Blog Writing Craft

Introverts and Extroverts in Historical Fiction

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I recently came on a discussion in a facebook group about introverts and extroverts in fiction. (Sorry to whoever started this thread; I can’t find it again now!) But it really made me stop and think, because as a reader I have always been a fan of what I call ‘quiet books’. The more page-turning a book is, the less memorable. So as a writer I need to find a balance between the speed my reader devours the book, and the feeling or memory that the book leaves behind, both of which rely on slowing the pace.


The fashion these days in books on the craft of writing is to tell you to concentrate on high action and drama and to have plenty at stake in an external way. This is what we see a lot of in film and TV drama, when the focus is on the physical demonstration of action. In these media, it’s necessary because we have no access to the interior thoughts of the characters.

But novels are different, and as a novelist I’ve always been much more interested the in motivation of my characters. They act, but not necessarily in a high stakes way. The suggestion that some readers might prefer to read about introverted characters, but that most fiction is aimed at extroverts, is a refreshing idea.

What is an introvert, and what might they want to read?

According to Healthline Carl Jung wrote that introverts and extroverts could be separated based on how they regain energy. Introverts prefer a less stimulating environment, and need time on their own to recharge their energy levels, whereas extroverts recharge by social interaction and being with other people.

It made me wonder if introverts prefer reading books written in the first person, where the ‘I’ conveys the inner feelings of the protagonist, and it is as if you are the only person through whom the story is being told. Perhaps a more extrovert reader would prefer multiple points of view and multiple characters which would mimic their preferred way to refuel?

Drawing Room Drama

In historical fiction, the history that has survived is often of the ‘high stakes’ variety. War, bitter battles for control over crown or state, murderous religious divides. Yet one of the most enduring historical fiction periods is the Regency period, presided over by the giant Jane Austen, whose quiet wit, and focus on the drawing room intrigues of societies marriage market, prove endlessly popular.

The Spectrum

As a reader I enjoy both types of fiction, but I couldn’t read an endless diet of historical thrillers. The non-stop breathless action makes me long for a quieter book. I suspect that like most readers, I am on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert, but heading more towards the introvert. As a writer, I need to recharge often after my most dramatic scenes, as I am literally living them as I write.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you like to read about introverted characters, or must they always be the ‘go-getting’ adventurous type? What type of books do you like to read, and would you categorize yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

Blog Writing Craft

Secrets of Historical Fiction versus Non-Fiction by Annie Whitehead

I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog today. Annie is both a historical novelist and a historian, and here she lets us into her writing secrets. Over to Annie:Whitehead

September 15 2018 saw the publication of my first full-length nonfiction book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and sometimes look at the pages and think, ‘Did I actually write this? How?’

But then, sometimes I look at my historical novels, and think the same thing, so perhaps it wasn’t that difficult.

I do remember that the research process for the nonfiction book was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that authors of historical fiction don’t do diligent research, but this was different, somehow. There were many points at which I had to think not ‘Why did this character behave in this way?’ but ‘Do we definitely know that he did this?’ I had to be absolutely sure, or it couldn’t go in the book, at least not without some exploration of the veracity of the source in question. I found the research very stop-start, whereas the fiction research could sometimes be left to one side: I’d write the chapter, and then go back to fill in the details about what the characters would have been eating/drinking/wearing.

I’m sure all fiction authors will be familiar with the brackets, or the red text that will prompt them to go back and fill in exactly how many hours a certain journey might have taken at a given time of year and precisely which type of carriage/horse/train would have been used.

I did find though, that once I had all the research in place, the writing process for the nonfiction was perhaps easier because I had everything I needed; it was then just a question of putting it all in the right places.

So my experience would suggest that:

Fiction = do as much research as you need in order to get the scene written, but don’t let the research slow your flow.

Nonfiction = don’t write a word of your book, not even the introduction, until all your research is done.

