Timelines in Historical Fiction by Willie Orr

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Willie Orr

Willie Orr

If you are driven to write an historical novel, you will be faced with the task of devising timelines. Whether you are one of these authors who paper the walls with sticky notes or one who organises data strictly in notepads, you will find it helpful to have a visible time-line – unless you are a genius who can retain data in your head.

Historical facts, organised chronologically, are the scaffolding on which we construct our stories. Do we have to adhere strictly to the facts and the order in which they occur?  As historians we must but, as writers of fiction, we want to please our readers and can adjust the facts and chronology to create a story but still surely have a duty to present the truth. As historians we start with an hypothesis and test it against the facts as research reveals them. If we find that the facts contradict the hypothesis, we must have the integrity to change our theory. As writers of fiction, who put flesh on the bones, we have the power to alter the public image of protagonists or events.  We can canonise a brigand or demolish an icon. Do we stick strictly to the time-line and the conclusions of historians or do we enjoy the freedom of fiction?

In creating a scene from the past, we now have access to a vast array of sources and data. Too many perhaps and do we check their authenticity? Checking the facts takes time, patience and effort, but we have a duty to our readers to portray the past as we think it was.  At the same time, too many facts can overwhelm the story and the inclusion of facts purely to prove that we hold the magic keys to the past makes the text tedious and turgid.

Willie OrrAs writers of historical fiction, are we, like historians, obliged to portray the truth? As we plough through newspapers from British Newspaper Archive or publications from the Internet Archive, do we have any obligation to ensure the truth in our vision of the past? History is written by the victor but, as writers of fiction, we can illuminate the transgressions of the victor and the pain of the oppressed by the flesh we put on the bones, by digressing from time-lines and the victor’s account of the past. We can also introduce events that didn’t happen and characters who are imaginary to alter the perspective or twist the ‘truth’.

Historians, I think, find it difficult to discard the discipline which dictates adherence to the ‘facts’ when they launch into fiction. While loads of detail about costume, manners, settings and dates can add to authenticity, there’s a danger of overloading the text. The vast amount of material available on the internet tempts us to spend far too much time researching details which we imagine to be essential but which are really superfluous. When we paint a picture of the past, we don’t have to include every possible detail and every date.  Economy does not come easily but is the essence of good historical fiction. The flesh we add to the bones should be elegant rather than voluptuous, disciplined rather than extravagant. A balance, then, between historical fact and creative fiction.

Authenticity arises in the voices we give our characters. Dialect and patois seem to create a problem with publishers. Obviously, if it the voice is impenetrable or incomprehensible, it is unsaleable and of little value but, if it the reader can become accustomed to the style, it can be enjoyable. Andrea Levy and Sara Collins have used patois with great success. Yet agents and publishers regard it with suspicion, particularly if it is written by a Caucasian. ‘Yellow Face’  and ‘American Dirt’ have provoked the argument over ‘cultural appropriation’. Yet, if we try to re-create other races, periods, cultures, the language in the text must strive to be reasonably authentic surely. Novels written in the past are often profuse with dialect and patois yet there is little objection. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was a best- seller.

I imagine that crime writers start with a very clear and detailed structure. Perhaps we should all follow their practice but many of us prefer the freedom to digress, wander and improvise – a little self-indulgence, I suppose. How many of us start an empty page with one plan in mind and finish with a completely different conclusion? So, when we construct a time- line, let it not be rigid and precise. Writing fiction, I find, is a bit like snakes and ladders. We roll a dice with our plan and hope that it lands on a ladder. That’s what keeps us going, isn’t it – the hope? Writers have to be optimists. It was Flecker who said,

‘….We Poets of the proud old lineage

Who sing to find your hearts we know not why,-‘

(c) Willie Orr

About Return to Shiaba: Book Two of Leaving the Land by Willie Orr:


Following the success of Shiaba, this novel follows the lives of two crofters struggling to come to terms with the Highland clearances. While Catherine spreads her wings and finds new talents for survival within herself, her husband, Callum, uses his stubborn loyalty to the land of his fathers to face down the increasing wrath of a political system weighted against them.
Catherine, though, is the heart of the book. Her beauty, patience, talent, and hard-working generosity shine through and more make her strongest, link to the lost land of Shiaba itself.
Willie Orr’s achingly beautiful detail describes the purity of the crofters’ lives and faith and their bone-deep love of the land, which makes its loss even more biting.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Willie Orr worked as a shepherd in the West Highlands, including in the Ross of Mull, until a tractor accident forced a change in his life. Enrolling in Stirling University as a mature student, he graduated in Scottish History and published ‘Deer Forest, Landlords and Crofters’. He taught History in Oban High School and then worked for Sir Tom Devine on ‘The Great Highland Famine’, discovering documents relating to Shiaba. Returning to teaching in Oban, he became a counsellor for troubled children. In 2019 he published ‘MICK’, a novel about a cruelly fostered boy in the 1950’s and ‘The Shepherd and the Morning Star’, a biography/autobiography. He lives near Oban in Argyll.

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