Tips on writing commercial historical fiction

Tips on writing commercial historical fiction

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I’m about to start writing my fourth or fifth historical novel. Or possibly sixth. I’ve abandoned at least two along the way.

During the years of researching, plotting, drafting, editing, and discarding novels, I’ve discovered a few things about writing commercial historical fiction.

Accurate or authentic?

Your stance on historical accuracy will depend on whether you want to be the next Hilary Mantel or write a fast-moving crime caper.

I aim for authenticity rather than complete historical accuracy. I’m writing historical murder mysteries with the aim of entertaining.

However, I hope readers will relate to my characters and perhaps gain an appreciation of history by stepping into another world for a brief time. To achieve this, I need authenticity.

For example, in The Suffragette’s Daughter, the character of Mrs Siddons is the third woman in Britain to become a Member of Parliament. This is fiction. But it’s authentic because, in 1920, only two other women had been elected as MPs in the UK.

In the novel, I refer to the real Lady Nancy Astor and her decision to adopt a political uniform of dark jacket and skirt, white blouse and tricorn hat. I contrast this with the style of the fictional Mrs Siddons, who loves fine silks and expensive jewellery - and is determined not to change her manner of dress, despite being criticised in the newspapers for being too ostentatious.

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Lady Nancy Astor 1879 - 1964

Do you enjoy the research?

Why are you drawn to write or read about a particular period in time? It could be due to an interest in military campaigns or a love of Parisian artists.

Whatever the reason, when you start drafting an outline for your book, how far can you take it? Does the thought of more research into your subject thrill you or make you groan? Writing a novel is a big project, and to see it through to the end, you must enjoy the process. (Maybe not every aspect of it, but at least some.)

I switched periods a few times before settling on the 1920s. I wanted to write about the social repercussions of the First World War rather than the war itself.

I chose 1920 as the starting point for the Iris Woodmore Mysteries because of the contradictions of this era.

The Great War had opened the door for record numbers of women to enter the workplace and join professions they’d previously been barred from. For the first time in Britain, we had women police officers.

However, the suffragettes had disbanded during the war. And when women were finally allowed to vote for the first time in 1918, they had to be over the age of thirty and meet certain property qualifications. A third of adult women in this country still didn’t have the right to vote.

By 1920, gains made during the First World War were being lost. Men returning from fighting wanted their jobs back, and women were forced back into the home. Poverty and unemployment, particularly the hardships faced by disabled servicemen, led to resentment of working women. In many industries and professions, women were made to give up their jobs when they got married.

This set the scene for the Iris Woodmore Mysteries. Iris is the daughter of a suffragette, but she belongs to a new generation of feminists. Although The Suffragette's Daughter is set in 1920, it looks back at events in 1914.

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How much research should you do?

I’ve written before about research rabbit holes. You don’t need to know every single detail about your chosen period.

Initially, I massively over-researched and found I didn’t use most of the information I’d gathered. I take a different approach now, which is to learn as I go.

Some authors write a complete first draft and leave gaps where historical information needs to be added or checked. Others do their research as they’re going along.

I do a mixture of both. I dive into an early draft of the story and keep moving forward until I know which areas I need to explore further. Sometimes you have to do your research as you go. Otherwise, you can end up having to completely revise the plot if you find you're taking too many liberties with historical accuracy.

But small matters, such as what foods would be served or which fabric would be used to make a dress, can be checked after you've completed your first draft. I make a list of all the minor stuff as I go along. At the end, I set aside time to research at my convenience, honing in on the specifics I need rather than randomly gathering facts.

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Don’t overdo the history lesson

Back to the accurate or authentic decision. If you want your novel to be a page-turner:

  • Include historical detail with a light touch.

  • Don’t be tempted to cram in every fact you’ve learnt.

  • Only include references that help to drive your narrative forward.
Showing, not telling, is vital if you want to draw the reader in. Give just enough detail to enable your readers to visualise the scene for themselves. Don’t describe every single feature of a person’s clothing or the interior of their house.

You want to stimulate the reader’s imagination, not bombard them with endless facts.

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Use all the senses and small details to create atmosphere

Mention touch, taste, smell and sound as well as sights - the stink of manure or the noise of a steam engine.

Tiny details bring depth and atmosphere, whereas overlong descriptions can cause the story to lose its momentum. You don’t want to shift your readers' focus too far away from the tale you’re telling.

Lightly sprinkle historical details across your novel by exploring the broader social scene of the day. This might include references to fashion, food, sport, transport or arts.

One word of warning. Be cautious about using a phrase or mentioning an object that’s so obscure the majority of your readers won’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll inevitably have to accompany it with an explanation, and this can seriously interrupt the flow of your story.

I've been trying to weave a police waywiser into one of my novels for years but still haven't succeeded.

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A police waywiser

Finally, don't let the fact that you're writing from a historical perspective restrict your creativity. You can stick as close to the truth as you want, or you can take a single person or event from history and use that as a launchpad to create your own world.

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The Suffragette's Daughter introduces a new sleuth for a new era.

Available from Amazon and bookstores in ebook, paperback or audio.

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