Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Writing Historical Fiction

Some really good tips from the Debut Dagger award.

RS (Ruth) Downie, whose novels are set in Roman Britain and feature doctor and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso

A few thoughts on writing the historical crime novel
‘Historical,’ can cover every period between the dawn of time and the era in which someone my own age could have appeared as a character. If your novel is set before Ronnie Wood auditioned for the Rolling Stones, then you may not have thought so, but it’s historical.

Choose your moment
One seasoned professional advises writers to set their historical whodunits in a period that readers will already know something about. This is sound advice. It saves a great deal of tedious explanation – most of us know who Henry VIII was – and to be honest a familiar background is more likely to attract readers than something they’ve never heard of.

However, I suspect most of us don’t choose our settings on a rational basis. We fall blindly in love with them. So I’d say, go for the era that grabs you by the throat: the one that you find curious and shocking and that makes you feel sorry – or relieved – that you missed it. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of time there. If you aren’t fascinated by it, why would your readers be?

Know the world
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee (author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting) stresses how important it is for a writer to know the world of the story. Research – your own, not culled from other people’s novels – may turn into an addictive distraction, but there are at least two huge benefits.

Firstly, the deeper your knowledge, the wider the choices you have about what to include in your own story, and the less likely you are to produce cliché.

Secondly, your understanding of how your characters’ world works will help to convince a reader that it’s real. If that world is real, then so are the challenges and dangers the characters face, and the risks they must take to overcome them. That worried reader will just have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens…

The delights of research
With the advent of broadband, research is easier than ever. Most public libraries offer free home access to Encyclopaedia Britannica and other good reference material online, and libraries can often track down costly or obscure books in return for very modest fees.

Sadly writers of historical crime can’t cadge free rides in police cars in the interests of art, but we can enjoy plenty of site visits and trips to museums. We also deserve the occasional Grand Day Out. One of my favourites is the English Heritage Festival of History, where swathes of re-enactors can provide answers to questions about ‘how it feels/smells/tastes/works’ – the sort of hands-on knowledge that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Incidentally, everyone gets the occasional ‘fact’ wrong. A healthy amount of concern about potential errors will make you a more thorough researcher. Beyond that, you can either lie awake picturing your public humiliation when the book is published, or just accept that you have done your best and get on with the next chapter.

And the dangers…
Having done all that research, it’s time to step back and make some tough decisions about how much of it to include in the text. The reader doesn’t need to know everything you’ve taken all that trouble to find out.

It’s worth skimming back over a few historical crime novels you’ve enjoyed, to see how much factual material is included, how it’s relevant to the plot, and how cleverly (or not) it’s been slipped in. Personally, when I read a novel, I want to be given enough detail to surprise and intrigue, to draw me into a different world and to fire the imagination – but what I’m really hoping for is to be swept up into a good story where I care what happens to the characters.

Being economical with the truth
Obviously if your novel involves real people, you will have to abide by what we know of them – but writers edit the ‘facts’. They adapt and interpret. They guess. Some even decide to improve upon history for the sake of a good story. The Emperor Commodus didn’t really die in the arena while murdering Russell Crowe, but did Gladiator’s audiences care? A few of them did. The rest made it into a huge box-office hit.

The joy of writing fiction is that it doesn’t have to be true. It just has to look that way.

Art thou looking at me, sunshine?
Language evolves surprisingly fast, and the historical novelist’s challenge is to create the feel of one era while using the language of another. The further back your setting, the wider the gulf between what reads easily now and what would be authentic for the time.

Dialogue is especially tricky. Again, check out a few good historical novels and what you’ll find is a compromise, with the writer working to give a flavour of the period while remaining accessible to the present-day reader.

My own books are set in Roman Britain, so I’m lucky enough to have characters who wouldn’t have spoken English anyway. This allows me a certain freedom but also means that word-play is pretty much off-limits. As are anachronistic metaphors. Romano-Britons, wearers of tunics held together with metal clasps, wouldn’t have pocketed money. Or buttoned their lips.

Would you believe it?
Another gulf between ‘now’ and ‘then’ is more subtle: it’s the difference between how we think and feel today, and the attitudes our ancestors would have held. Greed, lust, anger and love may be constant, and murder is shocking in any age, but what are your characters’ views on casual violence? On public hangings? On child labour? On slavery? On religion? On sex? On married women owning property?

You may not share their opinions – you may not much like them, either - but it’s important to acknowledge them. They could well provide the tension that underlies a gripping plot.

How far will your characters go to defend their rights, or to preserve their good name? Would they threaten? Bribe? Blackmail? Would they kill? And how, given the technology of the day, would they go about it?

It’s up to you.

Ruth’s latest book is published in the UK as Ruso and the Root of All Evils and in the USA as Persona Non Grata. You can find out more about Ruth and her books on her website:


LilyS said...

Great post, thanks!

Totalfeckineejit said...

I wrote some hysterical fiction.

Emerging Writer said...

I'll see can I pinpoint an appropriate competition for you, TFE