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Writing historical fiction


So you want to write historical fiction?

Well, your timing is good, because historical fiction is fashionable again after many years in the doldrums. In fact it's so popular that it has virtually reinvented itself as a category.

The market

Older readers may have read Anya Seton, Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Mary Renault, Norah Lofts and other stalwarts of historical fiction in their younger days, but many of their books have been out of print or just not very visible, replaced on booksellers' shelves by other categories such as fantasy and crime.

The resurgence of historical fiction has been much appreciated by readers who have always enjoyed it and who for many years have had little new material to read. There have of course always been historical novels being published, but what has changed is that there is now a definable market for them, which means that publishers are looking for historical fiction and are much more open to taking it on. The result has been big reissue programmes involving many of the authors mentioned above but also publishers looking out for authors working in this genre.

Historical fiction has also invaded the literary area, and two Booker Prize winners from Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light, were historical novels. Authors such as C J Sansom with his Matthew Shardlake series, Elizabeth Hardwick, Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir have built substantial audiences with their books.

History publishing

The category has also been very much affected by the enormous growth in popular interest in history, with many very successful non-fiction history books published and a surge of interest in local history and family history. Many with an interest in history find non-fiction harder going and turn to historical fiction. Caroline Corby, author of the Before they Were Famous series, says: 'Non-fiction is heavy going. A story with characters is going to carry along the reader and make them want to turn the page in the way that a straight history doesn't. It is that great pull of a story.'

So, what does this mean for you as an author, if you are thinking of writing historical fiction, or are already engaged in doing so? The first thing is to take heart, because there is clearly currently a market for good historical fiction.

Well-researched and accurate

The second thing is to realise the importance from the outset of getting the historical background right. This presents an extra challenge for writers and it's advisable to dedicate plenty of time to researching your chosen period to make sure all the details are correct, unless it's something you're already familiar with. Precisely because they are more knowledgeable and enthusiastic readers of these books, modern historical fiction buffs are even more likely to spot historical gaffes, and will need convincing that your story is plausible within the confines of the historical period you have decided to set it in.

It's also crucial to make it accurate in relation to the historical record, ie what is known of events and people known to history. For instance, if you're writing a novel about Alexander the Great, you can't invent wives he didn't have, although illegitimate children, who have been unknown to history, might be a different matter. Of course you can make up and elaborate on what happened behind the scenes, but be careful how you do this and do your research first.

Don't on the other hand get so enthusiastic about your research that you put large chunks of it into your novel. This is a common beginners' fault and it is really important to 'wear your learning lightly'. The research should form a firm foundation for your work, but don't leave the foundations visible.

Which period?

Thirdly, do think hard about the period in which you are going to set your work. Of course it should be a period which interests you, but do spare a thought for what will interest readers too. Something unusual, or which has a new angle on a historical period or event, might attract extra attention through its theme. Alternatively it's easy to spot that some periods are already done to death - English history in the Tudor period, for instance, with Philippa Gregory joined by Alison Weir and many other contenders too.

It still needs to work as fiction

The fourth thing to remember is that your historical novel needs to fulfil all the criteria for fiction. Does it have a strong, compelling story? Are the characters well-drawn and interesting? If the real history gets in the way of the story then it may indicate that your story might not work as fiction and still manage to retain its plausibility. It's difficult to generalise about the solution here, but before you start it's worth giving some hard thought to how you can deliver a good story whilst getting the history right, or at least believable.

Debbie Taylor's The Fourth Queen, for instance, is based on a true story of a Scottish girl who was captured by pirates and ended up in the Sultan's harem. It's a very good story but based on fact in an entirely believable way.

Getting published

Once you've written your historical novel and got it into the best shape you can, how should you go about finding a publisher for it? Well, historical novels are sufficiently close to the mainstream that there aren't going to be many agents who don't handle them, but perhaps it would make sense to try to find someone who already represents a historical fiction author whose work you admire. Agents will know which publishers to try.

So only remains to wish you good luck with your historical novel!

The UK Historical Novel Society welcomes writers and readers

The Historical Fiction Online forum provides discussion and more

Research - Writers' Factsheet 4 by Michael Leggat

The web as a research tool

Our review of Research for Writers

Other articles in this series

Writing Crime Fiction

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Writing Romance

Writing Non-fiction