Which do I prefer? Well, that’s really difficult. Writing fiction, there were times when I was happy that there was a gap in the records. When characters disappear from the pages of the chronicles, the author is at liberty to make up all sorts of stuff about them behind their backs. Gaps in the records don’t help the nonfiction author much though, leaving little choice but to say, ‘We simply don’t know.’

The reverse is also true: When we know for a fact that a person was in a certain place at a certain time, it makes piecing together the nonfiction story so much eWhitehead 1asier. But it’s very inconvenient if that person’s known and recorded presence gets in the way of a good fiction story arc. Then comes the difficult choice of removing them altogether or changing the dates. Either of those decisions might be frowned upon by readers.

My nonfiction book is a history of Mercia, and by the time I wrote it I’d written three novels all set in this ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom and all written about characters who actually lived. In the course of my research, I discovered new (to me) evidence about some of these people, which I thought might be at odds with my original portrayals, but I found that I was able to keep my nonfiction, historian’s hat on throughout the writing process, and could separate my fictional characters from my factual subjects.


I’d come to an especially tricky period of Mercian history, where kings chopped and changed almost with the days of the week, and at a time when murder was still as good a way as any of removing ones’ political rivals.

In the early eighth century the royal dynasty which had retained power from the middle of the seventh century was on the wane. A successful king, Æthelred, son of the famous pagan king, Penda, had won supremacy over the powerful Northumbrian kings, and decided that his latter years would be better spent in contemplation, so he abdicated and retired to a monastery. He had a hand in choosing his successor and, though he had a son, Ceolred, he chose his nephew, Coenred, to take his place. The nephew reigned for a few years, to be succeeded by Æthelred’s son. It seems Æthelred was right not to pass the kingship immediately to this son, who turned out to be rather feckless and Ceolred seems to have been pretty much universally loathed. Some even think that he was poisoned.

The official history then declares that the crown passed to Æthelbald, who was no direct relation of the previous kings and reigned successfully for the best part of half a century.


Whitehead DSCF4260There is one – just one – mention of another ‘C’ king, by the name of Ceolwald. Was he another son of Æthelred’s? If not, where did he come from? What happened to him? Whoever he was, his reign, according to this particular list, was sandwiched between that of Ceolred and Æthelbald.

Ceolred died in 716, and Æthelbald succeeded in 716. So where did Ceolwald fit in? If he had indeed been related to the ‘C’ kings, and if indeed he became king, then he surely didn’t reign for very long and this hints at some kind of palace coup. And for the historian, that’s it. That’s all we can say about him, unless we follow the example of one eminent historian who simply declared that the one and only source which mentioned him had ‘simply got it wrong.’

But oh, how the novelist part of my brain was whirring! Of course, if he were to be included in the plot of a novel, he’d have to be introduced so much earlier.  Was he the brother of the feckless king? Was it he who administered the poison? How did he then get bumped off? I got quite giddy with the possibilities and, who knows, he might just make an appearance if I write a third novel in my series about Penda and his family.

Research is never wasted. Whether it involves the chasing down of every charter issued by a certain king or finding out when the fork was first used at English dining tables, it all adds to the files. For nonfiction, we can try to pin down every known detail, which is extremely satisfying, and for fiction we can base chapters and chapters on one single record. Both are equally rewarding.

Photograph above is Annie’s own, the Repton Stone, said to depict King Æthelbald.
Find Annie on the links below:
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture 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 News Writing Craft

Writing a Historical Fiction Trilogy for Teens

Lady of the Highway, the third book in my highway series for teens (andLady of the Highway adults!) has just been released by Endeavour Press, so I thought I’d share with you some of the highs and lows of writing a historical fiction trilogy, and in particular a teen trilogy. There are very few teen books that are simple historicals with no fantasy, witchcraft or other supernatural elements, so my trilogy has a nod to the unseen in books two and three, but only in keeping with the world view of the time. It is more history and definitely not fantasy. For popular YA historicals, you can find a list here.

