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 Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin no 4 – Prologue vs Intrigue

Westminster_Hall_editedWhen writing a historical novel and portraying a whole world, it is tempting to use a prologue as an introduction to the period you want your reader to inhabit. A prologue seems an ideal place to do this – to explain who conquered whom, who is on the throne, what the political or religious milieu is for the story.

And in a way it is the ideal place. It means vital information is taken in whilst the palate is still clean and fresh, i.e. at the beginning. However, the sin is in allowing the information to be dull. Just because the prologue is set apart from the main story (its title tells us this) it does not mean it should have no story. If it feels like a history lesson and not a story, it can be cut. It must be so vital that the rest of the book makes no sense without it.

As such it is an ideal place to introduce meaningful scenes from the character’s past, or perhaps their future. And character is the key word – not the past of a whole civilization, or a whole society, but something so important to the main character that we simply must know it. Something that shapes the protagonist’s world view, or gives us an insight into how he functions in the historical world we are creating. The prologue is also a good place to put an important viewpoint character that we may not hear from again, perhaps until the epilogue. (more of that in another post!)

It should intrigue, be like a rocket launcher for the imagination.

What it should not be, is reams of backstory told in the passive voice. A real scene, with real tension, will be a much quicker way to draw in your reader. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use it to set a mood – to introduce the stinking, grimy streets of plague-ridden London, or the glittering falsity of the Palace of Versailles, or the lofty ideals of Westminster Hall. (see picture above!) But something should also be happening, even if the story event is complete within the ‘Prologue’ itself.

Try reading these two excellent prologues by Sarah Dunant and Michael Arnold to see what I mean. See just how much they achieve in terms of theme, atmosphere and story. Click the covers to take you to ‘Look Inside’ on Amazon. (Clue: The prologue is near the beginning.)

Birth of Venus Traitor's Blood


I do sometimes have prologues in my books but avoid using the actual word, in case readers think it isn’t important and skip it!

The prologue to A Divided inheritance was originally titled ‘Zero’, (ie the events before Chapter 1) until my editor suggested I just have a date and location. You can read it if you click on the book.

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Lorna Doone

Excess Verbiage

When I was growing up I read classic fiction such as Dickens, The Brontes, Dumas, and Blackmore. These were my formative influences, and nuances of their language still make their way into my books. This is both an advantage, and a disadvantage. On the one hand, I’m hugely grateful for the vocabulary I have which mostly came from reading these books. The trouble is – only some of this vocabulary is still in use today, and much of it is outdated. I sometimes find myself using over-complicated or archaic words when a simpler one would be clearer.

Obvious archaisms such as ‘forsooth’ are easily avoided, but subtler ones often slip through the net. I’ve noticed in some historical novels, characters tend to ‘regard’ each other.

‘She regarded him with an icy stare.’

The word ‘regard’ for look, is very rarely used these days. A few of these old-fashioned words can give flavour, but too many and the prose becomes weighed down and stodgy.

Here is John Ridd from Lorna Doone, talking about a prank from his school days:

‘This is the manner of a “winkey,” which I here set down, lest child of mine, or grandchild, dare to make one on my premises; if he does, I shall know the mark at once, and score it well upon him. The scholar obtains, by prayer or price, a handful of saltpetre, and then with the knife wherewith he should rather be trying to mend his pens, what does he do but scoop a hole where the desk is some three inches thick. This hole should be left with the middle exalted, and the circumference dug more deeply. Then let him fill it with saltpetre, all save a little space in the midst, where the boss of the wood is. Upon that boss (and it will be the better if a splinter of timber rise upward) he sticks the end of his candle of tallow, or “rat’s tail,” as we called it, kindled and burning smoothly. Anon, as he reads by that light his lesson, lifting his eyes now and then it may be, the fire of candle lays hold of the petre with a spluttering noise and a leaping. Then should the pupil seize his pen, and, regardless of the nib, stir bravely, and he will see a glow as of burning mountains, and a rich smoke, and sparks going merrily; nor will it cease, if he stir wisely, and there be a good store of petre, until the wood is devoured through, like the sinking of a well-shaft. Now well may it go with the head of a boy intent upon his primer, who betides to sit thereunder! But, above all things, have good care to exercise this art before the master strides up to his desk, in the early gray of the morning.’

A fascinating extract – but probably best not to try this ‘winkey’ trick at home! But I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s very wordy. There’s a tendency in historical fiction to add more words to try to make it sound more ‘historical.’ This has the effect of making the novel too dense. Simplicity allows the prose to breathe.

‘Yes please,’ said John.

