Monday, 30 July 2012

Living in the Past

Some wonderful advice from historical novelist, Liza Perrat, on how to breathe life into your novels.

I was initially drawn to historical fiction because I love history, and historical novels bring it closer to us in an entertaining fashion. I have only just set out on my third historical fiction adventure, so I’m far from being an expert, but this is what I’ve gleaned about this fascinating genre so far.

It appears very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Most authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of good fiction in the same way as contemporary novelists. Knowing how to write a good story, which hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages, is as vital as getting the historical details right.

Yet we do have to get those period customs and technological details right. Our ancestors had very different attitudes about many aspects of life than people of today. What was your heroine’s relationship with her husband, her children, the people with whom she lived? Did she use cutlery and plates? What job might she have had? Would she have been literate? Historical fiction falls flat on its face when the characters jump off the page as modern-day people dressed up in period garb, and details like this can be frustrating to research. But these days, with all the historical resources available, and the internet, authors spending the time and effort can usually discover those golden nuggets that will bring their story to life.

Besides spending hours online and frowning over the barely legible print of yellowed letters, postcards, diaries and old books, there’s nothing like spending time in a place, trying to imagine how it might have looked, felt and smelled, in the past. Readers like to sense the spirit of place –– the vegetation, the seasonal light, the odours. It pulls them into the story, makes them empathize with the characters, and provides a stage on which they can visualize the story. But readers will quickly become bored with history lessons, so information should be integrated into the story, without it coming across as school textbook.

Historical monuments and structures evoke the past and I like to study them as closely as possible, and take lots of photographs (preferably minus any lurking tourists!). A walk around the rural French village in which I live gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels, the first novel in my historical series, set during the French Revolution, and recently published under the Triskele Books label. On the banks of the Garon River, I came upon a cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly). Engraved with two entwined tibias and a heart shape, it is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried?

I felt the urge to write the story of these lost little ones –– to give them a family, a village, an identity. The Charpentier family and their village of Lucie-sur-Vionne were thus invented –– backdrop to a series of tales encompassing different generations of L’Auberge des Anges (Inn of Angels). For Wolfsangel, the second novel in L’Auberge des Anges series, I visited the haunting memorial of Oradour-sur-Glane, site of the tragic WWII massacre.

Local fairs, festivals and events also provide great sources of inspiration for the historical fiction novelist. One I know well is the annual bush peach festival. What’s the big deal about peaches, you might ask. Well this is not simply a succulent fruit with flesh the colour of blood. The bush peach is grown alongside the grape vines. Susceptible to the same diseases as the vines but quicker to develop the signs, vine growers plant peach trees next to their vineyards to warn them of potential problems. The bush peach has been part of the arboricultural patrimony of this region since the seventeenth century so, despite its questionable history as martyr, even the humble peach is firmly anchored in the village history.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a historical place, local people may provide insight into past professions. One of the characters in Spirit of Lost Angels is a r√©mouleur –– an itinerant knife-grinder or sharpener. Local resident, Georges, is a vestige of this profession that dates back to 1300. Lugging his odd-looking bicycle along to the marketplace every Saturday morning, Georges sits amidst the convivial banter, punnets of raspberries and strawberries, the boudins and saucissons, cycling in earnest to sharpen our knives and scissors.

On a personal note, I have to say that whilst bookshops are crowded with novels about famous king, queens and emperors, I find more interesting, and identifiable, stories that focus on the commoner, the peasant, the itinerant –– the greater segment of a population.

Even though historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, many more contemporary novels appear. So, it seems that to interest a publisher, or to gain a readership in the case of self-publishers, a historical novel must encompass the qualities of a contemporary novel –– well written and highly polished –– coupled with historical accuracy.

Some resources I have found useful for writing historical fiction:

Historical blogs such as:


How to Write Historical Novels by Michael Legat

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom

Writing Historical Fiction by Marina Oliver

Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife. She has been living in rural France for the past twenty years, where she works as a part-time medical translator. Since completing a creative writing course ten years ago, several of her short stories have won awards, and been published widely in anthologies and small press magazine. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Today and France Magazine. She has completed four novels and one short-story collection and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

Spirit of Lost Angels is available as an e-book or paperback on Amazon and Smashwords.


Her short story collection –– Friends, Family and Other Strangers from Downunder –– is currently available as a FREE download on all Amazon sites.

For more information on Liza, or her novel, please visit her website: or

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

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