What is historical fiction?
Firstly, what is historical fiction? How far back does a novel have to be set to make it 'historical'? A hundred years? Fifty years? Five? No one seems to agree about this. According to the Walter Scott Prize, events have to have taken place at least 60 years before the publication of the novel. According to the Historical Novel Society, it’s fifty years before publication. I’d in fact say it’s any book set in the past.
Within historical fiction there are many different genres: historical romances, adventure stories, historical crime, espionage thrillers, time slip novels, and the new brand of Gothic fiction which is set in the past but doesn’t specify when (The Silent Companions and The Binding, for example). Imogen Robertson, Chair of the Historical Writers’ Association says, ‘Historical fiction is a setting rather than a genre. It encompasses every different kind of storytelling you can imagine’.
As Emma Darwin points out in her brilliant book, ‘The most important thing about historical fiction is that it is fiction: a story of events that never happened, told ‘as if’ they did happen.’
Why write historical fiction?
It’s sometimes said that, thanks to Hilary Mantel and the likes of SJ Paris, Jessie Burton and Sarah Perry, historical fiction is having a golden era. However, you never know how trends in the market will work. I assume that the historical novel will continue to flourish for some time yet, but there’s never any guarantee. And as those of you who are already writing historical fiction will know, it’s a pretty darned time-consuming and research-heavy process. Unless you happen to have a doctorate in the subject you’re proposing to write a novel about (and some people do), you’re going to have to spend a long time researching your era. I personally love the research bit, perhaps too much (as I’ll discuss here), but it’s worth bearing in mind that by writing historical fiction you are essentially making life difficult for yourself, so you have to really want to do it.
It may be that the specific story you want to write is set in the past, which is what happened with me. Or it may be that you really want to write historical fiction, because that’s what you’re drawn to.
Certainly settings drawn from history give a wonderfully rich background for novels. It’s also a way to give a voice to people who have been left out of the history books: the dispossessed, the suppressed. I think some of the best historical fiction speaks for the people who couldn’t or whose voices were rarely heard: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. My novel The Story Keeper is about the crofting community in the Highlands of Scotland just after the Clearances of the 19th century, people whose voice has been almost completely left out of the records, replaced with the voices of the rich landowners. Which of course makes it tricky to research, but that’s all part of the fun. Perhaps.
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’
Assuming that you’ve decided you’re writing historical fiction and you really want to spend your weekends working out what kind of sheep they kept in Scotland in 1857 or what vegetables were available in 1640 (the answer is turnips), where do you start?
Step 1 is to read everything you can get your hands on – new fiction, old fiction, non-fiction, history, newspapers, court reports. Go to the theatre. Watch films, drama, listen in to people on the train. One of my ideas came partly from a play, another partly from the ballet. All of my ideas are partly from real crimes. Basically read a lot and go out and have a great time and you might get some ideas.
Also consider the market – which debuts have broken through recently? What might editors be looking for? Being aware of the market doesn’t necessarily mean following it, however. Ultimately you have to write the book you’d like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else?
Which rules are you working with?
Once you have an idea of what you want to write, the next step is to agree with yourself what kind of novel you’re going to write and what kind of rules you’re going to work with.
The reason I say that is that when you’re working with recorded facts and known history, you’re going to have to make lots of decisions about what you must keep, what you will change, and what you can invent. That’s far easier to do if you decide some kind of overall policy at the outset. Are you, for example:
- Creating a story based on general historical material;
- Taking real historical events and real people and using their biography as the backbone of the story (as Margaret Atwood did with Alias Grace);
- Using real historical events as the centre of the story, but embroidering around it (as Robert Harris did in An Officer and a Spy);
– Using some aspect of a real story as the basis for a largely fictional novel (In The Miniaturist, for example, Jessie Burton used a real doll’s house but made most of the rest up);
- Or are you perhaps interweaving a historical narrative with stories set in a different times?
Whatever it is, you need to get it clear in your mind fairly early on, and I say this as someone who wasted a lot of time because I hadn’t worked out what format I was using for my first novel, The Unseeing, and became hamstrung by the true events and slightly obsessed with the ‘real facts’.
Finding the right voice
Once you know what you’re writing about, you’ll need to establish the voice in which you’re writing it. Are you going to use quite a modern voice, as Barnes did in Arthur & George, are you going to use a more archaic voice as Anna-Marie Crowhurst does very successfully in her novel The Illumination of Ursula Flight, or are you going to do what I tend to do, which is use a fairly modern voice but with nods towards how they would have spoken in the relevant era?
In order to find the right voice, I tend to read a lot of writing of the period and note down particular vocabulary, cadence, sentence structure that I can steal to give a sense of the era, but make the voice my own. Replicating the rhythms of speech and adding in bits of slang can be an effective way of not only defining an era, but also a class system. So in The Story Keeper I replicate some of the rhythms of Highland speech rather than having them all saying ‘Och Awa' an bile yer heid!’, and I’ve included some lovely phrases that I stole from witnesses to a government commission in the 19th century, including ‘a little pimple of a woman’, ‘a Skyeman to my backbone’ and ‘he’s not worth his porridge.’
Beth Underdown (who wrote The Witchfinder’s Sister) says that she spends ‘a few minutes every night, just before going to sleep, reading from the personal writings (the letters, diaries and so on) I’ve collected. Through this habit, I hope that something of the period’s cadence and sentence structure seeps into my characters’ speech, in a way that feels natural and not too laboured.’
If you’re going to use a fairly modern voice, you can intersperse it with letters or journal entries that have a stronger voice, more reminiscent of the era, as Susan Fletcher does brilliantly in Corrag, for example.
Whichever voice you used, you’ll want to avoid:
a) Anachronisms: words and phrases which jar, and
b) Ridiculous-sounding archaisms like ‘Zounds!’ and ‘Egad!’
The important thing is to give a sense of authenticity and avoid interrupting the flow of the story for the reader. Because of course it's the story that they're really reading it for, not your exact rendering of 15th century speech.
Here ends part 1 of the Secrets of Historical Fiction. The next section will cover immersing yourself in an era and research. But keep it to yourself.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime and Gothic fiction.