In terms of writing for teens, I checked that every word would be something accessible to someone under twenty, and that the pace was somewhat quicker than my adult novels. Where I needed to use historical words I was extra-careful with the context. Young people vary enormously in their reading ability and in their experience, and perhaps some would never have read a historical novel before. My test-readers were ruthless, and it was easy to be discouraged by their comments. I kept having to remind myself that I was sure I would have loved this at sixteen, when I was already reading ‘Rebecca’, but wanted something with protagonists more my own age. My (mostly female) test readers were divided about whether it was necessary to ‘like’ a character for the book to be appealing. At some point, I knew I would need to deal with the fact that Katherine was often wilful and insesnsitive to others – she was ‘the wicked lady’ after all!

To differentiate between the books I was keen to give each book a different protagonist – and try to bring their different voices to life; Abigail the deaf maidservant, Ralph who railed against authority and wanted to build a new world, and Kate the impulsive and changeable Lady of the Manor, yet I also wanted to keep them in the same general tone, and for the books to be about the same length. Having three different protagonists was a juggling act, and I worried that readers would like one character more than the others, and be disappointed when I moved on to tell the continuing story from another point of view. Surprisingly, a few girls said they never read books with a main character who was a boy, and would not be persuaded to try Spirit of the Highway – something to bear in mind, if you want to tell a story from a male point of view.

Unfortunately, you can’t bend history, and people’s knowledge of history can be very variable, so I included historical notes in all the books. Some historical notes had to be repeated in all three books – such as notes on Cavaliers and Roundheads, and the Diggers sect – but so far no-one has complained about this repetition. In terms of the timeline, the Battle of Worcester had to be in the middle book, even though the middle book is really the set-up for the end of the trilogy, but it was important for the series as it embodied, in a few scenes, what the English Civil War might be like for those caught up in the actual battle. In the end, the battle served a useful purpose for me – these few battlefield scenes helped to give plenty of action without too much highway robbery, which I was saving for the third book.

Each book has it’s own beginning, middle, and end, and must follow the theme and conflict of the series. In this trilogy about highway robbery my big debate was; how much highway action is too much? I didn’t want the theme to become repetitive. The first book was Spirit-of-the-Highway-Cover300x461low-key as far as that was concerned because I was saving big set pieces for the last book, and needed to concentrate on the dynamics of building the relationships between the characters. But I had several reviews for Shadow on the Highway saying the reader was disappointed because they expected more highway action. When you’re still writing the same series, critical reviews can be painful, but also a learning curve. I still get those reviews for single books in the trilogy, but I did increase tension and the general pace overall to make it feel more exciting in the second book, and the whole series has nine hold-ups on the highway – which I think must be surely enough for anybody!!

In a trilogy, you need the action to increase with each book, but this can be a problem in the first book, where readers expect all the emotional pay-off of the last book in the first, yet you still have to save a twist or something bigger for the ending of the whole series. In the real-life story, the protagonists die (as you might expect – this is history after all!) and the deaths are a big part of the story, but too many tragedies all at once could sink the ending. So each death has its own place in the trilogy where I can give it enough emotional weight. (Can’t give too much away here!)

For the writer, the second and third books are not new in terms of historical setting or character, but I had to assume that although this is the second (or third) book in a series, the reader may have started in the middle. The characters and settings still need an introduction, as do minor characters and outstanding conflicts and dilemmas. The shiftng historical context can be difficult to explain if it has progressed in the course of your story. In book three I had a lot of explaining to do about the changed state of England, now that the King was in exile and Shadow on the Highway (1)Cromwell was in charge. These explanations all eat up words, and can be dull for those readers who have already understood the history by reading book one. I had to be careful for the books not to get thicker and thicker as the series went on. I hid most of the explanations in dialogue to make the pace move quicker, and inserted ‘highlghts’ of previous action with one or two carefully chosen phrases.

