Sunday 29 September 2013

The Magnificent Seven by Robert Low

Our guest this month is Robert Low. His Oathsworn series is about Vikings but the Kingdom series, completed this year, deals with the Scottish Wars of Independence. How topical is that?

Robert Low

This is what he says about himself:

I am the wrong side of older and I have been a journalist and writer since the age of 17.

At 19, I went to Vietnam on spec to try and cover the war in the firm belief that I could not be any sort of writer until, as Hemingway put it, I had been as drunk as could be, suffered a broken heart and experienced war. Naturally at 19, I believed I had the first two under my belt and just needed the third. After 18 months of it, I swore I would never do anything as stupid ever again.

Since then, I have earned a living as a writer, with occasional lapses of judgement taking me to Sarajevo, Romania Albania and Kosovo.

To satisfy a craving for action, I took up re-enactment, joining The Vikings group.

The Oathsworn Series began in 2007 and runs to four titles: The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea, The White Raven and The Prow Beast, all available from HarperCollins. A new one, called Crowbone, was released in Oct 2012. The Kingdom Series, which I am also writing now, is set in the time of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace - the first title is The Lion Wakes, the second The Lion At Bay and the last, The Lion Rampant, has just been released.

For us, Robert Low, very much tongue in cheek, has outlined some rules for writing historical fiction

From the moment we are old enough to start bumping into things, we begin to be told The Rules.

As we get older, they become more specific and complex and some of them start to make you wonder.

As a journalist, The Rules became more complex still, but this is where I began to rebel – and sift. Never gave up a source seemed self-evident to me. Get the facts right and tell readers who, what where and when. If you can’t tell the story in 25 words, you haven’t found your focus.

Others seemed more, well … serving suggestions. Think short – write short sentences in short paras. If you can find some infographic that illustrates your story – forget the story. A journalist is only as good as his/her sources (an over simplification. Sources lie and even good journalists get caught out. We’re back to accuracy on this one – check it, re-check it and THEN get caught out).

By the time you decide to become a real writer of something longer than a 3000-word article, you find a whole slew of The Rules. Already they conflict with The Rules of journalism and you have to begin spiking the latter – there is no way, for example, anyone can sustain 140,000-plus words of novel by writing short sentences in short paras.

But there are loads of people eager to tell you The Rules of writing. Entire businesses are made from it and if I see one more book, from some author I have never heard of, telling me how to be a successful writer, I may hurl it at him/her, with the cogent observation that, if they are so bloody smart, why aren’t they Dan Brown or JK Rowling?

So here are the Magnificent Seven Rules I was given, by different folks at different strokes. They are all good people and firmly believe that they all work and, in concert, cannot fail.


Authenticity is everything in historical fiction. The reader has to smell the smoke from 19th century factories, taste the sewage in the rutted gutters of a medieval street, hear the sounds of Elizabethan England all around. This is a new world and readers can’t understand it unless you feed them movies in their heads.

Broke it almost at once.

It is sometimes enough to say that your character walked down a street. Sometimes you might want to add a dash of colour, but readers are not idiots and if the plot is starting to shift into a higher gear, you will only whip the feet from under it by suddenly going into the origins of the London Underground, or what street stalls look like in the Middle Ages. Besides, no matter how you try, you will inevitably start recycling scenes from period movies. However, if a great deal of your character’s time is spent in a 16th century country house, or a longship on the Baltic Sea, it is essential to find out all you can. Not, I hasten to add, because you want to use as much of it as possible, but just so you can avoid getting what you do use hopelessly wrong. There is no point in having your 11th century heroine spring into the saddle of a feisty mare when the reality is that most 11th century women rode side-saddles so perilous and lacking control that they had to be led by a servant. The Tudors TV series was an astoundingly inaccurate portrait of Henry VIII et al, a cologne-ad view of the characters – yet the history underpinning it was spot-on.


