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.
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.’
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.
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