10 Tips for Editing Historical Fiction. No.7 Detail

EEditing Historical Fiction - the Devil in the details. I examine the sort of detail historical fiction readers want.
Alexander Roslin – Joli Boudoir Marie Emilie Boucher 1779 Detail

When my agent sent off my first manuscript to publishers I had high hopes. Yet it came back with a slew of rejections before it found its publisher. One of the rejections said ‘overwhelmed with period detail’. Another said, ‘not enough period detail.’ Clearly, different editors had different expectations about the amount of detail a historical novel needs, and judging by reviews – so do readers.

Wikipedia says;

An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted. (italics mine)

What I’ve come to understand over time is that the perceived type, and ‘weight’ of the novel demands different amounts and types of detail. So a historical romance needs a different type of detail to a historical biography. In historical fiction readers want both the familiar and the unfamiliar. They want to be able to say both, ‘but of course I knew that!’ but also ‘that’s surprising; I didn’t know that.’

Historical facts

The reader wants some historical facts that they already know, to anchor them into the period. I once had a review that said there were no historical facts in my book. In fact there were thousands, but just not the ones that particular reader wanted! So I learnt that including some basic information that, as a researcher you might think too obvious to state, is actually necessary. It is actually necessary to make it obvious in a book about Anne Boleyn, that she was married to Henry VIII. To someone who doesn’t know the history, it’s informative. For those that do, this gives the reader the comforting feeling that they are on familiar ground and that they will be able to get a grip on the history you are describing. A win-win situation. But do it in a way that is not condescending, and also include perhaps facts that people might not know, such as that Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather was a hatter. (For more surprising facts about Anne Boleyn, go here.)

Obviously a historical biography will include much more detail about the subject’s life, than a novel in which the subject only appears briefly. In a novel about a quickly developing relationship between two people (eg a romance), then the small detail will be in the clothing, manners of the protagonists, and their milieu.  In a novel about a political revolution which covers aeons and is more wide-ranging, then detail about the current and former regimes, and a broader sweep of facts will be required, as well as detailed descriptions of the main players. The balance of detail will be different depending on the scale of your novel.


In writing a historical novel what you are looking for is difference. Weather in England is much the same in any century – rain is rain and sun is sun (if we ever see any!) But you can describe the weather as it affects something that no longer exists in our century. Snow flattening the feathers of a hat, for example. But in the 17th century, the Little Ice Age, the Thames froze, and birds plummeted dead from the sky, frozen solid as they flew. This severe weather is different from our contemporary weather in England today, so exactly what that might mean for the characters is worth exploring, especially in an era before high-tech clothing and central heating.


The detail needs to be in motion. It is better that a character is engaged in an activity into which you can feed the detail. Don’t stop the action and lose forward momentum to describe the scene. Describe the ring of horseshoes trotting on cobbles, rather than static cobbles. Have the character tie on her coif rather than just describe her wearing it.  A man can straighten a cravat, or run his riding crop along the railings. In a garden, have him throw a stone into a fountain, chase the deer from the lawns, practise archery there. Anything rather than just describe a static garden. We are aiming to bring life into our fiction, not present a static picture.

Politics and Religion

I think it is impossible to convey a period without reference to the politics and religious views which shape the behaviour of the time. Slavery, poverty, religious dissent and holy wars were all realities then, as they are today. They are also what people talk about. Just as we discuss Brexit, and our politicians, so our forbears were discussing the behaviour of their governments or Kings. A novel that provides no reference to this feels rootless and lacking in gravity. There is usually a tendency to give characters the view of our received history, for example that Charles II was a monarch that cared more for his mistresses than his people. But this was not necessarily the view of those that lived through those times, and for many, his Restoration to the throne was a relief, and his behaviour merely what you would expect of a rich royal. Make the detail rounded – your characters will perceive facts differently, which brings me to…

