10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction – No 9 Change



It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, that in a novel things need to change; that to keep a reader interested the characters must change. In reality is is a more complex process than that. As the character changes, then so does everything and everyone the character comes into contact with.

A childhood home that seemed stultifying and dull, becomes a charming haven after the protagonist has endured some hardships away from it. In fact this is the only way a reader can see a character grow – to see the world change through his or her eyes.

It is easy to think that once you’ve established a setting, that’s it. That readers will just see it as background each time the character goes there. But what really brings a novel to life is when the same setting changes as the person re-visits it. Not only that, but it will be changing in different ways to each person who views it. An orphan might think a country house to be grand. A visiting maidservant might see the same house as tatty and uncared-for. Years later, the orphan might re-visit it and think it less imposing, and the visiting maidservant who has now worked there for years has ceased to see its tattiness, but only its warmth. When writing these changes I try to focus on small details that the individual character notices, because these count for a lot and act as anchor points to show how things have changed. The way the stone has been newly-polished on the front steps, the slight scent of old carpet that has been replaced by a smell of air-freshener. Settings change, they are not mere backdrops.

Every single scene and dialogue needs to move the story forward. You’ve probably heard that a million times before. In my view the move doesn’t have to be forward, as long as there is actual measurable change. In literary novels, the plot is usually that each person in the novel has a developing relationship with each of the others in the book. The relationship could be getting closer, or drifting further apart. These tensions are what form the plot. As long as the relationships are changing, and this change in turn is visibly affecting everyone else, then you have life in your novel.

In historical fiction the pivotal changes in political and moral attitudes can be really useful. Revolution, war and religious upheaval cause protagonists to pick sides, and almost always the opposing view is there too, to help the person change. A person who is grappling with the moral imperatives of slavery or suffrage for example, might change their mind (or have their mind forcibly changed for them)  in the course of a book. By the end of the book everything will look different to them. This is what you want. In order to have the maximum amount of change in a character, look for a cause in which he can have maximum investment, and then show how the events of the novel change that view. Find circumstances that force pro-monarchists to become rebels and anti-monarchists to become kings. The power of reversal is that it gives the most opportunity for change. Find the most contentious historical viewpoint you can and give it to your protagonist. Give the opposite to your antagonist. Make them change.

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 No 8 Suddenly

No 10 to come soon!

Picture from BBC : London Then and Now. The old photographs used in the post were taken by renowned late 19th and 20th Century photographers, including Henry Grant, Wolfgang Suschitsky, Roger Mayne and George Davison Reid, who made this image on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, Covent Garden, in 1930.

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


No Quick Fix – The Inherent Complexity of a Good Novel

Recently I have noticed that there has been a tsunami of  ‘How to’ writing guides published, and that these are selling extremely well. In fact it is probably more profitable, and perhaps easier, to write a book about writing a novel than it is to write a successful novel.

In fact that must be so – because so many people are buying them. If writing a novel was easy they wouldn’t be turning to these books for help.

The titles are designed to make it sound easy:  Fix your Plot in Five Seconds Flat! Be a Billionaire Bestseller in 30 Days! Secrets of Fail-safe Story Structures!

wedding speech helpOf course these books are designed to make it sound easy, because that’s what every novelist wants – an easy way to do this thing called writing a novel.

But the reality is that good novels are complex, intricate, difficult things, and just like life, a formula is not necessarily what creates a great novel, particularly for historical novelists who have to juggle the reality of real historical events alongside any story structure. It is a slightly more thorny task  to suddenly ‘create’ a worthy antagonist if the real history does not provide one. We cannot turn real characters into easily categorized roles in our novels, so have to work hard to fit our stories easily into conventional models, turning instead to internal motivations to create opposing forces.

It is not true, however, to say that good story structure has to be thrown out of the window, and that none of these books on writing have anything to offer. On the contrary, I’m a big fan of books on writing. But reading the book is often not the same as editing something with multiple timelines, events that must take place on certain days, or characters who are known to be a certain way because of genuine evidence. Such a journey is more like negotiating a maze of corridors with light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, but not necessarily where you thought the exit was.

I would argue that good novels are complex, that they weave a number of interlocking themes, ideas and plots. When working on a novel the urge to get it finished by an easy solution can be overwhelming, but rather than looking for a ‘quick fix’ it is often better to sit with the complexities, let them simmer and brew, making your novel that much richer and subtler in the process. Anyone will find it easy to apply story structure to a novel after it is finished – to point out the mid-point, the hook etc etc. But the simple structures may have been a lot less easy to spot whilst the novel was in progress, and too often in desperation to see our novels finished, we want to fix them too early, before they have had a chance to breathe.

In order to sell books, it is argued, we must be more productive, to build our readership more quickly. This can induce a panic (and a vague sense of being bullied) to produce more and more books, but does not necessarily mean that the books are better. A readership is not built on bad books. I would argue that like wine, a good novel needs to be matured. A book like Shantaram or The Far Pavilions both at nearly 1000 pages long, (yes, 1000 pages!) surely cannot be produced quickly. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, a historical novel about the time of the building of cathedrals in England, took about 10 years to write, but has stayed popular with readers ever since.

For those of you who still would like a quick fix (I can’t convince you, can I?) then I heartily recommend ‘How not to write a novel’ by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark, which not only avoids telling you what to do, but shows you what NOT to do through a series of hilarious but cleverly-constructed ‘bad writing’ examples. When you are feeling like you need a quick fix, pick this up instead and sift through your novel for similar cringeworthy examples. Total gold.