WITH ALMOST EVERYONE IN THE UK SALIVATING over the second series of ‘Downton Abbey’, this is the perfect time to write historical fiction. In hard times, such as our current ‘slump’, we indulge in nostalgia. Three of the six book shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker are historical, and in 2009 Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ won it. However, at our more mundane level, only one publication on Duotrope features historical writing only – ‘Solander’, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society – although many ezines accept historical stuff alongside other genres.
Historical fiction has moved away from bog-standard historical romance, although older writers of this genre, such as Georgette Heyer, still have a loyal following, especially in the US. The most enduring historical sub-genre appears to be historical detective fiction: each one of Lindsey Davis’s novels about her Roman ‘informer’, Falco, becomes a best-seller . . . and there are many others. Also thriving is SteamPunk, a sub-genre with a foot in the sci-fi camp, featuring the steam age but with futuristic inventions.
The Historical Novel Society states that ‘historical’ fiction must be written at least fifty years after the event, but my personal view is that for a piece to be ‘historical’ it only needs to strongly identify with a particular period of history, even if that period is relatively recent.
The HNS goes on to say, in its fiction guidelines for Solander, (www.historicalnovelsociety.org) that ‘Our stories must advance and be resolved . . . must have a beginning, middle and end . . . the characters must be passionately engaged with their world, and with THIS particular moment in their lives.’ In other words, historical fiction, like any other kind, is concerned with character and plot. It’s about what happens to characters who happen to live at a specific time and is definitely not an account of historical events.
All this requires research. Some writers research first and write afterwards. I, on the other hand, read around a subject, then write and do detailed research as I go along. Unlike academic historians who largely explore the ‘why’, historical fiction writers must research and must seek out the ‘what’, especially little details that make a setting feel real. I spend a lot of time looking at photographs. A site visit to the location of your story is essential, however distant in time your historical setting. Research must be written into fiction with a light hand; include only those facts that are relevant to the storyline, however fascinating other snippets may be. Remember that all sources are biased and incomplete – yes, even primary sources – and you only get at the truth when you know what the bias is and make allowances for it.
I have had three historical short stories published, including one reminiscence, and am plugging away at a novel set in the 1980s – which may even fall within the HNS’s fifty year definition of ‘historical’ by the time I finish it. Any Dockers ready to join me on a historical forum?
– Charlie Britten