Welcome to week 17 of our Top 10 Writing Tips by… feature. If you’ve missed any of the other top tip posts, you can find them all HERE. Please feel free to pop over and connect with the wonderful authors who have taken part.
Next up for the challenge is historical fiction author Catherine Kullmann.
Catherine’s novels are set in the extended Regency period against a background of the Napoleonic wars. Her latest novel is The Duke’s Regret, Book Three of The Duchess of Gracechurch Trilogy, three interconnected novels that take the reader from the ballrooms of the Regency to the Battlefield of Waterloo and celebrate friendship, family and love.
Ten Tips for Writing Historical Fiction by Catherine Kullmann:
- Decide in which period your book will be set. What is it about this period that fascinates you? What do you already know about it? Why do you want to set a book there?
- Decide what sort of story you want to tell
Fictionalised history—you are depicting real events with real characters in a real setting; you want to bring this world alive for your readers
Fictionalised biography—you concentrate on one or two real characters and tell their story in a real setting; you want to discover why things happened as they did and fill in any gaps in your characters’ story
Historical romance, adventure or crime—your characters and their stories are fictional but set in a real, historical setting. You want to transport your readers to another time and place, let them imagine what it was like to live then.
Alternate history—you assume something major has happened differently e.g. the American revolution failed or Germany won World War IIHistorical fantasy—you take the historical facts as we know them but add a twist e.g. steampunk, magic, dragons, whatever takes your fancy.
- Get to know your period inside out, not only the main facts and important dates but also minor ones and the trivia of daily life. Acquaint yourself with the social structures, ethics, mores and beliefs of your period. These constraints will help you add conflict and tension to your story.
Each of the variations described in 2 above brings its own challenges. For the first two, you must thoroughly research the lives of your characters. The overall story-arc is already set down for you but perhaps you can discover some small, overlooked events that throw a new light on things. However, if your interpretation differs from what is commonly accepted, you must be prepared to stand over it.
In the third, you must create and develop your fictional characters and story arc so that they merge seamlessly with the real historical world. In the last two, you must decide at what point your story diverges from the known facts and then create a consistent new world.
- Do your research. Read all sorts of contemporary writings from your period—memoirs, diaries, letters, novels, plays, poetry, newspapers and magazines, etiquette and letter-writing manuals, cookery books, etc.etc… This will help you absorb peoples’ thoughts, attitudes, vocabulary and phrasing as well as informing you first-hand about the way they lived. Book by book, build up a research library covering everything relevant to your period.
Seek out images from that time—paintings, engravings, cartoons, caricatures, old photos, postcards, film. Don’t forget sculptures, frescos, mosaics, gravestones and church and other monuments. Create your own system for recording your internet research. I use a WORD document with headings so that I can create a table of contents. It is also searchable. Put everything relevant in here as you come across it; if you don’t need it today, you might want it tomorrow.
- Consider what the important issues of the day are. What are people talking about? What worries them? What amuses them? What are they reading? These things will also occupy your characters.
- Avoid info-dumps. While your research enables you to move comfortably in your chosen period, you must use this information sparingly. You want to add authenticity, not hold up the action or bore your readers to tears. Reference things casually, the way you would if you were writing a contemporary novel.
- Draw up a public timeline for the period your book is set in. You will find this a useful framework that you refer back to again and again. You should also develop a separate book timeline to keep track of what your characters do when.
- Live in the moment with your characters. Remember they have no idea what the future may bring—who will win the ongoing war or how their own stories will end.
- Use your imagination. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Empathise with them. Walk in their footsteps. Visit historic locations. See if you can try on historic costumes. Cook some old recipes. Listen to the music of their time. Learn, or at least watch the dances (YouTube is invaluable here). Take a carriage ride or travel in a vintage steam train. See if you can spend a winter family evening without gas or electricity—what would you eat? How would you occupy yourselves? What games could you play?
- Develop a writing style that is appropriate to your period while still accessible to the modern reader. Avoid modern slang and phrasing. The Online Etymology Dictionaryhttps://www.etymonline.com/ is invaluable in dating words and phrases.
Huge thanks to Catherine for sharing her top tips with us. You can find out more about Catherine and her books at:
Amazon UK https://amzn.to/2IpO1Jo
Amazon US https://amzn.to/2XkOncz