How I write an Historical Novel
By Annie Whitehead
The starting point is always the main character. He or she must intrigue me; their story, as told in the chronicles or annals, must contain a spark of interest which might fire a reader’s imagination.
With my novel To Be A Queen, it was initially the husband of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who caught my interest. Specifically, a brief line in some university lecture notes stating that “no one knew where he came from.” Who was he? How did he ride from nowhere onto the pages of history and lead a kingdom if he were not a king?
With Alvar the Kingmaker (Ælfhere of Mercia) it was a footnote, which described a woman “possibly his widow” being deprived of estates after his death. Who was she? Could I find out more about their relationship?
Penda of Mercia cropped up in those same student lectures, always fighting, always on the move, and always portrayed as the aggressor. What, I wondered, had got him so steamed-up in the first place? As it turned out, quite a lot of injustice…
Once I have my main characters, I need to decide where to begin and end my fictional account. Do I start with their birth, or should the reader meet them as fully-formed youths, or even adults? And shall I walk with them to their graves, or leave them at a moment of triumph?
Then come months, maybe longer, of painstaking research – seeking out all the primary sources to see what contemporaries had to say, then tracking down general histories, as well as detailed papers and articles. If it’s been written about my characters, then I want to read it. The only exception is fiction: I won’t read another novel featuring any of my characters, at least, not until I’ve written the book. My characters, even with their fictional veneer, are as real people to me. My version of their life, while I’m writing it, is the only true version. I must believe that, or the story will fail.
Once the research is over – and it might have sent me down different paths than the ones I expected– I somehow need to turn all my notes of facts into a work of fiction.
First, I make a timeline. I only use real characters (other than the odd servant here or there) so I need to plot them onto a chart which shows when they were born, when they died, what they did in the intervening years, and where they did it.
Then I ask myself:
Do I include all the events, just because they happened?
Use all the characters, just because they were there?
Does it help my narrative to flow if I include everything?
The answer is probably not.
Next, I consider point of view. Whose head will I get inside? Usually, the story itself guides me. If my protagonist is at the scene of a battle, and his wife is at home, the battle will be told from his point of view. Elsewhere, I might tell half of a scene from one point of view, the other from another, but there will be no ‘head-hopping’. A blank space will clearly denote the change from one character’s thoughts to another’s.
In drafts, I’ll use the characters’ real names. But at some point, I will decide whether to keep those names, or replace them with a modernised version, or a nickname. I write stories set in the pre-Conquest period, where personal names often came peppered with diphthongs, which look strange to the modern eye. And, although I might know the difference between three characters who all bore the same name, I can’t expect the reader to know who these people were.
Which leads me to ask, before the free-flow of creative writing takes over: how much do I let my research show? It must be a fine balance. Too little, and the book will not sit comfortably in its historical setting. If the characters are walking and talking and eating, but we don’t know what they see, hear, or what food is on their plates, then they might as well be sashaying down Hollywood Boulevard in 2017. Too much, and the book ceases to be a novel and becomes a textbook, detailing farming, cooking and weaving processes in the tenth century. I have a note stuck to my computer which reads: “Tell the STORY.” That usually helps me to decide how much historical knowledge to
I used to fret about dialogue, at one point attempting to use only words derived from Old English, but it’s difficult to write realistic dialogue if you can’t use the words ‘because’ or ‘try’. Over the course of three novels, I’ve learned to ‘hear’ my characters talking, and the initial drive comes from them. The characterisation as it develops means that they speak with their own voices. Given that I can see them firmly in their setting, it tends to happen organically that they come to speak in a way that sounds ‘real’. Strive too hard for veracity, and the dialogue will become stilted – accurate yes, but maybe not, ironically, credible.
Finally, perhaps the crucial point is this: keep the characters firmly in their place. Give them the sensibilities of their time, and make sure they act within those constraints. The hero/ine may occasionally push against convention, but they mustn’t think or behave in a manner that’s incongruous to the age in which they lived. Respect both words of the term, Historical Fiction.
Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories.
She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and in October 2017 she won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and To Be A Queen was voted finalist in its category in the IAN (Independent Author Network) Book of the Year 2017.She’s also won non-fiction awards, and is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley
Publishing, to be released in 2018.
Amazon Author Page: http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead