Very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of fiction in the same way as any other novelist. Learning how to write good scenes that will keep readers turning the pages is as vital as getting the factual details right. Yet those details must be nailed. Characters jumping off the page as modern-day people disguised in period garb, spouting contemporary lingo, will break your scenes.
Here are 6 tips for using historical detail to create authentic scenes, though I’m sure there are many more.
Tip #1 Don’t Hit Your Readers Over the Head
Unless you already have a PhD in your chosen time period, you will need to learn almost every detail about it: what people wore and ate, how they cooked and washed, what their home was like and how they spoke and thought.
Something you unearthed during your research may seem a golden nugget for you, but might not have the same fascination for your reader. So avoid hitting your readers over the head with every single one of these details. Readers want to be entertained with a cracking story. If they want facts, they’ll read a history text book.
Don’t have characters tell each other historical facts. Apart from the fact that they probably know this information, it’s an obvious author ploy and risks jerking readers right out of your scene. Things like: ‘Come to my cottage tomorrow,’ he said, ‘the one with the strips of wattle woven together and covered in a plaster of animal hair and clay,’ is a sure atmosphere-killer.
But don’t fret over the hours you spent gathering these details. They haven’t been wasted, since it was necessary to spend this time gathering all the facts in order to sift through them and choose which ones to use. Besides, they can always be used in the scenes of a future book.
Tip #2 If in Doubt, Leave it Out
The trick to writing good historical fiction is not in compiling research or learning the details, but in knowing which of these details to leave out of your scenes Or, if you are like me and tend to go overboard in the first draft, which ones to delete. Ask yourself: does you reader really need to know this? Does this advance my scene or my overall story? Is this truly essential for my scene? Read it out loud and if it serves no purpose, or sounds contrived, delete it. If in doubt, leave it out.
Tip #3 Time and Place
To create evocative scenes, you are obviously going to research the time period in which your novel is set, but you also need to know what the place was actually like. I live in rural France, but that doesn’t mean I instinctively know what the village was like in the 14th or 18th centuries, when two of my novels are set. You need to find out what plants and animals existed, what it smelt like (odours from the kitchen and the privy!), the weather, the noises, what people were saying and what they believed in. Use all your senses when employing description within your scenes.
Tip #4 Dialogue and Vocabulary
It’s very difficult to know exactly how people in the past really spoke, and even more difficult to recreate accurate speech that isn’t off-putting for your reader. So aim for authenticity, rather than accuracy, and your scenes will be more entertaining. For example in Blood Rose Angel, third novel of my series which is set in medieval France, people didn’t use the same swear words as we do now. They tended to be religion-based. But if I’d had every character using curses like “God’s bones”, “Satan’s blood” or “The Devil’s arse”, it would have sounded rather over the top. So I limited this kind of dialogue and vocabulary to only two, elderly characters. The same goes for using foreign words. Scenes stuffed with “Bonjour”, “Guten Tag,” “Ciao”, “Hola” or long phrases in a foreign language only alienate the reader. Just a littering is sufficient to ground them in that particular country.
Tip #5 Plan for the Long Haul
Due to the amount of research required, historical novels can take several years to write. You likely won’t know all the facts you need for every scene until you get there.
Oh, I wonder if that street in Paris was called rue de la Grange in the 18th century?
So you’ll have to keep interrupting your scene-writing to go back to your resources, a process which generally takes much longer than when writing contemporary fiction scenes.
Tip #6 Use Your Imagination
As an historical fiction author, you will need to do a lot of research to unearth the details of daily life. You then need to use your imagination to make your scenes glow with authenticity, and to truly transport your readers to the world you have created. Even if your story takes place centuries ago, sensing or imagining the spirit of a place––the trees and flowers, the seasonal light, the scents––will pull readers into your scenes.
A walk around the French village in which I live gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels, the first novel in my series, The Bone Angel. On the banks of the Garon River I stumbled upon a stone cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly). It is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried? I felt the urge to write the story of these lost children, but with no historical records, I had to use my research to imagine what they’d been like; to conjure up their family, their village, their identities, so I could bring them to life in each scene.
For Wolfsangel, the second book in the series, I visited the haunting memorial of Oradour-sur-Glane, site of a tragic WWII massacre. From this, I could more readily imagine the terror those people endured, and thus impart this to my readers.
Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, but many more contemporary novels appear. So, it seems that to interest readers, the scenes of historical novels must encompass those same qualities as contemporary ones––well written, entertaining and highly polished––coupled with accurate historical detail and imagination.
(c) Liza Perrat
About Blood Rose Angel
1348. A bone-sculpted angel and the woman who wears it––heretic, Devil’s servant, saint. Midwife Héloïse has always known that her bastard status threatens her standing in the French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne. Yet her midwifery and healing skills have gained the people’s respect, and she has won the heart of the handsome Raoul Stonemason. The future looks hopeful. Until the Black Death sweeps into France.
Fearful that Héloïse will bring the pestilence into their cottage, Raoul forbids her to treat its victims. Amidst the grief and hysteria, the villagers searching for a scapegoat, Héloïse must choose: preserve her marriage, or honour the oath she swore on her dead mother’s soul? And even as she places her faith in the protective powers of her angel talisman, she must prove she’s no Devil’s servant, her talisman no evil charm.
Blood Rose Angel, from the spellbinding The Bone Angel series, tells a story of continuing family traditions, friendships overcoming adversity, and how good and evil are too often bestowed on fellow humans in the name of faith––Zoe Saadia, author of ‘The Rise of the Aztecs’ and ‘The Peacemaker’ series.