In historical fiction readers often know the ending so you can’t change history, but nevertheless you need to try to make the ending happen in a way that the reader doesn’t expect. At the same time loose ends of the whole trilogy must be resolved. I had an antagonist who didn’t get justice in the first book, and skipped a whole book before reappearing in the last book for his come-uppance.

Multiple protagonists are not an easy choice because each must have high stakes in the drama. This can make it hard for the reader to get a break from the tension, and give the impression that everything is over-hyped like in a TV soap opera. For three people all to  have life-threatening exploits can make it feel exhausting. However I kept stability by keeping the setting – Markyate Manor, Katherine’s home, as the centre of the drama to provide a gravitational centre. If you have an action-packed series, a consistently recogniseable ‘home’ setting will help ground the book.

Fewer people will read the last book than read the first and I didn’t really consider this when I was writing. This is just natural wastage – not everyone will be hooked enough on the series to read them all. And I did make people wait to read Katherine Fanshawe’s point of view until the end, which has both advantages and disadvantages. A bit like writing about the six wives of Henry VIII and leaving Anne Boleyn until last!

If you are writing a trilogy (or have written one) do chip in with your thoughts. Here’s an extract for your pleasure!


Chapter One

Spectres in the Dark

England. Winter 1651

The lantern on the flag floor gave only a glimmer of light. I fastened the harness by feel, remembering how I’d seen the servants do it, hoping I’d done it right. Curses. It was taking too long. All the time I kept shooting a glance over my shoulder. The dark recess behind me made me nervous; something might be waiting, cloaked in liquid shadow, just out of sight.

I shook off the sensation and climbed up onto the trap. With a flick of the whip, Pepper, sensing my urgency, broke into a fast trot. I hoped he could see more than I could, as the hedges jolted past in a blur. Dusk had melted to darkness and the narrow rutted lane was pooled with the shadows of trees. The moon was yet to rise. There was no noise except the clatter of iron hooves and the creak of wheels on stones.

Past the village green, past houses with battened windows, down a stony bridleway until I came to a cottage on its own. A one-roomed cottage with a byre attached. Through the crack of the shutter I glimpsed the tremor of movement and a glow within, from a fire. I leapt down and hammered on the door.

‘Who’s there?’ A wary voice.

‘Katherine Fanshawe. Open the door.’

Silence from the other side.

I pounded with my fists. ‘Mrs Binch! It’s about my maidservant,’ I cried. ‘Abigail Chaplin. She’s ill. She needs help.’

‘Cease your banging! D’you want to wake the dead? Who else is with you?’

‘Nobody. I’m alone. Don’t you remember Abi?’

The scrape of the bar being lifted, and then the door swung open.

Mrs Binch, her hair pulled back into a long plait under her nightcap, kept one hand pressed on the jamb to keep me out.

‘What’s this about Abigail?’ She did not curtsey to me, and her eyes were suspicious.

‘She’s been coughing these last five nights. I don’t think she can stand much more.’

‘Why? What’s the matter?’

‘She coughs like she can’t catch her breath, like it will break her bones. And she’s a fever. I’ve no skill in medicine.’

‘Five nights, you say?’ Mrs Binch pulled her knitted shawl tight across her chest and frowned. ‘So you’re expecting me to come out in the middle of the night, are you?’

‘No. That’s not what I meant,’ I said. ‘It’s just… ’ This was awkward. Mrs Binch used to be my cook, but she had left me without notice, and now I was forced into asking her a favour. ‘I’m not good with sick people,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do, and she’s so poorly. I know she liked you, and I’m afraid for her.’

Mrs Binch’s expression softened. She opened the door wider, and hustled me inside.

She tutted through her teeth. ‘All those deaths. It’s not natural. And now Abigail. They’re saying you’re bad luck in the village. My son thinks the Fanshawes are cursed. He won’t like it if I go anywhere near the Manor.’

‘He doesn’t have to know,’ I said firmly. ‘There’s only Abi and I living there. Won’t you hurry?’

‘Hold your horses. I’m not your servant now, and an ‘if you please’ would help. You can’t just barge in here and expect me to drop everything to do your bidding.’

‘Mrs Binch,’ I gripped her by the arm, ‘this is no time to argue. If you don’t come soon, she might die.’

That settled it. Mrs Binch fixed me with an assessing gaze. Satisfied at last, she swung open the oak cupboard on the wall and picked out jars and pots, scrutinizing their contents. ‘Have you any mint?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said, stamping my feet, wishing she’d hurry, ‘I don’t think so.’

‘What about menthol? Or mustard?’

‘No.’ Markyate Manor had nothing. The cupboards were bare. ‘Have you everything you need?’ I said, but Mrs Binch would not be pressed. She disappeared into the back room, and emerged tying up a warm wool skirt and bodice, before counting the items methodically into her basket. Finally I managed to bustle her out and help her up onto the trap.

‘Don’t drive too fast, mind. My old bones won’t stand it,’ she said.

I gritted my teeth and set off as fast as I dare. Now she was up there, there wasn’t much Mrs Binch could do about it, and I was anxious about Abi, all alone in the big house. I’d left her sleeping, and I didn’t want her to wake up to find the house empty, and me gone.

Pepper trotted at a lick through the lane, at my urgent flapping of the reins. I didn’t know how long I’d been away, but every minute mattered.

‘Slow down!’ came Mrs Binch’s voice from behind me.

As if he’d heard her, Pepper shied, and let out a neigh. An answering neigh from the darkness ahead.

I pulled Pepper to a halt, and listened.

‘What’s wrong?’ Mrs Binch asked.

‘I don’t know, someone else on the road.’ But I could see no lights from any carriage lantern. I slackened the reins and listened.

‘Who’s there?’ I called.


‘Probably just one of Soper’s horses in the field,’ Mrs Binch said. But I was uneasy. Pepper’s ears were back. Before us, the lane was a lightless tunnel. I thought of Abi, her chamber fire dwindling to ash whilst I was gone, and clicked to get Pepper going again. But he was spooked now, and skittish. Still, I drove him forward.

The trees leaned over us; the woods dense stripes of darkness each side. Ahead, a paler light marked where the tunnel of trees ended, so I slapped the reins to Pepper’s neck to make him trot through. A flash of movement to my left and another horse shot out of the trees. Mrs Binch screamed. At the same moment, Pepper stumbled and veered, causing the trap to shudder.

In one glance my eyes took in a broad-shouldered man with a wide-brimmed hat shadowing his face. He was astride a huge horse; seventeen hands, if it was an inch. I took in all this, though something else had hooked my attention – the dull glint of a pistol, a miniature cannon, pointing right now at my chest.

Read more

Want a searchable list of historical fiction series set in a particular period? Go here

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – 7 Virtues. No 3 – The Past Does Not Exist

Prague Astronomical Clock Tower
Prague Astronomical Clock Tower

This might seem like a rather existentialist title, especially as in one sense we a brought to look at the past every time we read a newspaper or trawl online for yesterday’s sports scores.

But in this article on a new theory of time, Jonathan O Callaghan says that ‘When you ask people, “Tell me about the passage of time,” they usually make a metaphor,’ he said. ‘They say time flows like a river, or we move through time like a ship sailing through the sea.’ We often hear the phrase, ‘Time’s Arrow’, or some other image which produces in us the idea of time as a linear ordered entity.

But all novelists, espcially those who write historical fiction, know this to be untrue. Our books weave timescales in the way that best tells the story. We are not subject to that linear construction where time cannot be malleable, and everything must be in a fixed order.

In the new theory of Time, scientist Dr Bradford Skow maintains that the idea of time flowing like a river is not correct, and that space-time is what he calls a ‘block universe’ – one where past, present and future all co-exist. ‘The histories of the universe,’ says Stephen Hawking, (Huffington Post) ‘depend on what is being measured, contrary to the usual idea that the universe has an objective observer-independent history.’ So, all history is an illusion. As a novelists I have long suspected this to be true, but nonetheless we storytellers are the ones whose histories live longest in the minds of humanity.

