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Writing a Historical Novel

Historical novels are becoming more popular in recent years and that has got many writers wanting in on the action. It is not for the faint of heart, though. It typically takes three times as long to write a historical novel as it does to write a novel set in modern times, because of the amount of research that is involved.

Having said that, there has been so much written about how difficult it is to author a historical novel that you can easily discourage yourself from writing one altogether if you aren't careful. My hope is that you will stop reading articles about writing a historical novel (after you read this one, of course) and get to work on writing yours.

A few weeks ago, I watched the Nova documentary entitled The Ghosts of Machu Picchu. It was not until I sat down to write this article, however, that I realized its relevance to writing historical fiction.

Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan city in Peru. It was built in the 15th century, high on a mountain. The fact that the mountain is prone to frequent avalanches, sits on not one but two fault lines, and receives torrential rains of approximately 76 inches per year only added to the wonder of how the city has survived the centuries.

As one discovers upon closer observation, the Incan builders took special care to ensure the city's longevity. They started at the base of the mountain, and built terraces all the way to the top to sure up the mountain. Then, as excavations have shown, they created a foundation for the city some 9 feet deep below the surface, with over 100 drains installed to control rain runoff. It is estimated that 60% of the work that went into building Machu Picchu is underground and concealed from the naked eye.

Writing historical fiction is much like building Machu Picchu. You want your novel to stand the test of time and that means doing the historical research to "sure it up." But you don't want your research to be flaunted before your readers any more than the builders of the city wanted us to stand in awe of their foundation. The research has to be there but it is your creative work, your story, that you want the reader to stand in awe of; not your research.

To write a good historical novel, you will need the same skills that any good novelist would need:

  • you need to be able to tell a good story.
  • You need to know how to build a good plot.
  • You will need to have the final chapter in your mind and write toward that end.
  • Some say you need to capture the reader's attention in the first 5 pages, but modern readers are even more flippant than readers of past decades. If you don't have their attention in the first 5 paragraphs, you may have lost them.

What sets historical writing apart from novels with a modern environment is that the writer cannot rely on his or her common knowledge to describe sights, smells, tastes, or even the motives of their characters. Like any novelist, you need to understand people well enough to guess at their motives and logic. But unlike a modern novelist, you have to divorce yourself from modern ideals of what is socially acceptable and entertain motives and logic that may not be acceptable in our time. When you write about polar explorers, for example, you will have to accept that they killed and ate their sled dogs and fed the scraps to their remaining dogs, without judging them for it, or painting your hero with modern sensibilities that are ahead of their times. After all, it is the faults of heroes and heroines, and it is your ability to make the reader sympathize, despite them, that makes memorable characters for your story.

I cannot leave this point without sounding a word of caution, however, that there are social paradigms you may wish to overlook in order to make your characters more palatable, while remaining honest with the historicity of the character. If Thomas Jefferson is a character you want your readers to sympathize with, for example, you may not want to over-emphasize the fact that he owned hundreds of slaves, unless it is relevant to your plot. I say this because you have to be honest with that truth if you address it. You cannot then have him telling his slaves to have a glass of lemonade while he finishes their duties.

This leads me to another important point. It requires more skill for you to avoid things that you don't know about or are unimportant to the development of your story than it does to flaunt your knowledge of the time period. Again, if your readers wanted a history lesson, they would have picked up a textbook and not a novel. They want to escape into another time and, for a moment, get lost in the person of that period that you have created for them.

There is a trust that a reader gives the author when they pick up the book to read; a trust that you know the period about which you are writing. They have not picked up the book to judge that knowledge, but if you betray that trust through poor research, they can be most unforgiving. If you use terms that were not in use in the time, or refer to technology that did not exist at the time, a knowledgeable reader will likely be through with you.

One may presume that candles were in use in the time of King David, because translations refer to "candlesticks" but readers well versed in the time will know that it means lamp-stand and that candles had not been invented yet.

One would assume that the builders of Machu Picchu used carts to move their stones, but they had not yet discovered the wheel.

One would assume the climate of England in the 1600s if they did not take into consideration "the little ice age." In other words, you are traveling into another world and can take nothing for granted.

Historical novelist, Elizabeth Crook, has written on her website about her creative process. She advises that you be willing to do many revisions and "Dump the Ballast" or cut out those interesting factoids that don't support your plot. She also warns against succumbing to the temptation to write in first person. When readers here someone speak on and on, describing themselves and their actions in minute detail, it makes the narrator sound self-absorbed and less likable.

When it comes to research, the foundation of your Machu Picchu, Elizabeth Crook notes, writing historical fiction is like trying to get to San Marcos when you have no car, you don't know where the road is, and you have never in your life harnessed a half-lame mule to a flatbed wagon. Assume it is going to be a while before you arrive.

By now you are probably thinking, "I thought this article was going to encourage me to get writing." If so, here is the good news:

You don't need a university education to write historical fiction. You just have to love research. Digging into past times and cultures can be very exciting. If you don't think so, stick to writing in modern settings. In fact, getting caught up in overdoing the research is often the greatest problem with those who write in this genre (I know I am guilty).

Doing the research has never been easier. You can travel to your location for inspiration; use the Internet, local libraries and museums; or even pick up the phone and call an expert in the culture or time with an intelligent list of questions to get them talking.

More good news: your storyline is already there in history. This is a huge part of the novelist's creative process that has already been done for you by Father Time. All you have to do is look at the history, create a timeline for your story, and use your creativity to fill in the gaps.

In summary, your readers trust you enough to step into your time machine and have you as their tour guide. You need to know your world – how it smells, looks, feels, tastes – better than they do without touting it. But don't let the research bog you down. Write. You may include facts that may later prove irrelevant to your story. You may skip over relevant technology until you can research it more. That is what revision is for.

Eventually, you have to stop using research as an excuse and get writing. Use Machu Picchu as your guide: 60% foundation and 40% city; 60% research and 40% you.

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