ‘Medicus’)

In this scene I used small details that might trigger the reader’s memories of familiar street markets. I then tried to put in other material that would distance the scene from a modern experience. The woman begins to ‘gabble in some British dialect’ which the lead character, who isn’t a local, can’t understand. There are animal droppings in the street. Somebody recommends a cure that, to us, sounds quite bizarre. I also hoped that the way the sick woman is treated would imply a harsher society than our own, and raise tension as the reader wonders what’s going to happen to her and whether the lead character (who we know by now is a medic) is going to do anything about it. Some writers would use far more period detail. The choice is yours.

In the next post I’ll be thinking some more about research. In the meantime, next time you pick up a novel, you might like to ask yourself how the writer has created their world and why you believe in it – or why you don’t.

This post is copyright RS Downie, 2009. No reproduction of this material is permissible without the author’s permission.

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Related posts:

  1. Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research
  2. Writing historical fiction 3 – using fact in fiction
  3. Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie
  4. Writing Fantasy Fiction
  5. Writing historical fiction – reviews and links

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4 comments on “Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world

  1. Pingback: Writing historical fiction 2 - doing the research at The Crafty Writer

  2. Nancy Tuliszewski on said:

    If the subject is no longer alive, do author’s need permission from the families to write their stories when writing historical fiction?

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Nancy, in historical fiction the characters are made up, even if they are based on real people, so no permission is needed. If you are writing someone’s biography (noon-fiction) then no permission is needed. However, beware that the family may object to your version of events. But you do not legally need their permission.

  4. Pingback: Writing historical fiction – reviews and links at The Crafty Writer

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