Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Seven Virtues – No 1 Bravery

PZ 400:06 Inv 4214 Viktor Vasnetsov: Warrior at the Crossroads, 1882 The Russian Museum
The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov 1882
Having thought about what might constitute the Seven Deadly Sins in Historical Fiction, I’m now getting a little balance by paying attention to the Seven Virtues. And one of them for certain is bravery, and by this, I mean courage with the language. It is a chance for us to wield words from the past and words from the present to give a unique flavour to what we are writing, and somehow breathe life into the period.
One of the most unusual novels of recent times is The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, set just before the Norman Invasion.
He claims his language is ‘written in a tongue that no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.’
the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness
none will loc but the wind will cum. the wind cares not for the hopes of men
the times after will be for them who seen the cuman
the times after will be for the waecend
I loved the fact that there are no capital letters, which somehow gives the impression of uncials. Part of what made the book strange was its uncompromisingly unlikable but realistic protagonist, but part of it was the way the language drew you in to a simpler time, and supported this violent, even sadistc view of life. For the opposite extreme, take this example, from  Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Hawksmoor’, a mannered version of the 18th century – almost, but not quite a pastiche. In this novel, taking place in two time periods, the past and present are contrasted in their language.
 Is Dust immhawksmoor-by-peter-ackroydortal then, I ask’d him, so that we may see it blowing through the Centuries? But as Walter gave no Answer I jested with him further to break his Melancholy humour: What is Dust, Master Pyne?
And he reflected a little: It is particles of Matter, no doubt.
Then we are all Dust indeed, are we not?
And in a feigned Voice he murmered, For Dust thou art and shalt to Dust return. Then he made a Sour face, but only to laugh the more.
Here, modern spelling, grammar and capitalization have been jettisoned in favour of something that will help us to feel our way into the past through the language itself, not just what it depicts. The medium has become the message.
One of the difficulties of attempting something this bold is that it puts the author’s voice slap bang in front of the reader. So it is a brave writer who moulds the language in this way – and I have to say, probably a literary writer, because the bravery has to exist on both sides of the divide – the writer and the reader. Not many readers are prepared to work that hard, but the hope is, of course, that the reader will soon become immersed in the work, despite the fact that the text cannot easily become ‘invisible.’ But this is something that is rarely attempted in contemporary fiction. There is something about history and the rich dictionary and etymology of the past that demands exploration, and is almost irresistible for a writer. Even without describing a single setting, the language alone can, tardis-like, transport us back in time.
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


The strengths of a first historical novel #histfic

Before I came to write my first historical novel, The Lady’s Slipper, most of my writing was contemporary. I read a lot of contemporary fiction as well as historical fiction. A few years ago I would have been surprised to find I had produced a historical novel. So why write one?

The answer is that it wasn’t a case of me deciding on a period and then setting the novel there, it was more that my characters demanded certain conditions to flourish and tell their story. I started with a character who wanted to paint an orchid – I had seen the rare lady’s-slipper orchid myself and wanted to write (initially) a poem about it. This desire was subverted into my character’s desire to capture it in paint. From then on the character grew and developed. I thought for the flower to have impact I needed a time when ideas about botany and images of flowers were new and fresh. Perhaps a time before mass printing, a time when herbs and flowers were used for healing. This led me to the 17th century when herbalists such as Nicolas Culpeper were just making their mark on history and the science of botany was in its infancy. My journey into the past had begun.

Research, and the idea of the medicinal use of the lady’s-slipper then sparked the character of Margaret the herbalist, whose views on “the web of the world” were a very different religion from the conformist view of the time. I am interested in the different ways that faiths have shaped the world and this tied in nicely with the burgeoning Quaker movement, viewed in the 17th century as radical and dangerous. I couldn’t resist having a Quaker character, so Richard Wheeler was born. In addition, the Quaker movement started close to my home in Westmorland, and visits to the still surviving historical sites fascinated me. Left – Townend, a yeoman’s 17th century house close to my home.

I was also keen to exploit the enmity between two men, and needed an atmosphere of unease where people felt unsafe so that the developing plot would be credible. The English Civil War where the King had been beheaded by his own people supplied the background disturbance I needed.

