ACW

ACW

Friday, 13 October 2017

Writing Historical Fiction

Sharpen your pencils.  Buy a new biro.  Wipe down your computer keyboard.  Our next Association of Christian Writers competition - our first ever historical fiction - is being launched… NOW.  Our judge will be Claire Dunn (C F Dunn), author of The Secret of the Journal series, and an active ACW member.  To check out what Claire will be looking for, members should look out for the launch article in the next Christian Writer, which should be coming through your doorstep soon.  Information on the historical competition is also available on http://www.christianwriters.org.uk/competitions.  The deadline is 31 December 2017.

Unlike Claire, I’m not a published historical novelist, but I do write historical short stories, some of which have been published online, and I am currently writing a novel set in a period which is just too recent to be historical.  I'd hesitate to offer advice, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned about historical fiction writing as I went along.
  • Write a story, not a history book.  The characters should lead, as in any other fiction.
  • Although you’ll carry out a lot of research into your historical setting, resist the temptation to include it all in your text; in fact, use very little of it.  Georgette Heyer, author supreme of Regency romances, rarely mentions any solid history (the Battle of Waterloo, once or twice, perhaps).  Your research may inform what your characters don’t do.  For instance, in my novel, at various times, nobody could use a telephone, because the government had cut the lines.
     
  • Every historical fact must be accurate, especially dates.  Build yourself a historical timeline and write the events of your story beside it.  https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/ is a useful source for finding out the days of the week for specific dates in recent history.  Use Wikipedia for general schedules of world events in particular years.
     
  • Do a site visit, remembering that cities and places change.
     
  • As well as political history, research what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled, what they thought.  If possible, read contemporary books, and look at photos.  If you can find any cartoons, or any jokes, study them intensely.  Listen to popular music, including folk songs, paying particular attention to the lyrics.  Look up any words or phrases you don’t understand; these may lead you to the hidden soul of the people you’re writing about.
  • Don’t bend historical happenings to suit your plot.  Use real history to generate confrontation in your story.
     
  • Consider what your characters are in a position to know, and, more importantly, what they don’t know.  The general British public didn’t know about gas chambers in concentration camps until some time after World War Two had ended.  And how they learned it; the characters in my WIP learned all that was important, listening to Radio Free Europe whilst leaning against a toilet seat.
     
  • In stories set in recent history (after about 1900), real historical persons should feature hardly at all.  Before 1900, use them if you wish, accurately, and without lapsing into biography.
     
  • Editors of historical fiction ezines and mags tell me that stories set in The Second World War and the Victorian era are in glut – avoid these settings.  Regency period, also, but certain markets can’t get enough of them.
     
  • Whereas people of every age have the same personalities, those living in byegone eras have their own worldviews and ways of treating servants, other races, animals, women, children.  They were definitely not politically correct.  No girl knights, please, or Roman families without slaves.  However, European and North American characters living in previous centuries are more likely to be committed Christians – a bonus.


Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction.  In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat.  Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.

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