This is because agents and editors hate it, runs the popular assumption. I don’t know why – it is the finest, surest way of seeing whether a writer is any good or not, because starting with a line of dialogue is hard. If a writer pulls it off, you know they are good right from the off.

SF classic Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card begins with talking heads and no reference to who they are or where they are. Goes on for half a page or so and it won a Nebula. Someone I said this to once sniffed that not all Nebula winners are great examples of how to write and I agreed. They are brilliant indications of a bloody good story, though.

And who can argue with ‘Where's Papa going with that axe?’ from the beginning of Charlotte's Web?

The hard fact is that most writers’ don’t actually want to bodyswerve opening with dialogue and the people who tell you not to do it are the ones who are too backbone-yellow to try.


This, plus the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ are pretty much the bedrock of creative writing classes everywhere. It is so carved in runes on a big, sod-off stone that it is difficult to argue against it – but here goes anyway. By ‘write what you know’ creative writing gurus mean ‘use personal experience’. If you have first-hand knowledge of something, then not only will your writing be more accurate, it will be more immediate. So runs the accepted wisdom and it is … bollocks. I know war-reporters with a wealth, a lifetime, of experience of conflict zones who could not write a novel about it that would as good as some housewife with a vivid imagination, a flair for turning a phrase and access to Google. I know geek wargamers/paintballers who could make a better fist of penning an Andy McNab adventure than the famous Mr McNab. In short – knowing isn’t nearly all of it. Feeling it is – and no HF writer I can think of (thank God) has actually claimed to me to be writing about a life they once lived themselves. No historical novelist writes about what they know!


This is up there with Never Write Scenes Involving A Character Looking In A Mirror and Never Use Dreams. I was told this by a few people after my first novel, The Whale Road, used a flashback sequence to start a chapter, then bring it round to the present. I kept it in anyway – hey, its my Nielsen ratings we are screwing with here!

I argued – successfully – that the analepsis is as old as writing. If it good enough for the Ramayana and Mahabhrata (where the main story is narrated through a frame tale set in a later narrative) then it is good enough for 21st century readers.

If Omar Khayam thinks it fitting to use in Arabian Nights, then it can’t be bad. His tale of The Three Apples begins with the discovery of a murdered woman. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story. Flashbacks are used in Sinbad The Sailor and The City Of Brass, too. By Ford Madox Ford. By Robert Graves. By Thornton Wilder in The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – and, if that isn’t enough, by the sainted JK in Harry Potter. Though, to be fair, she creates a magical device that converts the flashback into a current narrative whose characters can actually be questioned by progenitors.


You have a responsibility to history and real characters if you are using their real names in your novel. Otherwise – use a roman de clef , as Justin Cartwright did in The Song Before It Is Sung, changing Adam von Trott into Alex von Gottberg and his close personal friend Isaiah Berlin into Mendel.

Very coy and it did nothing to improve the story, in my opinion, which stumbles in fits and starts and lacks focus.

Famously, Antony Beevor climbed on a very high horse when he took Kate Pullinger to task over her historical novel about Lucie Duff Gordon, 19th century traveller and writer on Egypt. Lucie happens to be Anthony’s great grandma and he got peeved by Ms Pullinger’s historical novelist perspective, suggesting it might have been better if she’d changed the name. Personally, I think he has a mountain of huff and lousy arguments to boot. He promptly shot himself in the lip by stating that theatre is somehow exempt from playing with historical facts but no other creative medium. So Shakespeare is off the hook, but neither you nor I? Away, as my granny used to say, and bile your heid.

The bottom line in writing historical fiction around real characters is that you are almost certainly going to have to fill in a lot of gaps; even if you know where they were and what they did, you will never know, for sure, the why. It’s the ‘why’ that makes the difference and at that point you have to ask yourself if you are getting it close to right, doing a disservice to the character, or being downright vindictive. Once you have answered that to your satisfaction, you can then say: sod it – and write the damned character anyway. Dead people don’t sue.


