The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I’m delighted to host writer Catherine Hokin‘s guest post as a ‘stop’ on the blog tour for her début novel Blood and Roses.  Over to Catherine…Blood and Roses Blog Tour

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

When Helen suggested I write about the challenges of creating historical as opposed to contemporary fiction, the first thing that popped into my head was that quote from L.P. Hartley, ingrained in my brain since the far-off days of A Levels.

Sorry Mr Hartley, I’m not sure I agree.

chairI write both contemporary and historical fiction and, although the modern tales may be far shorter, the starting point is always the same: a character who creeps into my brain and demands a voice.

It possibly sounds flippant but most fiction is essentially historical – unless you are tackling science fiction, you are writing about what has already happened. What changes is perspective: as we move further from away from a period in time we can gain more insight, uncover more secrets, perhaps find the emotional distance needed to fully present a scene.

horse (1)There are challenges of course. My novel Blood and Roses is set in the fifteenth century and every detail has to be carefully researched. My character, Margaret of Anjou, moves around a lot and that involved some very strange calculations: I can now mentally divide a journey by the amount of hours different types of horses can travel quicker than I can find directions on Google Maps. But research, while the key to a credible story, needs a delicate hand to balance the need for accuracy and the explanation of possibly obscure customs against the danger of bludgeoning the reader to death with facts only a PhD student needs. But all good novelists have to do this, whatever their time frame.

Another challenge is language: my novel is set in the fifteenth century but, if I wrote it using the words and dialect current at the time, my readers would need to be able to read Norman French, Middle English and Latin and then apply a Midlands-style accent to it all. I would like to sell some copies. Conversely, the dialogue cannot be modernised to the point where it feels as though Edward IV is about to summon his army by text and hook up with Elizabeth Woodville via Tinder – an accusation quite fairly levelled against the recent BBC adaptation of The White Queen. Again, a delicate hand is needed to create a medieval but accessible feel.

cracked (1)And setting – the medieval period was not fragrant, people had horrid illnesses and deformities and your average street was a cesspool. Can I direct you to the hilarious If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate video at this point – it makes the case for reality beautifully. To my mind a good historical novelist needs to give a flavour of the time but not constantly turn the readers’ stomach – although I hope I will make you shudder once or twice.

selfie (1)So why am I disagreeing with Mr Hartley? I don’t agree that the past is a foreign country, it simply has different shades. And I don’t think people do things differently – their tools and the language they express themselves in might change but essentially people do things out of love or anger or spite or any of the other emotions we all recognise whatever timeframe we’ve fallen into.

claire (1)When I embarked on Blood and Roses, one thing quickly became very clear: I was looking into the past for Margaret of Anjou but the woman I found fits perfectly into the present. Margaret is a powerful, flawed and conflicted woman, trying to control events that threaten her family and her sense of self. She is an ambitious woman and that frightens the men around her – she breaks the mould of what is expected of her and she pays. Look around you – Margaret isn’t medieval, she’s everywhere. The past is simply people, very little is foreign about that.

Thanks to Catherine for this really interesting post. Do you feel historical fiction is more challenging as a writer? Is it also challenging as a reader?

Blood and Rosesa novel of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses by Catherine Hokin and was published by Yolk Publishing on 13th January.

5 thoughts on “The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I suppose if historical fiction is well done then it shouldn’t be challenging for the reader, but for the writer of historical novels, as Catherine says, there’s the research. I’m not sure if it’s more challenging than other genres – crime writers have technical and police procedure stuff to check out for example and I guess if it’s your passion it won’t feel like a chore.

    I enjoyed Catherine’s take on the process and the ‘Disney’ video 🙂

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