Another hangover from classic fiction is the use of ‘said’ in this way: (again from Lorna Doone)

“Madam,” said Sir Ensor Doone—being born a gentleman, although a very bad one—”I crave pardon of you. My eyes are old, or I might have known. Now, if we have your husband prisoner, he shall go free without ransoms, because I have insulted you.”

“Sir,” said my mother, being suddenly taken away with sorrow, because of his gracious manner, “please to let me cry a bit.”

These days, it is common, and much neater, to have the subject before the verb – i.e ‘Sir Ensor Doone said’, ‘my mother said’. This makes the word ‘said’ less visible and puts the emphasis on the speaker, where it belongs. Having it after the speaker sounds like a school primer, or like a very old-fashioned novel. If you have read many Victorian (or earlier) novels, you may find you have unconsciously picked up this habit.

Picture and Excerpts from Lorna Doone from Project Gutenberg

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama is here, and 2 – Purple Prose is here

Blog Writing Craft

Second of my historical fiction deadly sins – Purple Prose


Over-writing. It’s a sin! Historical fiction demands that we paint a vivid picture of the past. To do this, we have to tell our story, describe a world, and still bring the novel in at a reasonable length. Unnecessary adverbs and adjectives must be the first to be axed, (though now I have got to the point where very few even make it to first draft) but the surprising detail is the one that counts. The one that will stick in the mind of your reader. The reader doesn’t want to be impressed by your fancy writing skills,  but rather the one true thing that will allow the imagination to conjure the rest. Your research will have a wealth of these – look for the one with the most resonance.

In this picture of a 17th century doll’s house, one candle is askew in the chandelier. The cupboard is one and a half  times the size of a man. The jugs are ranked in size-order with the biggest in the middle. These details are much better than just stating the room was lit by chandeliers, or there was a cupboard in the corner. Specificity is the way to economy, and also the way to the reader’s imagination.



When I’m editing I often find I have added too much weight to character reactions in dialogue by over-writing. Assuming that I have set up my characters well, all I should have to do is leave them to talk. Not to interfere to try to help the reader.

‘He could see she was upset’.

This is a typical one – I’m telling the reader what he could see. Surely, if we know the characters well, we should know that the event (whatever it was) would make her upset and why. If he can see she’s upset, maybe he’d do something.

He reached out and took her hand.

This is much easier for the reader to imagine than ‘he could see she was upset.’ Usually, the more intense the emotion, the more taciturn the character. The dialogue should reveal everything, even if it’s restrained. The character is nearly always thinking something different to what is revealed in speech. Occasionally, it’s good to let the character start to reveal themselves, then to cut it off. Hysterical language, and verbs such as ‘gasped,’ probably indicate overwriting. It’s a long time since I’ve seen anyone gasp, (except on diving into freezing water) and I don’t suppose they gasped more often in 1616 than in 2016.


Just don’t. The reader is still trying to make sense of the new strange world they’re in, without layering another dream world on the top. (Unless you are actually writing about Victorian Opium addiction of course.)


Throwing mud at a wall – my writer’s process

Charlotte Betts is another fan of the seventeenth century and writes fantastic award-winning romantic novels set in the Restoration period. She invited me to take part in this writing process blog hop and you can find her blog on her writing process here:

I have done my best to answer the set questions, though it is very tempting to meander off the point!

What am I working on?

I’m working on two things, one a big thick adult novel, and the other a slimmer title suitable for young adults as well as my adult readers. The big novel is a novel based around Pepys’s diary. I have used Pepys’s Diary for so many years as reference material for my other books that I just could not resist! It tells the story of Pepys’s most famous obsession, his wife’s companion Deborah Willett. I have to say, it does feel slightly odd writing about someone with the same first name. Fortunately Pepys himself soon shortens it to Deb, which feels a little more comfortable!

The second smaller novel is part of a series of novellas based around the life of highwaywoman and royalist Lady Katherine Fanshawe – see my previous post. The first volume was told from the point of view of her deaf maid, and is awaiting editing. I’m on the second volume now which includes the Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War, and is written from the point of view of a ghost. This is a slightly scary thing to do, but very enjoyable. I turn to that when I get stuck with the big book, or at night when it’s dark!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Rather than writing about Kings or Queens –  immensely popular in historical fiction, just look at those shelves groaning with books called ‘The Queen’s —‘ (fill in blank, but no, The Queen’s Doughnut’  is not acceptable) – my books are written about ordinary people. I love reading those books though, I recently read ‘The Queen’s Exiles’ by Barbara Kyle and it was a wonderful read.

When I say ordinary, that doesn’t mean the characters are dull, in fact the opposite. They are the movers and shakers that shift society into different ways of thinking. I like to have multiple points of view in my novel, so that a broader view of the historical period is painted for the reader. I often write from the male as well as female perspective, so male readers are often pleasantly surprised to find that the book works for them too.

