Friday, 10 February 2012

Writing Historical Fiction? You Really Should Read This ...

My guest today is Cathie Dunn, who has generously agreed to share with us her tips on how to bring a time period to life.

First of all, I would like to thank Lorraine for the opportunity to talk about my favourite subject (apart from my novels!) - historical research. I hope you won’t doze off...

As a writer of historical fiction in all and any of its forms, one thing is a definite: getting your facts right!

Writing believable historical fiction requires some idea of the customs and way of life of the period you pick. The depth of such knowledge varies, depending on genre and storyline, but getting the basics right is hugely important for your credibility as a historical author. If you confuse your Renaissance with your Dark Ages, you’ve blown it.

In general historical fiction, where the politics of the day might interfere with the main character's life, it is crucial to consider the known details. Nowadays, it's fairly easy to read up about kings and queens, political parties and the differences in roles between nobility, gentry and the working classes. There are huge resources available online that even a decade ago seemed unobtainable. And, of course, there are always the fat volumes of history books to browse in libraries.

Without turning your story into such a history book, you would want your characters to be as close to the real thing as you can make them, so ensure to read up on their types of behaviour, clothing, setting and day-to-day customs. Explore how they would address each other, and their lords or villeins. Using ‘real life’ characters such as kings or queens (Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example) is popular at the moment. If they feature in your novel, ensure they were indeed known to be in that particular place, or at least that there is no record of them being at the other end of the country, signing a major treaty.

Join interest groups of the same genre to swap information. Many of those groups are fountains of knowledge and the members are always happy to share details and tips. Search within Yahoo groups for key words and you’ll no doubt find a like-minded bunch.

In historical romance, research is still important, even though the plot focuses on the two main characters, with the external influences of the day filling out the background. Yet it can jar a reader's enjoyment when details are out of synch.

If you write historical mystery, contact local libraries for copies of original town maps. Read up about the roles of the sheriff, coroner, etc, and if possible, search for cases. Many original documents such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are available online. Whilst these often have to be taken with a pinch of salt - propaganda is no modern invention! - they provide you with a sound impression of opinions, fines, etc.

Another aspect of historical research I found invaluable is taking part in historical re-enactment. Learning archery in a re-enactment group, dressing up and telling visitors to specific castles about the history and way of life enriches not just your own life, but also brings joy to others. Teaching a child to hit bull’s eye is priceless.

My holidays often turn into research trips, visiting castles, cathedrals, and medieval towns along the way. Getting a feel for medieval Normandy was incredibly helpful for plotting Dark Deceit. Mixing old with new, the holiday was a great experience throughout. To stand in front of buildings that saw Eleanor of Aquitaine or William the Conqueror is humbling. And exciting!

At the end of the day, never underestimate your readers. They come from all walks of life, with many readers of historical novels having gained huge insight into what was acceptable during a certain era, and what appears utterly out of place. Some readers don't mind if you get things wrong, but others might throw your book against the wall and leave a poor review online. And we - as writers - don't want anyone to do just that.

Some useful sources for research online:

Cathie Dunn
Historical Fiction & Romantic Suspense

Dark Deceit - available now at Amazon and Smashwords
Highland Arms - available now at Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble


Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition
Flash 500 Humour Verse Competition


Cathie Dunn said...

Thank you, Lorraine, for the opportunity to chat about one of my favourite topics. :-)

Victoria Lamb said...

Sound advice, Cathie. Thank you!

Cathie Dunn said...

Thank you for stopping by, Victoria. You know all about it. ;-)

Kemberlee said...


This is all stellar advice, but not just for historicals. It works for any regionally set story. Especially if an author is writing a story in a place they've never been.

Congrats on the release of Dark Deceit today!