Blog Writing Craft

10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction no.8 ‘Suddenly’

300px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogIt must be a month ago that I started thinking about writing a blog post on the difficulties of writing about sudden events, which was something highlighted by Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday in walking in Wales, and with historical fiction writers Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden in the Mani peninsula in Greece.

The thoughts about ‘suddenly’ have come and gone in that time, but I realised that in my own writing I tend to use a change of viewpoint to denote that something is about to happen. In fiction, a sudden event can feel unbelievable if it just pops up without warning, and the result is that it often makes the reader laugh – very much like someone jumping out of a tree and shouting ‘boo!’

So the sudden event needs to be foreshadowed in some way. Often sudden events are heralded by a noise: a bang at the door, the sound of musket fire, the cries of an angry mob. Sudden events in the middle of a scene are harder to manage, than at the beginning or end of a scene where white space can help isolate and give impact to the incident.

But one of the effective ways to do this is to shift viewpoint. Here’s an example;

‘William gave a sudden lurch forward and pushed her into the water.’

Now remove the ‘sudden’ and foreshadow it with a change of viewpoint.

Bird’s Eye View

The cry of a gull caught her attention. She looked up. Their two figures would be like dots, she realised, two dark smudges on the edge of the rolling green, where the white line of the cliff cut into the blue of the sea. The gull swooped, hoping for food.

Without warning, Wiiliam lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Magnifying Lens View

Alice saw the change in his eyes, the way the irises opened out into round circles. A wave of uncertainty. He blinked once.

Without warning, William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Distance View

Mrs Rogers shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. Two figures stood on the edge of the cliff. A man and a woman; the man was hatless; the woman’s skirts billowed in the wind. They arrested her attention because they weren’t looking out to sea, but at each other.

Without warning the man lurched forward and pushed the woman into the water.

Far Past View

She had the impression of standing on the back of an ancient animal. She almost expected to feel it breathe. Time slowed. He was looking at her with a strange, amused expression.

Without warning, he lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Future View

A pause. Years later she would wonder why she hadn’t felt an ounce of warning.

That one minute her feet were on solid ground, the next; William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Of course these are extremely crude examples, without any novel to give them context, but the principle of shifting the viewpoint seems to de-stabilize the reader and make the sudden event feel more natural. The important thing is to provide a context, so the sudden event flows naturally from the preceding text, although still remaining sudden. Try it, and see if it works for you.

But – Character Reaction is Key

The sudden event need not be explained, but the character reaction must be short, quick, visceral. It is this that makes the event seem sudden and brings the reader along with you. Try using strong verbs which contain a sense of movement, and aim for clarity and precision.

A rush of air.

Her back slapped into something hard.  A shock of cold sucked the air from her lungs. Her feet thrashed in the heavy dark until her head broke water, eyes stinging, into the cries of the gulls. Through the blur of salt, she tilted her head up to squint against the sun. Where was he?

The cliffs were empty.

Notice also the amount of white space around the sudden event.

The picture for this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich. 

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail


10 Tips for Editing Historical Fiction. No.7 Detail

EEditing Historical Fiction - the Devil in the details. I examine the sort of detail historical fiction readers want.
Alexander Roslin – Joli Boudoir Marie Emilie Boucher 1779 Detail

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.

Wikipedia says;

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.’

Historical facts

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.

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6. Status

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


Ten Tips for Editing Historical Fiction No.6 Status


Lady with a servant in a meadow Circa 1500 German Engraving

Writers of historical fiction are often concerned with the relationships between servants and masters (see this post) because your rank was extremely important in previous centuries. This picture above expresses it well – the servant sees a lot of her mistress’s back because she is always behind her, and this gives her a particular view of the world. In previous centuries, laws such as the ‘sumptuary’ laws about what you were permitted to wear applied to people of different classes, and unlike today, not everyone could vote or influence the decisions of governing bodies. So historical novelists seek to convey the era and the status of their characters by their behaviour towards each other. A rounded character is a person who fits their milieu and changes their behaviour according to the situation. A cardboard character never changes or adapts and is always the same.

