I’m writing my first historical novel, a fictionalised account of my Ukrainian-born great-grandmother, and I’m struggling. How much research should I do? Can I make up facts? What is more important, the character’s voice or the plot? Is there even a market for this type of story?
So, I’ve decided to reach out to those in the know and ask them ‘what makes a successful historical novel?’ The results of my enquiries to a variety of authors, agents, bloggers and publishers are set out below.
Firstly, a quick definition of the genre. Richard Lee, chairman of the Historical Novel Society, states that “historical fiction is the most primal, the most NATURAL of literary forms …. in all cultures, historical fiction is the most natural form of story-telling.” Generally, a historical novel is a novel set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. www.historicalnovelsociety.org
The founder of the genre is thought to be Sir Walter Scott who wrote in the early 1800’s stories about the Scottish nation’s past. The annual Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction www.walterscottprize.co.uk is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. With a total value of £30,000, it is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past.
Historical fiction is a huge market that ebbs and flows along with the rest of the publishing world. According to Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Agency, “in a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals do well when the economy is down.” www.macgregorliterary.com . With Brexit underway and the changes in the global political scene, it seems that times of uncertainty also make us look to the past. Hilary Mantel’s winning of the Booker Prize in both 2009 and 2012 for her historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell shows just how important this genre is.
Enquiries with Waterstones staff about current trends in historical fiction give a clearer picture as to what’s in and what’s not. In line with fiction overall, crime and thrillers are in; romance is not. This was confirmed by debut novelist Victoria Cornwall who, as a writer of historical romance, is aware her sub-genre isn’t strictly in vogue. However, she says ‘write what you want to write and love doing it …things do come back in fashion.’ The hotly awaited season three of the televised Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ will no doubt help fuel the market for more bodice-ripping, swashbuckling historical fiction.
So, establishing there is a strong market for a historical fiction novel, and being aware mine has a mix of romance and drama, I set about asking how to write it well.
My top ten tips for a successful historical fiction novel:
- Consensus from the industry is to create believable characters. Author Helen Hollick writes, “if your characters are as dull as ditch water and are not believable in what they say and do then it’s not much of a story, not matter how wonderful your plot or setting.” helenhollick.net
- Take time to actively read historical novels and study what makes them work. Sarah Johnson from the Historical Novel Review says “the process of analyzing what works and what doesn’t in a novel can provide valuable insight into one’s own writing.”
- Take readers on a journey with you. Victoria Cornwall’s tip is to “Make it easy for the reader to go on the journey with you to the past. Readers do not want to be lectured, or feel out of their depth when reading historical fiction. Their knowledge of the period will vary so it is a balancing act between explaining too much and expecting them to know about the historical period where your novel is set.” victoriacornwall.com
- When starting your novel, research until you get a hook. This advice was given from both Lainy Malkani (author of ‘Sugar,Sugar’, a historical fiction account of Indian migrant workers,) and Osvalds Zebris (author of ‘The Shadow of Rooster Hill’ an account of the 1905 Latvian revolution.) They both knew they wanted to write about a specific time period, but needed to research to get the hook to start the story and create the characters.
Lainy runs a social enterprise aimed at capturing people’s stories and showing how the past influences the present. www.socialhistoryhub.com
Osvalds, along with Pauls Bankovskis, has written his book as part of a group of Latvian writers writing about the 20th century. www.latvianliterature.lv/en/news/the-series-we-latvia-the-20th-century-13-writers-talk-about-their-country-s-history
- “Don’t overdo the research – get on with the writing, and remember that you are writing a novel not a history lecture,” says Helen Hollick. She went on to tell me, “too many novels come across as the author showing-off about what they know. And please! Do not use footnotes! This is a story, blend the information into the plot or add an author’s note at the end. If I want these sort of facts I’ll read a non-fiction.” Helen is author of over 15 historical fiction works, covering Arthurian legend and 1700’s pirates, amongst other subjects.
- Use research to find the emotional story. Lainy Malkani states “you have to fill in (the) gaps of what people felt and what people saw”. She advises digging deeper beyond the first level of research to allow the voices of the people from that period to break through.
- Be inventive with your research. Lainy tells me to “use primary sources such as newspapers from the time; look at the adverts and announcements for a flavour of the emotions of the time.” Pauls Bankovskis (author of ‘18’ an account of Latvia in 1918) advocates looking for clues in material things e.g. old trees, cracks in the pavements, old buildings. Finally, and possibly my favourite alternative research, Elizabeth Chadwick uses a medium friend to connect with the Akashic Records*. She has used this approach on several occasions to write her successful series of books on Eleanor of Aquitaine amongst others. elizabethchadwick.com
- Use facts but create a twist. Anna Davis, agent at Curtis Brown, says that history is a narrative construct. She notes how well Hilary Mantel in ‘Wolf Hall’ manages this. “Tell an entirely different story with the same facts and characters if you want to – that’s what [Hilary’s] done so brilliantly.”
- Create a story that immerses the reader in other times, where the history may be familiar but the story is not. Katherine Grant, one of this year’s judges on the Walter Scott Prize, gives this tip on how to write historical fiction well. “Research is easy,” she says, “it’s breathing life into research that’s hard.”
- Finally, I hand over to SJ Parris, bestselling author of a series of historical thrillers following the renegade monk, philosopher and heretic Giordano Bruno, as he uncovers dark mysteries and plots in Elizabethan England, for her last word on the subject. “In the end it’s the storytelling. You can fall in love with an author’s voice but then if the story doesn’t really develop, it’s hard to sustain that affection for a particular style if there’s a lack of plot behind it.” sjparris.com
So, what have I learned from my foray into the publishing industry’s views on historical fiction and how to write a successful novel?
Well, plot and character seem to have equal importance. One cannot exist without the other and both need to be well written, thought out and believable. I really need to get to know my characters. If I know and love my characters, then I can take my reader with me and hope they will love them too. This ties in with the first tip from Helen Hollick, but I think goes beyond creating believability, it’s creating an emotional truth.
The issue of research is a common theme in discussions on the genre. Most experts agree good solid research of the period and facts is fundamental. However, the author needs to be careful not to show-off how much they know. It may be tempting to put every piece of research in to the story to give validity and verisimilitude. Yet this can end up creating a piece of dry non-fiction, or worse still, a disjointed story with huge exposition dumps amongst the plotlines.
The historical facts need to be subtly woven in so the reader feels transported to the time and place but not lectured to. Having recently read ‘Conspiracy’ by SJ Parris, I see how cleverly she creates a sense that we, the readers, are in some ways already living alongside the characters at that time.
Armed with my list of top ten tips, there is nothing left now but to take up my pen, research my facts, set my scene, plot my novel and breathe life into my cast of characters. Ukraine, 1910 and great-grandma Tatiana, here I come!
Kharkiv, Ukraine 1910.
* The Akashic Records are believed to be the energetic records of all souls about their past lives, the present lives, and possible future lives. Each soul has its Akashic Records, like a series of books with each book representing one lifetime. By reading the Akashic records a person can learn about their own past lives or those of others e.g. historical figures.