It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

says Hilary Mantel in her excellent in-depth article in The New Yorker

Well, I can’t say I have ever encountered a ghost, but I feel the ghost-like presence of my characters – the ones in the finished novels, and the ones in my current work-in-progress, the characters who are still lurking as half-formed presences, calling to be made concrete on paper. And historical personages loom large because they have the accretions of previous storytellers, wearing their own stories like armour. It can be hard to penetrate to the real breathing person beneath. I admire anyone who decides to write about Anne Boleyn or Richard III. Their publisher and agent might leap for glee, but the novelist will have to work hard to crack through the carapace. Still, it is this that fascinates – the power to bring the dead back to life, to make them living, breathing ghosts in the mind of the reader. For the time you are reading, that person, long-since dead, is in the room with you, but when you look up from the page there is nobody there.

In Skow’s ‘block universe’, our ghosts can appear at any point on the space-time continuum.

On the flexibilty of time, Robert Lanza M.D. says:

Choices you haven’t made yet might determine which of your childhood friends are still alive, or whether your dog got hit by a car yesterday. In fact, you might even collapse realities that determine whether Noah’s Ark sank. “The universe,” said John Haldane, “is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Hothouse FlowerLife after LifeThis view of time as infinitely flexible gives us great opportunities in fiction – particularly in historical fiction. Apart from time-travelling, such as in  dual time narratives such as The Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley, (1930’s and present day), and my own novel Past Encounters, (1940’s and 1950’s) there is also the oppurtunity to bend time even more, as in Kate Atinson’s Life after Life. This is something I’d like to do much more, to play with cause and effect, effect and cause, and how, as in Robert Lanza’s view, they can be mutually arising.

The past does not exist. This is a virtue only historical fiction can give us, the ability to juxtapose two narratives from different time periods, and try to understand how, at some deeper level, they are sewn seamlessly together.


Picures from wiki-commons


Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Virtue no 2 The Non-Fiction Novel

The ‘non-fictSchindlers Arkion novel’ was a phrase originally used by Truman Capote in 1966  to describe his book ‘In Cold Blood – A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences.’ Since then, true crimes have been fictionalised with much success, books such as ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ leading to a slew of similar copycat books. Historical fiction often unwittingly falls into the category of the ‘non-fiction novel’. It can be difficult for the reader to decide – are the events in the book true? How much is fiction and how much is fact? ‘Schindler’s Ark’ for example, was published as non-fiction in the US but won the Booker prize for fiction here in the UK.

I once asked Peter Ackroyd, the English novelist and biographer, what the difference was between his novels and his biographies. He said to me, in his deadpan way, “In biographies you can make things up. In novels you are obliged to tell the truth.”

Jay Parini The Atlantic Magazine

Readers of historical fiction have become more and more concerned with accuracy, and this is partly because of the pressures of the publishing world for the writer to find a ‘marquee name’, i.e. a popular historical figure that the reader might already be familiar with.

Nancy Horan’s 2007 novel Loving Frank, about the private life of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, followed by Paula McLain’s 2011 hit The Paris Wife, told from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, has made publishers eager for stories that draw heavily on biography but wriggle out of its ethical constraints.

Paris WifeIn particular, recently writers have been quick to exploit the hidden lives of famous men’s wives – everyone wants to know what went on in their private lives, and who better to tell you than the wives? And of course the novelist can invent the domestic milieu. This has meant that books about famous historical figures dominate traditionally-published historical fiction titles. With this comes the ‘faction’ problem – or opportunity – depending on which way you look at it. The more enormous the figure in history, the more ‘accurate’ the biographical portrayal has to be to satisfy readers, who may already have preconceptions about the character. Many books I would label as historical novels are now labelled as ‘historical biographical fiction’, and the assumption is that these books will be ‘accurate’, judged by the standards of non-fiction.