I know this seems obvious, but it is also not as simple as that. Because how you write the status of a character in a novel will denotes the person’s strength. A decisive maid with a strong purpose might develop a higher status (to the reader) than a vacillating and weak mistress, although she in turn might have to concede status to a master who is ‘in control’ of his household (and more importantly, himself.)

In Wuthering Heights for example, Catherine falls in love with Heathcliff, who has a lower status, because he was found on the streets of Liverpool and taken in as a child by her father. But Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton instead, a man of higher social status than Heathcliff. After Mr. Earnshaw dies, his resentful son Hindley humiliates Heathcliff and treats him as a servant. The status is reversed when Heathcliff’s humiliation inspires him to seek revenge. Heathcliff becomes of higher status in the reader’s eyes because of his strength of purpose and intention.

A person loses status when he expresses emotion without self-control (cries, gasps, screams etc). A calm and controlled antagonist is always stronger and more threatening than a villain who curses, shouts and threatens. There is something too about endurance – naturally we have to push our characters through life-threatening ordeals, but their capacity to endure them, makes for a strong character. A silent, listening character is actually ‘bigger’ than a character who has lost his temper and his self-control.

From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines
From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines

Above, the mistress is not pleased when the servant apes her dress sense – because it confuses the order of rank. Status can be shown through body language and this is really effective if you want a person of lower status to come up in the estimation of the reader. Characters who slump, cringe, fidget or babble, are seen as weaker than those who look you straight in the eye, raise the chin in defiance, stand up tall, and walk and talk without hurry. So be careful if your protagonist cries or shouts; it will weaken them in the reader’s eyes.

So on one of my passes through my manuscript I like to analyse the status of each of the main characters. I check the person reacts differently to those of higher or lower status. Perhaps they might be kind and considerate to a servant, but the servant is often still, in their eyes, a servant. However, compassion and kindness raise the character’s status in the reader’s eyes.

In a moment of intense emotion, a person might deliberately be outspoken to a person of superior rank, but probably only then. So arguments between characters of differing rank must take this into account. The universal entitlement to express your own opinion (free speech whoever you are) is a modern sensibility.

In addition, if I’m looking at a main character I like to make sure they don’t lower their staus with the reader through indecision, lack of control, or lack of compassion.

Further Reading: Status, rank and class in Jane Austen’s novels

Posts so far on Editing Historical Fiction:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing plus more to come!!

Pictures all from Wikipedia

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction : 10 Editing tools. No.4 – Themes & Threads

Silk weaving Tamil NaduOne of the most useful things I can do when I have finished a first draft is to examine the themes and the characters and follow their threads. Sometimes a character and a thread can be the same – at the moment I am looking at ‘ambition’, which is both part of Bess Bagwell’s character and a theme.

But generally I can make a list of characters and a list of themes. The themes tend to be more abstract – corruption, love, infidelity, glamour. I then take coloured ‘post its’ and work my way through the draft finding the scenes that embody those themes. A green post-it for jealousy, a blue one for insecurity.

How does this help? Well, what I’m looking for is a sense of escalation towards the climax of the novel, at which point some of the themes might disappear, but the ones that are carrying the whole book will remain.  It also helps me to check the balance of themes, and to make sure the major theme appears strongly near the climax of the book, and also makes an appearance somehow in the last scene. The themes themselves need to increase in intensity, so it is also a way to check I am not repeating myself – that each scene expands the theme as well as moves the character forward.

In historical fiction, often the real historical events are one thread that form the backbone of the novel. For me, Pepys’s Diary, and his infidelity to his wife, forms the one thread I can’t tamper with, though of course I can structure my other themes around it. One obvious theme in the book I am working on right now is the Plague – which has its own timescale and escalation; from miasma to contagion, from fever to delirium, and finally death or release.

