Beth Underdown: 6 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Beth Underdown: 6 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Look for the questions

Maybe you haven’t yet hit on the idea to spark your historical novel. Where to find your subject, then? If a particular period has caught your interest (the Tudor period, say – or the Victorian era) then just start reading. Read and read and read, for as long as you’re interested, and in the direction your fascination takes you. You might find that the idea for your story comes when someone from the past grabs your attention and won’t let go. Hilary Mantel says that ‘if you’re writing about a real person, make sure to choose somebody you really don’t understand.’ This is sound advice. Don’t pick a subject whose motives are so easy to encompass that you can instantly list them off on your fingers. Choose someone who’s a bit of an enigma.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, I wrote about Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. The reader knows that Hopkins’s witch hunt took place, just from reading the jacket blurb. So the tension in my book doesn’t come so much from what happened, but from how it happened – and why. Hopkins’s motives for conducting his witch hunt intrigued me, and in writing the book I attempted to figure them out. When you’re choosing a real event or person as a subject, avoid easy answers. Always look for the questions.

Start reading – warily

Whether or not your novel will deal with real people or events, you’ve been drawn towards your chosen period. I think it’s important, alongside telling your story, to be saying something about the era in which it’s set – to illuminate this unfamiliar world for your reader. In starting to research a new book, I begin by reading quite general political and social accounts of my chosen period, often kicking off with popular history books and becoming more specific in my choices after that. Soon, I’ll have developed a number of research ‘headings’ – rivers and shipping in Essex, seventeenth century iconoclasm, early modern food and cooking – as my reading branches in several different directions.

As you read, it’s important to question what you’re reading. Why has the historian chosen to tell this story in this way? Often they’ll be supporting or refuting another historian’s argument. Whether you’re dealing with popular history or primary sources in an archive, it’s important to keep in mind whose voices and whose viewpoints are likely to have ended up written down – and whose haven’t.

Find your rhythm

Figuring out how your characters speak to each other is one of the trickiest parts of writing historical fiction. This can be especially difficult when you’re tackling a more remote period of history. It’s important to avoid your characters sounding unbelievably modern, but also to avoid the fake ‘ye olde’ feel of characters wandering about saying ‘Zounds!’ and ‘Egad!’. As I research a novel, I keep a collection of any personal writing from the period that falls into my hands – copies of letters, diaries, household accounting and appointment books – the more mundane and/or private, the better.

As I start to write my dialogue, I try to avoid archaisms. I strip back what is said to simple words, keeping the exchanges snappy. Alongside this, I spend 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.

Lose your religion

Handling your characters’ religious world view is one of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction, particularly if your story is set before 1900. Your (modern) readers will often be only mildly religious, or of no faith at all. It can be difficult for us to connect with people who (as in the sixteenth century, say) were routinely dying for their religious principles, and hoped very concretely and fervently to be rewarded after death. It’s important for readers to be able to empathise with your character’s motivations for doing things.

With this in mind, while I didn’t eliminate religion from The Witchfinder’s Sister, I did minimise it a little – I made it into one of a number of reasons for the characters to act as they do. Having said that, I also worked hard to read about and understand the religious beliefs my characters would have held. As a writer, it’s important not to sneer at or look down upon your characters – you have to come to them with understanding. Only in this way can you write people with whom your reader will identify.

Keep an eye on the iceberg of detail

You’ll come across loads of great details while researching your book – details on food, on weird medicines, on torture devices, on wedding clothes, on giving birth, on pets, on feast days, on folk customs. Part of me always wants to include as much of this detail as possible – after all, not only have I gone to the trouble of finding these facts out, but they’re so cool! I find them interesting, so surely my reader will too? The trouble is, too much detail gets in the way of the story.

When you’re deciding what to include, try to stay with what your character would notice. Does this object or concept occur to them, in this moment? If not, out it goes. In general, I try to think of detail as an iceberg. The whole iceberg is the number of details you should know; the tip of the iceberg is the number the reader should see. This detail that you so urgently want to allow into the narrative – does it belong at the tip of the iceberg?

Follow your people

There’s a point in the process of writing a historical novel at which my focus shifts pretty firmly from trying to understand the period, to trying to understand my characters. This helps avoid shoehorning in events that don’t belong – in The Witchfinder’s Sister, one of the great battles of the English Civil War only gets the briefest of mentions, when my main character talks over dinner about how the fighting has left so many widows among her London friends.

Big world events, like details, should only get room in your narrative in proportion to the amount they impact your people. A historical novel isn’t just historical, it’s also a novel – and ultimately it should be your characters, their wants and fears, that are driving the story forward.