Through their eyes

Often I read historical novels where the detail is clumsy because it reflects what modern people perceive as necessary detail: ‘He picked up the pewter tankard from the oak table’ or ‘she hitched her linen skirts aside’ etc etc’. Of course these are things that people of the era probably would not notice, the ordinary materials from which things are made. If possible it’s best to portray the world through a character’s eyes:

for example, this description of the asylum in The Ballroom by Anna Hope:

He made himself known and thence began a tour of the asylum, to which the porter made a most knowledgeable and agreeable guide. The scale of the place was staggering — corridors of which Charles could barely see the end (‘The finest example of the broad arrow system, sir’). A cool room devoted entirely to bacon, one to milk, and one to cheese (‘We have our own flock of Ayshire heifers, you’ll see them when you visit the farms’). A room for the preparation of vegetables (‘six hundred acres in all’) and one filled with hanging meat (‘the slaughterhouse’).

This desciption works so well because Charles’s language; ‘most knowledgeable and agreeable’, is Victorian, and the fact he dismisses the porter’s commentary into brackets shows us a lot about Charles’s attitude to his guide. Brilliant.

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6. Status

Quote of the day:

‘Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death …Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free.’ Jessamyn West


Historical Fiction – Ten Editing Tools. No 1 – Light


Light Petrus_van_Schendel_Market_by_candlelight
Petrus van Schendel ‘Market by Candlelight’

The power of place and atmosphere is what drove me to first pick up my pen and try to write something set in the past. A useful editing tool to enliven your novel is to go through the draft and examine the quality of the light. Before the advent of artificial illumination, the lack of easy light can be a powerful indicator of mood and tone, and emphasise the period in which you are writing.

To our forbears the hot, dense sky of summer was an enormous contrast to the tingling sharpness of a frosty December.

Dawn has its own paricular colour, from pale amber in soot-smoked London to the transparent quasi-mauve of a morning in the desert.

Imagine the light filtering through heavy Victorian lace curtains, or slicing through the cracks of seventeenth century shutters.

People gather around the glimmer of a fire, or avoid the darkness of unlit streets. A night, rooms are pooled in gold from candles or lanterns, and are thick with gloom in the dark corners.

Specific locations have unique auras in terms of light. Conquered cities lie under a yellow pall, the sun dulled by dust or smoke. In the distance an army approaches, seen only by the quick flash of sun on shield.

The sea throws off light in innumerable ways – a sparkle over luminous turquoise, or thrashing foam over shining scales. Reflections from water move in exquisite and unusual forms.

Light Sauer_river_near_Esch-sur-Sûre_7;_reflection_of_sunlight_in_water
Reflection of Light on a River

The English weather is notoriously changeable, and can easily be contrasted with the harsh flat light of the unchanging heat of (for example) Cairo.

I used to work in the theatre, where correct lighting could transform a scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and I have never forgotten that lesson. The more specific the lighting, the better. ‘Night fell’ tells me nothing, but how much more threatening is; ‘the ball of the sun collapsed under the line of the mountains, turning them briefly to jagged peaks, before the dark closed around us like a hand.’

In the painting below, the long shadows of the approach of evening and the darkness of the sea emphasise how long this woman has been waiting.


Light Alma Tadema alma02
Expectation by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

And of course light is a symbol, one of the most common allegories of good and evil. So use your chiaroscuro to paint the moral complexities of the novel as well as the setting.

You can read my post on Lighting in the Seventeenth Century here

A post on 36 adjectives describing light here

Seven Deadly Sins of Historical Fiction here

Pictures from wiki commons


Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Virtue no 5 – The Absence of Media


Depending on wtulip papers_posthich era you are writing in, you will find that less media existed, than does now. First there was the voice, then writing, then printing, then the telephone, then computing and finally – Lord help us – the internet. Instant messaging means writers of contemporary fiction simply cannot escape the ever-present difficulty of characters in peril with their mobile phones still hot in their hands, and the non-stop flurry of communication and instant messaging via social media means news travels instantaneously.

