How I write: Historical fiction

  • Historical stories are born of interest in a particular time and place.
  • Story-specific research is necessary as the story develops.
  • Details of the setting and dialogue make a story feel authentic, but overdoing it will lose the reader.
  • Period-specific objects are explained by description of their action or by their needing repairs.
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Kelkheim (CC / Flickr)

I stood on London’s Old Bailey Street, trying to imagine how it must have looked and smelled before Lady Justice stood over the central criminal court and the squalid hell of Newgate Prison stood in its place. Every Monday, the ‘new drop’ gallows were rolled on to the cobblestones beneath my feet to hang 20 people at once. They were designed when the ‘bloody code’s’ mandate of death for petty theft outstripped the number of thieves who could be hanged from the Tyburn Tree.

That day gave the new drop a starring role in two stories, one being Newgate Jig and one best not mentioned as it’s sitting with a publisher and waiting for an edition.

That’s the effect history has on me.

Reading and research

My interest in writing historical fiction came from reading historical fact. Old Bailey Street spoke to me because I read a lot of it. That was how I knew what had been there and what happened there, and how it came together to inspire those stories. My reading also gave me a background of knowledge from which I could pick the points relevant to the stories.

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Antonio Ponte (CC / Flickr)

Reading is a necessary prelude to writing any fiction, but especially historical fiction. There would have been no point in deciding to write a story in a period I knew nothing about because I wouldn’t know the most interesting points to bring into the story. The reason most of my historical fiction is set in Britain or the empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is because I went through a period of reading everything I could get my hands on from that period. Now I only read most of what I can get my hands on.

For example, the idea that became Cassandra’s Cargo was born when I stumbled across Waterloo teeth. By the early nineteenth century, a corrosive combination of a passion for sugar and a lack of dental hygiene was rotting the teeth of the English middle class. Bad news for sweet-toothed ladies and gentlemen, good news for anyone who could charge them for replacement. The preferred source of spare teeth was the working class, whose teeth were healthier than those of their social superiors because they could not afford sugar. The carnage of the Battle of Waterloo was a bonanza for the dental industry and, once I knew about it, an inspiration to me, but only because I had enough knowledge to contextualise this new snippet.

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Felix Nine (CC / Flickr)

As I develop a story, I invariably come across gaps in my knowledge I hadn’t considered. Hence I usually have to look a few things up in the process of planning the story. Once I have a first draft to edit, more gaps appear. Thankfully, more and more historical information is appearing on the internet so it’s easier to hunt down minutiae than it used to be. When I edited  Steel in the Morning, I spent ages hunting down an approximate cab fare from Southwark to Hyde Park, and confirming that there were no gas lights in London in 1808.

Why, you may ask, does such detail matter? For one thing, readers drawn to historical fiction often know enough history to notice if a detail is wrong. That’s not mere pedantry. I want them immersed in the story, and that’s not where they will be if I’ve dropped a clanger. They’ll notice they’re reading a poorly imagined version of history instead of being immersed in it. I can still remember a novel written recently enough that setting it in 1991 made it historical fiction. I couldn’t take it seriously after one of the characters went home to look something up on the internet. It makes me shudder to think of how long it would have taken to google something at 1991 internet speeds, had there been anything worth googling and had Google or any of its forbearers actually existed.

Another reason is that detail provides a sense of authenticity, even if the reader doesn’t know whether it’s authentic or not. Mentioning the smell of dog excrement emanating from a tannery conjures far more about a street in Regency London than several paragraphs of description.

Period dialogue

Authenticity may need to be moderated in the dialogue. If I stepped into that eighteenth century tannery and held my nose long enough to have a conversation with the tanner, I probably wouldn’t understand a word he said. Even if I could decode his accent and slang, his tannery would be full of tools and processes that I’ve never heard of.

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Steve Weaver (CC / Flickr)

Writing period dialogue is a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Contemporary fiction gives a flavour of the language of the day. Jane Austen for the upper and middle classes, Charles Dickens for the street and Walter Scott for Scotland. Mercifully, the Dictionary of the Flash Language and the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue are now only a click away, though their ease of access makes it easy to get carried away. The point of authentic dialogue is to help the reader suspend the sense of disbelief that is telling them they’re not walking down a street in 1802 London but reading some obscure modern writer’s description of it. It is not to recreate a version of London that will pass muster with a committee of academic historians, although the best historical fiction probably would. A little goes a long way, but overdoing it will lose the reader.

The occasional slang word with a meaning that’s apparent from context confers authenticity. Trying to replicate the argot of the day is likely to lose the reader, and it probably won’t be authentic unless you can listen to a recording. Even Scott and Dickens probably toned it down for the benefit of their middle class readers.

