How To Write Historical Fiction

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“…The realities of the everyday things in your chosen time period will shape what your characters can and can’t do. This will constrain your own plot choices. It’s part of the challenge and joy of writing historical fiction to share with your characters the real problems, the real world, they live in. It stretches your imagination. If you aren’t fussy about your details, if you think it’s all right to have Willem know latitude and longitude or for Maria Dolores to carry a purse, then you aren’t up to the demands of historical fiction. Your characters will not be real, your story will have no life, and you will have failed your readers. If you’re that kind of writer, you’ll have stopped reading this essay as soon as you hit the word ‘research’. But you’re that other kind of writer, the historical novelist, the one who cares. You’ll have done your mountain of research both for the love of it and for the love of your story. What to do with all those cherished, hard-won facts?

…Once you’ve created your plot, you begin to write. Knowing the realities of the small, everyday things of your time period now allows you to conjure an authenticity into Willem’s and Maria Dolores’ lives. Long skirts swept the floor. Willem knows she’s hiding in the courtyard because he sees the lines her skirts have made in the sand his sister sprinkles on the paving tiles. Maria Dolores seizes a tankard to brain him – it’s leather, not metal, and her escape attempt collapses in laughter. When a Calvinist mob, incited by Willem’s sister, bays for the blood of the Catholic woman hidden in their midst, Willem and Maria Dolores are able to escape across the ice in the harbour, for this is the time of the Little Ice Age, when broad rivers froze.

Notice that the sand on the paving tiles, the material of the tankard, the unusually cold winter, are only included because they help propel the plot. As much as you’d love to discuss the construction of the typical Dutch house or the rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands, these aren’t pertinent to the actual events in the story. It’s pertinent that the leader of the mob has skates, it’s pertinent that the gunpowder in Willem’s pistol cakes when soaked with ice-water, it’s pertinent that the woolen skirts of the time were thick and heavy enough to stop a bullet. But if a beloved fact (the wheat for their bread came from Poland) doesn’t propel the action of the story, it doesn’t belong. You’ll use less than 20% of the facts you’ve researched in the events of your story, but the other 80% filling your head will give you a heightened understanding of the period, illuminating your characters and their world for you so that what the reader sees is the distillation of your sympathetic imagination, a richness condensed….”

For more great insights about historical fiction from Caro Clarke, click HERE.

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