Top Tips for Writing a Historical Novel by Anna Abney

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Anna Abney

Anna Abney

If you’re writing a historical novel it helps to love research, only not to the point of infatuation! I’m fascinated by the period I write about – the seventeenth century – and it’s easy to become so absorbed in the research that the novel writing gets left behind. Some writers leave the research until after they’ve completed a first draft, which is an eminently sensible approach, only one that I’ve never been able to follow. And that’s my first tip – follow the method that works best for you, because there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing.

I like to read up on the place, time and events at the heart of my story so thoroughly that I become immersed in the period. I also continually refer back to books, articles, maps and notes as I write, partly because I’m a perfectionist and can’t bear to get anything wrong, but also because readers will pick up on inaccuracies. The last thing you want is for your reader to be jolted out of the world you’ve created by a glaring, or even faintly glowing, anachronism.

These historical details also help to anchor your characters in the period and place you are writing about. Readers of my Measham Hall novels often comment on how the details plunge them right into the atmosphere of the late seventeenth century – especially the rich descriptions of food and clothing. I also enjoy reading and writing about these topics and this brings me to my second tip: write the sort of book that you would like to read. There is no point in trying to write like Jane Austen if the books you prefer to read are fantasy and sci-fi.

The plots of my novels are dictated to some degree by the major events of the time. The novel I am currently writing is partly set during the Williamite Wars in Ireland, while the previous novel was set during the lead-up to the invasion of England by William of Orange. Both novels explore the impact of these events on my characters, who also have their own complex personal and emotional lives, examining how different people react to and are impacted by the politics, crises and prejudices of the time.

Master of Measham HallTo keep track of it all, I create a timeline which incorporates both real events and important occurrences in the lives of my characters. This is tip three: make a timeline. They really are invaluable for any novel-length work of fiction (or non-fiction). Not only do they give you a different perspective from which to see the journeys of your characters, they’re also a great resource for checking on the continuity of your story. I often find myself checking the dates of birth and marriages of my characters. I use different colours for real events and fictional ones. You may also find it helpful to use different colours or fonts for each character so that you get an instantly clear and accessible view of their storyline.

Tip four – a similar and equally useful tool – is a character list. This was first suggested to me on a writing workshop, and I’ve always been grateful for it. Character lists are especially valuable for novels with numerous characters and for series. They ensure you don’t repeat names and remind you of your characters’ physical appearance, foibles, relatives and backstory. If you’re writing a family saga, a family tree can also be helpful. They’re also fun to create and help in fleshing out your characters.

I collect historical names and keep lists of them, especially quirky ones. Some of them may be too fantastical to include without raising eyebrows: Praise-God Barebone, for example, who baptised his son ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned’, or sisters Utricia and Trajectina, both named after the cities they were born in. Most seventeenth-century families stuck to a handful of popular names, sometimes even giving babies the same name as a dead brother or sister, but this would get too confusing in a novel, so I like to have a list of contemporary names to draw from.

There are two online resources I return to again and again: the Oxford English Dictionary https://www.oed.com/  and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oclc.org) . For my latest novel I have also been using the Dictionary of Irish Biography | Dictionary of Irish Biography (dib.ie)

The OED is not only vital for checking when words were first used, it also has a historical thesaurus which is perfect for looking for alternative vocabulary, the sorts of words that convey the period and help to avoid cliches. Just try not to get lost in it!

Dictionaries of biography are great if you’re working out what sort of career a character might have had, where did they study, what path did they follow? Not only can these sketches of lives be a source of inspiration, they’re also vital if you’re including real people in your novel. I love the odd details: for example, the reputation enjoyed by the renowned seventeenth-century beauty, Jane Middleton, for her unpleasant body odour. It’s snippets of information like this that can help to round characters out and bring them to life.

Portraits work in a similar way, by giving a glimpse of how people dressed and also how they wished to be perceived. What sort of hairstyles were in fashion? Which looks were considered attractive? These visual aids can really enrich your descriptions.

Finally, I read a lot of both early modern fiction (more plays than novels in my period) and recent historical fiction, the first for insights into the way people spoke and thought, the second for a sense of how other writers approach the genre. Also, of course, because I love reading historical fiction just as much as I enjoy writing it – after all, it’s the closest to time travel we can get.

(c) Anna Abney

About The Messenger of Measham Hall:

Messenger of Measham HallReturn to mysterious Measham Hall in this page-turning tale of espionage and intrigue in the years leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688

For Nicholas Hawthorne, the Catholic heir to Measham Hall in Derbyshire, subterfuge is part of everyday life. But there are deeper and darker secrets even than his family’s outlawed religion: why is his father, Sir William, so reclusive? What became of his mother, and his aunt Alethea? And who fatally betrayed his cousin Matthew?

Nicholas is determined to find out, but as England slides towards invasion by the Protestant forces of Prince William of Orange, he becomes entangled in conspiracies within King James’s court – and soon learns that both truth and love come at a high price.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Anna Abney is among the last descendants of the Abney family, former residents of Measham Hall, a lost house of Derbyshire. The Measham Hall series includes novels: The Master of Measham Hall and The Messenger of Measham Hall.
After growing up in London, Anna lived in Ireland for thirteen years. She wrote her PhD on the seventeenth-century writer, Margaret Cavendish, the first English woman to be published in her own name, under the supervision of Lisa Jardine at Queen Mary, University of London. She taught in the English and Creative Writing department of the Open University for several years. She has two grown-up children and now lives in rural Kent with her screenwriter husband and their border collie, dividing her time between the equally demanding pursuits of writing and growing vegetables.

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