But this is an obvious advantage. Time delays in communication do, of course, add to plot and suspense. The letter that fails to arrive, the deserted isolated spot with nobody to hear you scream, the cut wires of the telephone. But a more subtle aspect of the lack of media in times past, is the sheer newness of information. In the century I am writing in right now, (1660’s), news sheets were in their infancy, pictures were crude woodcuts, and nothing was in colour. Portraits of people were not always a good likeness, as painting was stylised, and most ordinary people never sat for portraits.  If you heard about something – a  new invention, a new fashion, a newly discovered species from another land, you had to see it with your own eyes. The instant you first saw something – or someone, it was a special moment, because you had not examined them as an avatar for weeks, or googled them.

The particutwo-tulipslar freshness of seeing something for the first time is something we should all bear in mind when writing historical fiction. This is what we want for our readers as well as for the characters, so this mind-set works well when writing stories set in the past. We must also bear in mind that comparisons we might use, such as ‘wide as the ocean’ might not be appropriate when a person in all probability might never have travelled far enough to see the sea. Their world was a narrow one, filled with local particulars. This is why different varieties of tulip became a sensation, why people queued for hours for a glimpse of the King’s mistresses. Their world was also one where people described events and people in detail. There were no photographs to pass round, but gossip was eagerly shared in taverns and coffee-shops, and below and above stairs.

‘Is it not strange, this madness that has gripped us?’ asks Cornelius.

‘What madness?’ asks the painter.

‘Have you surrendered to the passion yet?’

The painter pauses. ‘It depends what passion you are talking about.’

‘This speculation on tulip bulbs! Great fortunes have been made and lost. These new hybrids that they have been growing – they fetch the most astonishing prices.  Thousands of florins, if you know when to buy and sell..’ Cornelius’s voice rises with excitement; he too has greatly profited from this tulipomania.

‘Why, the Semper Augustus bulb – they are the most beautiful and the most valuable – one bulb sold last week for six fine horses, three oxheads of wine, a dozen sheep, two dozen silver goblets and a seascape by Esaias van de Velde!’  Tulip Fever – Deborah Moggach

I find it interesting to try to strike a balance – it is tempting to describe things that would have been obvious and unremarkable to our characters – ‘she picked up the leather bag and placed it on the wooden table under the mullioned windows’, which is a kind of generic ‘pseudo-historical’ big brush-stroke description, and forget to give full description to something the person might never have seen before.

  The weather is cold but the sea is flat. Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.   Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

You might like this The Book Women of Westminster  about 17thC female booksellers

My previous posts on the Virtues of Historical Fiction, the Sins are here.

Virtue no 1 – Bravery

Virtue no 2 – The Non-fiction Novel

Virtue No 3 – Past Does Not Exist

Virtue No 4 – Old Crafts and Writing

Blog Reviews

Historical Fiction – learning from ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’

Nightingale 2Vianne and Isabelle are sisters whose challenge is to survive after the fall of France to the Nazis in WWII. Vianne’s house is requisitioned by the Gestapo, whilst her husband is away fighting, leading to knife-edge tensions as she tries to protect her daughter Sophie, and her Jewish neighbour, and best friend, Rachel. Meanwhile, rebellious Isabelle thinks her sister too passive, and joins the rebel partisans in the French resistance. Isabelle moves back to Paris to live with her father, with whom she has a less than warm relationship. She falls in love, but the relationship cannot blossom under these dangerous circumstances. Isabelle eventually becmes responsible for saving downed airmemn by leading them across the Pyrenees and into Spain, until she is caught – with harrowing consequences.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.

For a historical fiction writer, Kristin Hannah’s book is a masterclass in maintaining tension through plot and character. It is not just the setting that creates the edge-of-the-seat drama. Both female characters are strong in their own way, with allegiances for which they are prepared to sacrifice everything. For both women, every chapter contains a harsh choice to be made, and one that will affect not just the protagonist, but those vulnerable people who under her care. The choices also force the women at each step to re-evaluate their position, and so each of the sisters changes and grows through the story. Both women make mistakes, but this adds to their humanity as they do their best to make the right decisions when every choice could lead to disaster. For me this was a five star read that I couldn’t put down, and when I’d finished I wanted to start all over again to see just how she did it.