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Juan Pacheco Tirado (CC / Flickr)

For example, there’s a scene in Newgate Jig where Le Méridien bribes his way into the women’s section of Newgate Prison. The keeper sends the turnkey to escort him with an instruction to ‘mind they don’t clout his purse’. Hopefully, it’s clear that ‘clout’ means steal in this context. I could equally have used the verb ‘lay’, which means the same thing in the ‘flash’ language of the day. However, it would mislead a modern mind, which would read an entirely different meaning but one also relevant to a man illicitly entering a women’s prison.

Ironically, the further from contemporary English the authentic language would be, the easier it gets because it becomes a matter of translation rather than replication. The mediaeval English of the Canterbury Tales is incomprehensible without instruction, so it’s best to write in modern English with a flavour for the mediaeval rather than to try to write Chaucerian. Even the Elizabethan English of the language’s greatest writer needs a bit of practice to read comfortably. Most Anglophones can open King Lear and get the gist, but many still find it a hard read. When I write historical fiction, I’m trying to tell a story, not show off my antiquarian language skills.

How does the widget work?

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Viewminder (CC / Flickr)

In Newgate Jig, there is a moment when the story pivots around the workings of a flintlock pistol. Specifically, the moment between the lock sparking the priming powder and the detonation of the powder in the barrel that fires the ball. The characters were know their flintlocks, so they wouldn’t give that moment any thought. On the other hand, I couldn’t assume that every reader would know about it so it needed explaining somehow.

It’s a problem that comes up a lot in historical fiction, and one it shares with science fiction. Both genres often have characters using things that the reader won’t be familiar with. A direct explanation would break the viewpoint as my characters wouldn’t think about how their flintlocks work anymore than I think about microwaves when I answer my phone.

I was able to get around the problem by simply explaining the action as it happened. If I can’t get away with that, I need to find a reason to work the explanation in earlier. In Under the Hooked Cross, I worked something that would become important later into a safety briefing. If all else fails, I’ll break the item in question so the characters have to repair it. They will then have a reason for thinking about what it does and how.

For a masterclass in sneaking explanations of unfamiliar technology into a ripping yarn, I recommend paying close attention to CS Forester’s Hornblower and the Hotspur. His characters inhabit a crowded, windborne world governed by the mechanical complexities of rigging that takes a hundred men to handle and the logistical complexities of keeping them all fed and watered. Forester makes that world and its problems real without ever boring us with exposition about it or losing us in its complexities.

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Hugh Llewelyn (CC / Flickr)

My own attempts

Looking through my list, I can see that most of my historical fiction is either sitting with publishers or still looking for one. The good news is that three of the ones that have been published are available for free:

Full text of Cassandra’s Cargo

Full text of Steel in the Morning

Full text of Newgate Jig

Preview of Seeking Kailash

Preview of Under the Hooked Cross

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing
10 comments on “How I write: Historical fiction
  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article- historical events always offer such a rich source of inspiration.. I don’t know if you’ve read the Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffery Robertson, but it’s a fascinating story about John Cooke, the lawyer involved in the case against Charles I. It’s a fascinating look into English legal history (and yes, walking past the Old Bailey, and the Inns of Court do make you wonder at all the events which have occurred there over the centuries..) I really enjoyed Cassandras Cargo by the way- fabulously written, and I learnt something new today in those Waterloo Teeth- there’s a market for everything so long as there’s a demand isn’t there? 🙂

  2. Tastyniblets says:

    For some reason my login isn’t working properly- it’s Az from Tastyniblets 🙂

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for the recommendation. I hadn’t heard of the Tyrannicide Brief but I’ll look for it now. It’s not a period I know much about, but learning is always fun. Do you write much historical fiction?

  3. Tastyniblets says:

    I do have two idea which I peck at occasionally, and I’ll get around to one day, but do read a lot in that genre. At this stage I’m still developing my writing skills with smaller, frivolous projects before tackling a more ‘serious’ piece. And as you say, historical fiction is a genre which requires a lot of research and time to be pulled off convincingly..

  4. Tastyniblets says:

    not very 🙂 I’m trying to build a solid daily writing habit in between work and family – the usual really.. the historical fiction projects are two bigger ideas, which will need to be novel sized in order to be told properly. They were inspired by a trip to India a few years go. One is based on the life of the moguls, and the story behind construction of the Taj Mahal. The other is about the labourers sent by the British to work in other parts of the world – both stories will need extensive research as you can imagine.. At the moment I’m working on two fantasy/sci-fi book projects and working towards finishing the first drafts by the end of the year before moving on to something else for a while.. I get a bit greedy with story ideas and find it hard to wait till one is finished before starting another 🙂

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