I usually have about ten themes, and six major characters. That might seem like a lot, but often the themes can be paired very nicely into opposites, like, for example, truth and lies. In my current novel there are several scenes showing someone’s untruthfulness, balanced against one shorter thread in which a minor character only ever tells the truth.

What I have discovered is that by controlling the threads I can also get more control over my material, and understand parts of my story in a new way. By heightening some themes and controlling their pace I’m able to make them more effective for the reader. I also see where there are gaps, or opportunities for expansion.

The advantage of the threads is that they carry the emotion. The abstract threads – greed, ambition, love, fidelity – are the ones that are universal and key into the reader’s psyche. Link these threads effectively with a character’s journey and there is suddenly more propulsion – the scenes have a bigger meaning.

Gerard Dou – Old Woman Unreeling Threads

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light

No 2 Truth

No 3 Sound

Pictures from Wiki Commons

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – 10 Editing Tools. No 3 – The Sound of Time

Street Cries of 1754

In most of my novels the passing of time is something that is hard to convey in an era when nobody wore a watch, nobody had a mobile phone, and ways of telling the time were by sundial, candle calendar, or by listening out for church bells. Something that is really helpful to do is to make a daily hour calendar, with the hours described in a different way – a way I’ll call the ‘sound of time’.

Here’s my imaginary example of ideas for an average day in autumn in seventeenth century London, when most people gauged the time with ears rather than eyes. Of course every novel is different and every day is different, but it is helpful as a novelist to get a general picture of what might impact the daily routine of your characters. When you have a specific environment in mind, it is even more helpful. For my novel, I know the surrounding streets and trades; where the churches are, where the river is, how far it is to the cock-pit, and so forth, so I know what sounds my characters are  likely to hear to help them (and the reader) be aware of the passage of time.

When I’m editing, I’ll make a pass through the book looking for moments when I can make the passing of time feel more natural by incorporating these ideas.

5am Cock crow hour, hungry horses neighing, candlelight, cats yowling.

6am Fading dawn chorus, clanking of milkmaids bringing pails of milk, scraping of grates being cleaned, chopping of wood, squeal of pigs being fed

7am Smell of smoke from fires being kindled for cooking, rasp of scrubbing brushes and besoms on front steps and thresholds

8am Bells calling people to morning church, boots and iron-tipped shoes hurrying by, sound of well-water being drawn at pumps, street cries of the bread men

9am Intensified rattle and rumble of city traffic, horses, carriages, and hoots of barges on the Thames. Clatter and lowing of livestock arriving for slaughter.

10am Shouts of ferrymen touting for trade on the Thames, whump of rugs being beaten outside, thump of bread kneaded on a kitchen table. Clang of iron-rimmed cartwheels on cobbles.

11am Cries of the rag and bone collectors, the knocking as knife-grinders and button sellers go door to door, causing the barking of dogs.

12 noon Cacophany of clanging bells all over the city. Closing of shutters as shops close for dinner, bolting of doors, smell of cooking, queues at the bakehouse

1pm Shutters bang back against walls, trade resumes, including hammering on anvils, chink of bricks being laid, livestock being slaughtered.

2pm Newsmen shouting the days news, and the programme of the afternoon entertainment at the playhouses, shouts of ‘horses for hire’

3pm Swish of the sweeping out and replacement of old rushes, applause from the playhouses and raucous yelling from the cock-pits

4pm Light grows dimmer, candles appear at windows, noisy crowds of apprentices gather at the taverns, beggars rattle pans at them on street corners

5pm Traffic decreases, darkness descends, clop of hooves in back alleys as hired horses are returned to stables, bells for evening service at church

6pm Clatter of knives on pewter plates as supper is prepared and laid out, then eaten, the smell of smoke intensifies

7pm  Thick fug of smoke as people settle around firesides, spit and pop of burning wood, convivial chatter from behind shutters

8pm Sound and smell of the night-soil men doing their rounds

9pm Strains of someone playing the viol drifting from a window, cries of the link-men as they light people home

10pm Clang of the curfew bell, grating of the city gates closing.