Christoval AlvarezIt is the year 1586. England is awash with traitors, plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and bring about a foreign invasion. ‘The young physician Christoval Alvarez, a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, becomes a reluctant spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage service. His religion is one secret, but I shan’t spoil the surprise by telling you about Christoval’s other, and even more dangerous secret. Despite the espionage theme, this is a novel that relies not on plot, or even on tension, but on immersion to hold the reader. Ann Swinfen’s descriptions of Tudor London are lengthy, but also delicious.

A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.

Reading this first book in the series I was transported effortlessly to late 16thc London. The plot meanders a little in the middle, because as it is based on the real events of the Babington plot, not everything can fit conveniently to move the reader on. This didn’t matter though, because what the book showed me was that authenticity of setting, and the application of the right detail adds an enormous amount for a historical fiction reader. I read historical fiction to be taken to another time and place with all its sounds, sights and smells, and at this, Ann Swinfen is a master. I shall be reading the rest of this series. Very highly recommended.

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 6 – the Aura of an Era

Frans Hals Portrait of Isabella Coymans (wikipedia)

One of the things that attracts writers of historical fiction, is the lure of the past – its costumes, its pageantry, its beautiful buildings and architecture, many imbued with a craftsmanship mostly lost to us today. Often great love and attention is devoted to describing these scenes in detail. In fact it is essential, to let the reader know from the outset whether we are in 1530 or 1830.

The trouble is, it is not these things that make a reader feel as if he or she is immersed in the past. The aura of an era is not conjured through describing its artifacts, although this does add atmosphere. The thing that really makes us understand we are in a different place and time is the attitudes of the characters.

If a character thinks that slavery is a welcome thing, then that sets our character firmly in another era. Writers are squeamish about this, thinking that readers will think these values from the past are their views. But surprise, surprise – the reader is perfectly able to distinguish between your fictional world and you. Writers also fear that the character will be unlikable, and that these views will alienate the reader. Actually, if handled sensitively, they will fascinate the reader. It gives the reader a glimpse of where we have come from – how far we have come in our thinking in the last few hundred years.

The aura of an era is portrayed mainly through the mindset of its people. By reflecting their concerns (‘Will the Dutch invade?’ ‘Will Henry’s men pull down our monastery?’ ‘Is the plague in the next town?’) we give a unique insight into a different society. So the society where men were encouraged to beat their wives was also the society which was passionate about defending ‘the weaker sex’, and the society where every man had to, by law, practice shooting arrows into a possible enemy, was also the society which feared literal brimstone and fire as the reward for taking another’s life. These contradictions within society form the inner struggle of your characters.

Adhering closely to the customs of the time lends reality, but can also lead to some difficulties in fiction. In earlier centuries women were not supposed to speak first, and had to defer to their ‘betters’. This can lead to female characters appearing passive and dull, as the society did not allow them to take the initiative. The solution is to give the reader the sense of that restriction – ‘She knew she should not speak, and yet she could not restrain herself. Her words burst forth in an angry torrent.’

The same sort of difficulties apply to the servant classes, and to anyone of perceived low status. But the answer to the problem is nearly always to use the restriction to give resistance and then show the character’s strength by having them break through those societal and cultural norms. It does not have to be open resistance – a secret rebellion can be just as effective. ‘She placed the mistress’s shoes side by side, left shoe to the right, and right shoe to the left. This small act of sabotage amused her.’

There is also a great article and discussion by Dave King on Writer Unboxed on making sure you take account of class, the structure of society which formed the bedrock of English history.

Others in this series:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Deadly Sin 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Deadly Sin 5 – The Length of Time