This post is based on my notes from CC Humphreys’ workshop “Historical Fiction- Riding the Wave” at Surrey International Writers’ Conference, October 21, 2012. If you were at this workshop, and think I’ve misrepresented anything, please let me know in the comments below! In places my notes were cryptic!
C.C. (Chris) Humphreys has written several styles of historical fiction:
epic: A Place Called Armageddon
swashbuckler: Jack Absolute series
Writing is about character. Fit them into historical context. What’s important is people in a situation, whether the time is 500 years ago or 5000. They’re still people.
Tell yourself, “I’m a modern novelist I write for today I address today’s issues.” Whatever the theme is emerges sometimes years after. You see the thematic threads later. What you’re writing is set in a previous context, but it reflects today’s concerns
Research- how why what
Look up stuff . Anything you use is as a tool for telling a story. Diana Gabaldon describes a master who seemed to believe for history books, “I’ve suffered for my research, now it’s your turn.” The research Chris does gets him going, but in the end research has to be a tool of the characters. You can’t appreciate the character’s journey without their context.
No tangents and sidebars! If the history needs to be there to make sense of the character’s experience, then make an active choice around it. For example, in A Place Called Armageddon, he had to address the schism between the branches of Christianity. Orthodox and Roman churches governed people’s lives in Constantinople, Constantine. said he’d covert to Roman Catholicism if Europe would support him in war. So the information must be given. Another character needs to tell the information. In Vlad– the Balkan history was complex and necessary. He had to use structural device to oscillate between fact and story. In his case the device was either friend, lover, or confessor gathered in a basement talking about their experiences.
There are stakes involved in the research. It’s all about being active in historical research. In his case, he would bring the reader back to the dungeon to discuss needed information. People need the info, you tell it very actively through conversation, etc
With his first novel The French Executioner, he spent 6 years researching. He was scared of writing it. He felt he had to research until he knew everything, but it’s not necessary! It’s just procrastination! Do enough to get going, but then start writing, and fill holes as you need to. Julian Barnes said, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Facts are loose. Our history has been selected as fact by people who wanted to tell a story.
Write the best book you can write. The excitement is rearranging the facts to suit the story. If someone writes you later and says, “This is wrong,” so what? You wrote a book! Don’t do anything egregious, but it’s not your prime concern. Your concern is telling a good story.
There is so much that you don’t have control over, simplify to what you can control. Your attitude is controllable. Dismiss as absurd that there is a panel of experts ready to shred your book. They don’t exist. They’re not relevant. Ignore them.
Do the research. It doesn’t open telling details. It’s a springboard to the imagination
For the rhythm and vocabulary of the time, read the plays written in the time period to see how people speak buzz words, ways of talking.
For the emotional life of the period, read the poetry of the period
To the reader- dramatic reading, to give the context. it’s the compact with the reader, if you have a obscure time period, give an active explanation to tell them what they need to know.
Put your character in peril!
When handling all the different elements, break down the process, simply because it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Novel writing is like mountain climbing. First ascent should be as free form as possible. Writing the novel will give you more ideas for the novel.
Psychology of time-
Different psychology is evident in different periods. People’s beliefs and attitudes of the time aren’t necessarily the same. Don’t put anachronistic things into period character’s mouths, but your readers are modern. Shakespeare still relevant because at their core the stories are about people. People don’t change.
Plausible for the time and the people. Address details in subsequent drafts if they seem anachronistic. Balance it out: take the character on a journey so a modern change happens logically. Emotions don’t change. We still have primal emotions.
Should you go visit the place where your story is set?
How you arrive there is tricky. Even if you visit the place where your story is set, it won’t be the same. Go if you can, though. If you go, there are very different atmospheres to absorb. There are sounds and scents. Engage your senses. If you can’t go, it’s trickier, but we have a modern world with amazing things on the internet.
Use an Aide memoire while you’re there, or heck, write a whole scene. Make notes, record your feelings, and then months later you’ll be able to pull it out and put it into the story.
Readers who love historical fiction are after characters, but also time and place. Pay attention to how time and place has changed. Consider what is the same?
The goal is an intimate epic.
If you feel you want to abandon the book you’re writing for another project, are you being distracted by something shiny bright and new- or just stuck? If you can’t go on, that’s fair, but don’t be distracted just to avoid doing the hard work. You will get to places when you just need to plough through.
Writing dialogue- balance ye olde English with clearly understandable writing. Personally, you’ve got to be a little careful with it, but not so much that you restrict your character’s voice. Let them say whatever you want in the first draft. Slang is just ways we’ve come to get the point across. Find something they can say in 1692. Cussing can be a problem – soldiers need a certain saltiness – something analogous to the act of sex, but do the terms bring you out of the time period? Make a choice for your reader.
Recommended reading for finding vocabularly: Shakespeare’s Glossary of words by David Crystal
The further back you go in time, the easier it is, especially if it’s a foreign tongue. Find an equivalent phrase to create a reasonably easy way for your characters to speak. Make them more articulate than normal people on the street, though many were well educated. In novels- it’s about style, right. Find the truth in the character and then the character will speak truthfully. Be sure you offer readability for the modern reader, while honouring the age you’re writing about.
Consider the marketing line in one sentence: e.g. “Elizabethan spy novel.” They expect your character to be unexpected. It’s all about exploration, pushing the boundaries!
e.g. Jack Absolute:- Double O 7 of the 1770s
The reader can figure out the words you use. They’re not stupid.
Audience member: Or you can do what Diana Gabaldon did and write a book that explains the first 4 books.
Chris: But that’s Diana you see. She doesn’t sleep.