[in the notes, writers]will explain where they drew the line between what was documented and what was fiction, who was “real” and who was not. But this is not how novel-reading works. If a novel does its job and draws us into the world it creates so we can’t see the edges, we won’t keep checking with the notes in the back to see what we can trust. We surrender to the characters.

Quotations from Joanna Scutts The Slate Book Review

But insistence as novelists that we are historically accurate ignores the slippery fact that all history is a construct. I remember researching George Fox’s Diaries for ‘The Lady’s Slipper’, so I could be accurate, only to find he’d cleaned up his own diaries even before he died, in his own lifetime, thus subtly subverting his own ‘truth’. But then perhaps one man’s view can never be the absolute truth.

History is, of course, a made thing. It does not exist by itself in anything like a recognizable form. Indeed, we might all forget where we have been, if we didn’t have somebody to assemble and arrange the little blocks called facts from which history is constructed, artfully or less so. As Foner put it in his keynote address, “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination.”

Jay Parini The Atlantic Magazine

But the virtue of the popularity of history told through a novelist’s eyes is increased identification with the character in the period. Of course, this is a double-edged sword – Joanna Scutts warns us against thinking people in the past were just like us.

But the idea that it is easy to imagine ourselves into a “relatable” and recognizable past, where people wore different clothes but thought basically as we do about love, happiness, and independence, is a cheap trick that flatters us at the expense of history and literature alike. This isn’t just fiction, it’s fan fiction—a fantasy built over the historical trace of a person we admire and wish we could know.

Quotations from Joanna Scutts The Slate Book Review

From the film, Schindler’s List, based on Thomas Keneally’s book.

Nevertheless, the fact that readers are hungry for this sort of fiction about real people and events provides us with a great opportunity, to bring the past to life, to populate it with credible characters, and as Peter Ackroyd says to ‘tell the truth’ about the unchanging human condition.

You might also like:

Historical Fiction – Seven Virtues

Virtue 1 – Bravery

Historical Fiction : Seven Deadly Sins

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

Deadly Sin 6 – The Aura of an Era

Deadly Sin 7 – Mistaking if for a Genre

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Seven Virtues – No 1 Bravery

PZ 400:06 Inv 4214 Viktor Vasnetsov: Warrior at the Crossroads, 1882 The Russian Museum
The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov 1882
Having thought about what might constitute the Seven Deadly Sins in Historical Fiction, I’m now getting a little balance by paying attention to the Seven Virtues. And one of them for certain is bravery, and by this, I mean courage with the language. It is a chance for us to wield words from the past and words from the present to give a unique flavour to what we are writing, and somehow breathe life into the period.
One of the most unusual novels of recent times is The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, set just before the Norman Invasion.
He claims his language is ‘written in a tongue that no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.’
the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness
none will loc but the wind will cum. the wind cares not for the hopes of men
the times after will be for them who seen the cuman
the times after will be for the waecend
I loved the fact that there are no capital letters, which somehow gives the impression of uncials. Part of what made the book strange was its uncompromisingly unlikable but realistic protagonist, but part of it was the way the language drew you in to a simpler time, and supported this violent, even sadistc view of life. For the opposite extreme, take this example, from  Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Hawksmoor’, a mannered version of the 18th century – almost, but not quite a pastiche. In this novel, taking place in two time periods, the past and present are contrasted in their language.
 Is Dust immhawksmoor-by-peter-ackroydortal then, I ask’d him, so that we may see it blowing through the Centuries? But as Walter gave no Answer I jested with him further to break his Melancholy humour: What is Dust, Master Pyne?
And he reflected a little: It is particles of Matter, no doubt.
Then we are all Dust indeed, are we not?
And in a feigned Voice he murmered, For Dust thou art and shalt to Dust return. Then he made a Sour face, but only to laugh the more.
Here, modern spelling, grammar and capitalization have been jettisoned in favour of something that will help us to feel our way into the past through the language itself, not just what it depicts. The medium has become the message.
One of the difficulties of attempting something this bold is that it puts the author’s voice slap bang in front of the reader. So it is a brave writer who moulds the language in this way – and I have to say, probably a literary writer, because the bravery has to exist on both sides of the divide – the writer and the reader. Not many readers are prepared to work that hard, but the hope is, of course, that the reader will soon become immersed in the work, despite the fact that the text cannot easily become ‘invisible.’ But this is something that is rarely attempted in contemporary fiction. There is something about history and the rich dictionary and etymology of the past that demands exploration, and is almost irresistible for a writer. Even without describing a single setting, the language alone can, tardis-like, transport us back in time.
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 7 – mistaking it for a genre