We live in the 21st century with certain shared disapprovals of sexism, racism, chauvinism and provincialism. I broke this very early on by having Norse raiders go a-viking and, horror of horrors, commit acts of barbarism, rape and enslavement. I got emails of outrage from people about my ‘treatment of women’ and even had to grit my teeth at face-to-face attacks in literary readings and signings – not just from women, but from men. It seemed folk liked the writing style and even the adventure, had no problem with the odd swear-word or the gore, but could not detach themselves from 21st century finer feelings regarding sexism. My worst mistake was in pointing out the plethora of Historical Romance tales which have shaven-chested Vikings rushing up to a swooning female, all L’Oreal hair and caring, brandishing a bouquet instead of an axe. I find that sort of mock-rape an affront to history and women both.

The bottom line is – don’t pass judgement on ignorance and barbarism just because it makes you, as a writer in the 21st century, wince and recoil. If that also makes you avoid the issue, don’t write about the past; you are wasting everyone’s timeline.


It is self-absorbed, I was told and no-one likes a narcissist smart-arse. Unless you’re writing in the form of letters or journals, make sure any first-person character has a good reason to be telling his story. I mean – no-one likes a real person is they are constantly banging on about what they wear or did, do they?

Call me Ishmael is my reply to that. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like is my second comment. Lolita, Rebecca, The Adventures of Huck Finn, Tipping The Velvet, Trainspotting. Stick that in your Word documents, creative writing gurus.

And, more modestly, four Oathsworn novels of my own. When I came to write the fifth, with a spin-off character called Crowbone, I used the third person, just to differentiate. Fans of the first four books liked it well enough, thank God – but I’d have had another half-star on Amazon if I’d only stuck to first person.

Finally, like all Rules, there is One Rule To Bind Them. This is one I follow assiduously.



Sue Bursztynski said...

Very nice, Robert! I've broken many of these rules. Once I pointed out to an editor that I could tell in a sentence or two, but "show" in that particular case would require a couple of pages. I do first person regularly, I think you can get in the atmosphere without holding up the action, and would like to add to the books starting with dialogue Little Women.

Just one thing, women didn't ride sidesaddle in 11th century England, at least, as far as I know. That came to the country with Anne of Bohemia, a couple of centuries later. So if I decide to have my feisty 11th century heroine ride astride, I will! :)

Penny Dolan said...

A nicely bracing post for a Sunday morning. Makes one want to start battling with the work all over again. Thank you, Robert Low. (And of course I'll have to look for your books just to check if you're right, won't I?)

alberridge said...

Brilliant, Robert. There've been so many times I've wished I could borrow your 'sod-off stone'.

The one that makes me maddest is the reader who objects to tenth century attitudes in a tenth century setting. I quite appreciate why many of us may not like to read about appalling sexism (or racism come to that) but then why read historical? It seems to me there's room for one more 'never' rule here - and it's 'Never confused a writer with his characters.'

And another - never read a post by Robert Low while drinking coffee and leaning over a wireless keyboard. Just - don't.

Petrea Burchard said...

Loved this. Thanks.

Intercostal Clavicle said...

Very cool article!

When I was first told 'Write what you don't know' by one of my creative writing tutors, it was such a revolutionary concept to what I had been told previously that I wrote it down in big letters in my notebook. Now I abide by it all the time.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you so much, had a good laugh.

Unknown said...

A fantastic piece, Rob! Succinct, and as forthright as only you can be! Bravo. Ben.

Louiseruleauthor said...

So enjoyed that. Great Article.

Purple Bee Photography said...

Wonderful article, sidesaddle is a skill but having watched someone jump a diningtable with champers in hand a decent horsewoman would only have needed a servant for propriety!

Anonymous said...

Fab piece, Rob. I've pretty much broken them all at some point, but I will now recognise as I do so the value of my actions.


Anonymous said...

Have broken every single rule and it was a joyous moment of discovery! Thank you for this - shall rpint off in large font and paste to wall!