Book dep slipperMy books embrace themes that matter to me. For example the underlying question in The Lady’s Slipper is: who owns what grows on the land? Is territory something worth fighting for? The setting of the English Civil War, and the battle for the lady’s-slipper orchid’s survival meshed perfectly together to explore these themes. My other two novels, equally, are underpinned by ideas that I wanted to look into for myself. I enjoy meaty, complex reads with adventure and romance and a strong sense of atmosphere, so I expect that’s what I’m trying to produce!

Why do I write what I do?

I fell into writing historical novels by accident, when I was studying for an MA. The first novel started as a writing exercise, but it just kept on growing! By then I’d found that I loved it. Historical fiction uses some of the skills I learned in my previous job as a designer for stage and TV, such as the ability to reearch and plan, and manage my own time, and the ability to think around insurmountable problems (essential when plotting!). I am passionate about the past, and love anything old and interesting. My ideal day out would encompass a visit to a historic house or museum or archives, followed by afternoon tea (with scones and jam, naturally!). When I launched A Divided Inheritance we had exactly that sort of afternoon at Leighton Hall, and I hope my guests enjoyed it as much as I did.

How does your writing process work?

divided_Inheritance_fc_I wish I knew! To be honest I’m a bit chaotic whilst I’m writing. I’m like a magpie, picking up scraps of this and that and scribbling snippets in notebooks. I have a big batch of research books and far too many ‘favourites’ on my google task bar, of things I am reading as part of the initial ‘throw mud at a wall’ process. I’m also really motivated by pictures, so I collect a mass of visual information, postcards, and more web favourites. This can take a few months, but happens whilst I am finishing and editing the previous books. Only by doing this can I know if I have enough material and interesting stuff to sustain a long novel and eighteen months worth of research and writing.

After this, some of the mud sticks (I hope!) and I start to draft. At this point I have a solid idea of the story, and the historical basis for it,  but no details. On my word doc I lay out arbitrary chapter headings and start to fill in the detail. My first draft is what other people might call an outline, and it follows the chronology of the real history I’m writing about. But – if there are scenes that excite me I can’t resist having a go at writing them, so I don’t torture myself, I just go ahead and do it. Once I’ve done that sort of a draft, with some scenes fully written and others just noted as ‘Chapter 5 – Mother dies’, I’m ready for a second go at it. In this draft I try to fathom out how to make the scenes I haven’t written yet more interesting or gripping until I have to write them. This involves more research and book gathering and tinkering with the plot.  And so it goes on, draft after draft. The actual writing is like re-living the scene as I put it onto the screen. Eventually I end up with a full novel, all of which I enjoyed writing. At this point I’ll put it away and work on something else for a bit to get distance.

When I pick it up again I start editing, and this sometimes involves re-structuring and sometimes only nit-picking. Mostly it is about re-ordering the story into a logical flow. This is the point where I realise what the novel is really about, so I go back through it again and re-write with that in mind.

GildedLilySo you can see, it is not exactly a quick, streamlined process, but it’s more of an organic building-up over time, where the plot events accrue significance as I’m working.

I wish I could be the sort of person who sits down with a perfect plan and writes to it, but I’m just not. Initial ideas are always the most obvious ones – I  need the juxtaposition of a lot of different stimuli to delve deep enough and make the right sort of connections to get a juicy story.This is why I think I’d be hopeless at writing crime – where I expect you have to know exactly who has done it from the outset, and why, and everyone’s alibis! My method gives me a lot of ‘wiggle-room’ if I find a better or more interesting idea. I do love books on the craft of writing  though, and fantasising that I’ll be that super-efficient writing machine next time. . .

Next week Eliza Graham will be taking up the baton to tell us about her writing process.

Eliza Graham writes historical fiction under the pen name Anna Lisle. She also writes  fiction set in contemporary times but with a historical twist. Her most recent book is The One I Was.

The One I Was

1939. Youngster Benny Gault, a Kindertransport refugee from Nazi Germany’s anti-semiticism, arrives at Harwich docks, label flapping round his neck, football under his arm, and a guilty secret in his heart. More than half a century later, Benny lies on his deathbed in his beautiful country house, Fairfleet, his secret still unconfessed. Rosamond, his nurse, has a guilty secret of her own concerning her mother’s death in a fire at Fairfleet, years earlier. As Benny and Rosamond unwind the threads binding them together, Rosamond must fight the unfinished violence of the past, now menacing both Fairfleet’s serenity and Benny’s last days.

The One I Was is a novel about shifting identities and whether we can truly reinvent ourselves.