So the idea of a historical setting grew organically from the characters, and their needs, and not from some idea I had about being a ‘historical novelist, ‘ or even about who my readers would be. It had nothing to do with sales, or markets, or social media. A first novel is often like that – it has a sort of innocence, despite its journey through agents, editors, re-writes and the breathless moment of its first appearance on a shelf.

A few years down the line, and I find to my surprise that I have stuck with the genre, and written five adult novels and three teen novels, all historical. I found that I love to discover new things about the past, and that forging into the research for a historical novel is an adventure all of its own. The objects and documents of the past are still available to us in galleries and museums, and the novelist’s job is to supply just enough detail in the setting, so that the reader will transform these into real environments. It is subtle, this balance – too much and the reader’s senses are overwhelmed. Too little, and the reader will not have enough fuel to imagine the scene. The more work the reader does – the more the novel is his own construct – the deeper will be the immersive experience.

Recently I have heard that the rights for my first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, will be returning to me. Mindful of some of the reader reviews, I looked over the novel to see if I wanted to change it. I was surprised to find I didn’t. Yes, it has flaws, like all creative works, but reading it took me back to my sheer delight at being able to convey the world of the past through words. This enthusiasm seems to shine through behind the text. And, if I change it, it will no longer be a marker for me – a visible sign that my writing has matured. I know more now; about language and plot, and how to structure a book. Since producing it, I have read books on writing, blogs on editing, endless articles on hooks, teasers and break-outs. But all of these are technical, and cannot replace the sheer momentum of a good story, and the fresh passion for writing history that I had just discovered.

So although I could choose to ‘improve’ the novel, I risk losing something by doing so – that barely discernible excitement that I found through discovering my metier and means of expression.


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?





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.


What to do on the day your book comes out

pic from
Movie Poster Shop

Today my third historical novel, ‘A Divided Inheritance’ is out. For me, this is the culmination of eighteen months of research and writing and so deserves to be celebrated.

Trouble is – often it is only the writer who is so keenly aware of this date – the date that has been anticipated so eagerly for months or years. So here are my tips for a great day when your book is launched, whether or not someone sends you flowers or a big ‘Congratulations’ card.

1. Be your own biggest fan. You of all people, should love your book! Go on, put that five star review on Goodreads (with a suitable note of course saying you are the author.)

2. If you work at a desk, clear your desk, even if you are already working on something else. It gives a sense of something ending and something new beginning. Make your desk look like you’d like it to look all the time. Flowers? Nice new lamp? Go on. If you don’t work at a desk, clear something else. (No, not the dreaded email backlog, that’s not very celebratory!)

3. You’ve achieved something, so you deserve a reward. Writing a book is a big achievement so allow yourself a big reward. At the very least you deserve a day off! That is why I am scheduling this post! Get away from the desk, get some fresh air, even if another writing deadline is looming. Retail therapy or coffee with friends can work. Dinner at a nice restaurant? That day out you promised yourself?

4. If your book is stocked by your local bookshop, go and look at your book on the shelf. Isn’t it great! Don’t be tempted to see all those other books and slump at the competition – instead, think what excellent company you are in – and yes, if you must,  surreptitiously turn yours face out, or put it near the front of the shop!

5. If it’s a virtual book, treat yourself to someone else’s book that was launched at the same time. They will appreciate it, and you might discover a great new writer. Writers love readers!

6. Forget sales. Today is about art and meaning. An idea which was until now only in your head, will soon be in the heads of a lot of other people. It’s an idea only you could have brought into the world. Nobody else. Only you. Good job!

 ‘the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means’

William Faulkner

7. Feed your imagination. If you don’t you might not write another book, so today is a good day to let that imagination of yours roam wild and free. For a historical novelist, museums, galleries and old houses provide food for thought.

8. Mail at least one person to thank them. Often others have invested in your book with help or advice, and it’s good to acknowledge their input especially on the day it comes out. Your family might need some TLC too. ( Tip – You might need to remind them today is launch day.)

9. Give away at least one copy so you know that someone who will enjoy it is reading it. Donate one to your local library or the hospital. There is nothing that makes the whole process feel more real than to see it in someone else’s hands.

10. Wish your own book Good Luck. Find a quiet space and give it the send off it deserves – toast it in champagne, shout out its name, give it a hug and kiss  – or whatever feels right.


And here is my book, doesn’t it look splendid? Big thanks to the publishers, Macmillan, and especially to Jenny Geras and Natasha Harding my editors.