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Time Travel for Historical Fiction Writers by Jean Fullerton

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Jean Fullerton

Jean Fullerton

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I fell in love with all things historical when, as a small child, I watched Roger Moore gallop over the hill on a white horse in Ivanhoe on a twelve-inch screen. For some of you it might have been a book you read in your formative years or a very good history teacher at school. But like me, I imagine your love of the past is the reason you want to write historical fiction.

Unlike films or television where the audience can see our characters and the world they inhabit, as writers we have to build those images using only words. This, of course, is true of any book, but it is especially important when writing historical fiction as we’re taking readers to unfamiliar territory.

If I wrote ‘Mary dashed into the supermarket and grabbed a trolley’, readers wouldn’t need to have the layout of the shop, the shopping system or a trolley described to them in detail. However, if Mary walked into a haberdasher’s shop in 1850 it would be very different.

A writer’s task is to give readers the tools to construct that bygone world in their imagination, so they are the unseen and silent characters of the story. However, one of the pitfalls lovers of history fall into when writing historical fiction is dumping historical details and facts in a block of text.

The secret to enveloping readers in the historical world you’ve created is using all five senses. Imagining yourself standing beside your characters and try to visualise the scene before you. If, in your mind’s eye, you can see the slurry between the cobbles in a 18th century Covent Garden side street, and then have your heroine holding her skirt up to avoid it, then your reader will see it too.

If you can smell the dung and hay of a stable, or hear the echoey sounds of the horses knocking their iron horseshoes on the cobbles as your male protagonist hides from his pursuers in a coaching inn, and if you can imagine the feel of damp seeping through his breaches as he lays on a Regency cell floor, or taste the bitterness of the cheap beer from a keg hitting the back of his throat, then you can recreate this all in words for you reader.

When you have the sensory details of the scene in your mind, you then need to feed them in surreptitiously alongside the dialogue and action.

I’ve given a little example here from the next book in my Ration Book series that I’ve just completed, when my heroine visits her local butcher in December 1942.

 

Leaving her son to watch the stall holders closing down their displays, Cathy went inside the shop scattering dirty sawdust under her feet. Ray, who was the son on the shop’s sign, was gathering up the last few handfuls of liver ready to deposit them in the fridge out the back. He looked up as she walked in.

Being the size of a brick outhouse, with wiry red hair and a face that could be described as lived-in, Ray hadn’t been all that lucky in love before the war but now, along with every other butcher in London and beyond, he was more attractive than Gary Cooper.

‘Hello, Caff’, he said wiping his hands down his blood streaked apron. ‘What can I do you for?’

Cathy eyed the trays behind the cabinet’s glass screen. The pork chops with the layer of plump white fat under the skin looked tempting but they were marked as 1/3p a pound. Reluctantly, her gaze moved on to the tray of tripe.   

‘Thruppence worth of tripe,’ Cathy said.

‘Right you are,’ said Ray. Licking his fingers, he slid a square of white paper onto the scales, then, jabbing the spiked ticket into another part of the display, he grabbed the white flesh in his claw-like hand. Slapping it on the sheet Ray dropped a couple of metal weights on the other side. He removed a couple of bits of meat until the upright needle settle in the middle. Satisfied he wrapped it up and placed it on the counter in front of her.

 

The secret to doing this successfully is to find out as many authentic details of everyday life as you can. There are a couple of ways of doing this.

The first is by using primary sources such as diaries, letters and contemporary accounts of life for the period in which your story is set. They will give you all the minutiae which is never recorded in textbooks.

Another source of visual period detail is photographs, or, if your story is set in a period before photography, paintings or etchings.

As a general rule of thumb, once you’ve described a setting don’t describe it again as the reader will conjure it in their mind when you take them there again. This helps to keep the reader totally immersed in your story’s world and avoids the need for great big blocks of telling, which people tend to skip.

Even though we are writing of a past age we must keep in mind our readers have the understanding and sensibilities of the 21st century. Modern readers are used to fiction which is dialogue heavy, with plenty of action and a fast-moving pace. It needs to grab them on the first page and keep them engaged until the end. Also, although you have to know everything about the world you’ve set your story in, you don’t have to put it all on the page.

The secret of successful historical world-building is to constantly look critically at your narrative and see if there are opportunities to slide in small historical details throughout. Good luck, and happy time travel.

(c) Jean Fullerton

About A Ration Book Wedding:

In the darkest days of the Blitz, love is more important than ever.

It’s February 1942, and as the Americans finally join Britain and her allies, twenty-three-year-old Francesca Fabrino is doing her bit for the war effort in a factory in East London. But her thoughts are constantly occupied by recently married Charlie Brogan, who is fighting in North Africa with the Eighth Army.

When Francesca starts a new job for the BBC Overseas department, she meets handsome Count Leo D’Angelo and begins to put her hopeless love for Charlie aside. But then Charlie returns from the front, his marriage in ruins and his heart burning for Francesca at last. Could she, a good Catholic girl, countenance an affair with the man she has always longed for? Or should she choose Leo and a different, less dangerous path?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

I was born into a large, East End family and grew up in the overcrowded streets clustered around the Tower of London. The Fullerton family have lived by London docks since the 1830s and all my books are set in and around this area.

East London has changed greatly and many of the old neighbourhoods I knew as a child have changed too, but I endeavour to bring them alive again in my East London stories of love, family and hard times. I feel that it is my background that gives my stories their distinctive authenticity.

I has been shortlisted for and won several awards and regularly undertake writing workshop. I’m fortunate enough to be a guest cruise lecturer and have sailed all around the world talking about East London’s vibrant history. I am married to a minister in the Church of England and have three grown-up daughters

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