Rag and bone man, Paris 1895  (Wikipedia)

Writers – do feel free to share some of your sounds from your novel with my readers.

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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Ten Editing Tools. No 2: Truth

Inventory from Geffrye Collection of contents of a 17thC house

When I am writing my first few drafts my main concern is to get the story out there, and for that reason at the beginning I tend to write in broad brushstrokes. This is especially true in the dialogue when things are getting tense, and I just want to progress the argument. I find I am using generic dialogue; dialogue that I’ve heard countless times before, usually in bad movies:

Are you threatening me?

Who’s asking?

What the actual character might say would be totally different, more subtle. So one of the first edits I do is to edit for truth. What I mean, is to get beyond the general, and into the particular.

In a piece I read at a recent writing workshop, a father shouted at his daughter; ‘Never darken my door again!’  I’m quite sure that this was the intended sentiment, but would he really have said those words? In 1940’s Warrington? He might have said, ‘Sorry Lesley. We can’t help you any more, your mother and I … we’ve agreed.’  Or if he was really mad, he might have stood on the doostep and said, ‘No, not this time. You’re not coming in. Not until you get yourself sorted out.’ Or there could be any number of truthful responses depending on the situation. The problem is always to get at the truth. The truth is often less dramatic, but more thought-provoking, for whilst it is just a storybook response — a general dialogue that could be said by anybody — your book will lack depth, because storybook responses convey just that; this is a story. The truth of the responses for each individual character is what makes a book feel real.

17thC table setting – note the newly-invented forks

This is especially true for historical fiction. To make something true and real, we have to search for the reality of each encounter in the past, in the surviving historical documents and artefacts. It means knowing exactly what the setting is, in detail. We need to have precision. What chair was the person sitting on? Did it have a cushion? How heavy was the cutlery? Inventories or wills of the time will help you understand exactly what furnishings your characters might have owned.  The research will help, but also the surgeon’s mindset of not letting vague generalities suffice in your writing..

Responses need to be true to the period, including that in most cases a religious belief will have a large bearing on our characters’ moral assumptions. Church will be a part of your character’s life that cannot be ignored, and the state of the immortal soul often of prime conern. The feeling that God saw everything could not be escaped if you believed (as most did) in an all-seeing, all-knowing God.

Our characters must feel true to life, from the perspective of the period. Here’s Robert Merivel from the opening of Rose Tremain’s novel, ‘Restoration.’

Manordeifi Old Church

‘I am, I discover, a very untidy man. Look at me. Without my periwig, I am an affront to neatness. My hair (what is left of it) is the colour of sand and wiry as hogs’ bristles; my ears are of uneven size; my forehead is splattered with freckles; my nose, which of course my wig can’t conceal, however low I wear it, is unceremoniously flat, as if I had been hit at birth. Was I hit at birth? I do not believe so, as my parents were gentle and kindly people, but I will never know now. They died in a fire in 1662. My father had a nose like a Roman emperor. This straight, fierce nose would neaten up my face, but alas, I don’t possess it. Perhaps I am not my father’s child? I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad. Perhaps I am the son of Amos Treefeller, the old man who made head-moulds for my father’s millinery work? Like him, I am fond of the feel of objects made of polished wood. My telescope, for instance. For I admit, I find greater order restored to my brain from the placing of my hands round this instrument of science than from what its lenses reveal to my eye. The stars are too numerous and too distant to restore to me anything but a terror at my own insignificance. I don’t know whether you can imagine me yet. I am thirty-seven years old as this year, 1664, moves towards its end. My stomach is large and also freckled, although it has seldom been exposed to the sun. It looks as if a flight of minute moths had landed on it in the night. I am not tall, but this is the age of the high heel. I strive to be particular about my clothes, but am terribly in the habit of dropping morsels of dinner on them. My eyes are blue and limpid. In childhood, I was considered angelic and was frequently buttoned inside a suit of blue moire, thus seeming to my mother a little world entire: sea and sand in my colours, and the lightness of air in my baby voice. She went to her fiery death still believing that I was a person of honour.’