The gothic splendour of Kenilworth Castle

Like most readers of historical fiction, I have my favourite eras. I love the seventeenth century, the Tudors and the medieval period, with the occasional foray into Victoriana, WWII and Greek myth. So I am unlikely to purchase anything set in the Napoleonic era,  Roman times, or the Dark Ages – that is, unless you work extra-hard to persuade me!

Also, I have a penchant for dark gothic stories set in castles or old houses (you can blame an early passion for ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’ for that!) so a historical romance would have to be quite gritty for me to want to read it.

So – I’m a fussy reader – like nearly everyone else. This is a problem for historical fiction writers who want readers to find their books. We have to not only find those readers interested in history, but also those limited few with an enthusiasm for our particular era and tastes.

But more importantly than this, there are different types of stories even within this narrow readership. Some readers are looking for concept-driven stories – books for the book club market often naturally fall into this category. Some literary historical novels are driven by the psychology of the characters, and some, such as historical mysteries are all about the intricacies of the plot. Some readers enjoy epic novels with a wide sweep, some enjoy books focused on one historical personage, such as Anne Boleyn. ‘Wolf Hall’ is not the same as ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, is not the same as Sansom’s ‘Dissolution’.

So, deadly sin no 7 is thinking that all readers of historical fiction are the same. They are not, and paying attention to what the reader expects is courteous. It is a question of tone, and working out where your novel falls on the spectrum. A historical thriller might contain explicit sex and gore which would be inappropriate for a novel of manners set in the time of Jane Austen. Your novel may be concept-driven, plot-driven or character-driven, in differing combinations. Each historical novel is individual, and creates its own atmosphere and reality.

Picture from Gina’s Library – click to check out her blog which features historical fiction

The thing that all historical fiction readers require though is genuine immersion in the past, and a momentum that will carry them through the story. So the key to understanding your reader and your tone is to look at other popular writers who have written the kind of book you are writing. Analyse the other author’s successful book in detail. What creates the tension and momentum? How much description? How much inner dialogue? How fast does the book move?

Check out another author’s amazon reviews for what makes that book a success. Here’s an example of an ordinary reader’s amazon review from Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with A Pearl Earring:

Girl with a Pearl Earring‘This book appears so simple on the outside, it’s only after you finish it that you realise how complex and rewarding it is. On reflection, a plot that centres around the creation of one painting could easily be very weak, but told through the eyes of a 16 year old maid – wise beyond her years as it turns out – it’s a charming slice of 17th century life in Holland. It plods along a bit in the middle and loses its grip on the reader somewhat, and don’t expect fireworks, shocks, plot twists, etc because there are none; just a slow, tantalising build up of sexual tension between the artist and his subject, and nervous tension between every other member of the household – servants and masters alike. All I want to do now is see the painting for real so that I can look into the girl’s eyes …’

This tells you a lot about the appeal of this particular book – complexity of the relationships, the tension between the characters. No fireworks.  If you were writing literary historical fiction, this gives you a fair idea of your reader and what they might enjoy. The key to reader satisfaction is to both think of your book as unique, and yet also to be scrupulous in assessing how your novel fits in its tiny niche within the broad scope of historical fiction.

You might also like:

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

Deadly Sin 6 – The Aura of an Era

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