I love the detail and particularity of the description. I felt as though I was being offered the truth by Merivel. Not a vague description, but something that could only be him and nobody else. So the truth also means removing or transforming familiar, generic characters. Readers instinctively recognise the attempt at truth. Without it,  your story will just be a story, and never transport the reader to another time and place.

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Editing Historical Fiction, my way

I am in the middle of edits for two of my books, one a young adult novel and one a 400 page adult novel. These are the edits I make before I send out to my agent, a publisher, or in some cases the public. There will be other edits later, but as some publishing houses edit very heavily, some hardly at all, it pays to be picky with your work.

Recently I have seen a plethora of writing books suggesting that you should edit in ‘one pass’.

This does not work for me because of the amount of research I need to check. So here is my editing process. It takes as long as the actual writing of the book.


I always work with a printed copy of the manuscript, and initially I am editing for story. I read like a reader and not a writer, to identify  whether the nuts and bolts of the story work. At its heart, story is about change, so if it’s getting static, alarm bells ring. I mark parts that are slow or boring with a big red pen. Though sometimes boring does not mean cutting stuff, but adding more detail to make it interesting and bring it to life. Usually the first time I print out the draft it needs a lot of re-working –  new chunks need to be written and others lopped off. At this stage I do extensive re-writes. That copy is then like an old rag covered in scribble and crossings out and is re-cycled onto our log-burner!

After more work on the computer to streamline the story, I’m ready for a more detailed edit. Usually I send this newer version out to some readers so I can incorporate their comments when I work on the next edit. One way of speeding it up is to mark all the pages that need edits with sticky post-its. I use the same manuscript and just go through it with different colours for each editing pass. Then with the copy next to me with its colourful fringe, I trawl through the manuscript a page at a time making all the necessary alterations. At this point I am usually fuelled by coffee, a looming deadline, and a desperation to get it finished and move onto the next book.


Here are the passes I make:

  • edit for character. Go through each major character’s arc of action and emotion. Check what they are doing in the scenes where they are absent, and try to refer to these actions in the scenes where they are present. Get a sense of their daily routine – for example how long it takes them to dress, their relationship with servants or ‘betters’, and their class in relation to other characters. Check how they are feeling;  that it is consistent, and that it has development.  Make sure their attitudes are consistent with the period.
  • edit for theme. Highlight any themes that drive the novel, make sure sub-plots echo these themes. Look for metaphor, symbol and meaning. Try to find parallels with today, and highlight  them. They will be useful when you have to promote or tell people about your book.
  • edit for time-scale. In historical fiction it is particularly important to get dates right, and for the narrative to fit within certain fixed parameters or historical milestones. Check travelling times – horseback and boat are very slow, but mail can be surprisingly quick.
  • edit like the most eagle-eyed historian. I have made small errors in my books, (really sorry ) but not because I did not care – I did my best to make the history right! Often it is little things (like the taking for granted of walls and hedges before the enclosures act) that catch you out. Question everything and double check your research. Keep notes in case someone queries your sources. Make notes about where you have changed, bent, or ignored  supposedly ‘known facts’, and why. Two books down the line you might not remember why, but an expert reading your book is bound to write to you and ask.
  • edit for anachronistic dialogue, and for dialogue that fits the character. It is easy to slip into modernism in dialogue, and the quickest way to lose your historical atmosphere. Seemingly innocuous phrases like ‘Oh my God’ have taken on a distinctly teenage flavour since OMG!
  • edit for uninteresting language, spelling mistakes, grammar and typos, or get someone else to proofread it.

My novel grows about 10% during this edit as I re-work dialogue, fill plot loopholes and deepen character.

What is your editing process? Do you have any tips or tricks?