Writing novels set against an historical background

This is the second of my blogs on the Australian Review website: http://writinghistoricalnovels.com/2013/02/18/writing-novels-set-against...

There are two kinds of historical novel: those in which the history is the main thrust of the book, featuring real events and real people, written by authors who are also historians, and those in which the history is the background to the story. It is the setting of the book, not its raison d’etre. I write the latter.

That’s not to say I take liberties with history. I will not, for instance, change the dates or sequence of events to accommodate my plot. The plot must fit the history, not the other way about, and that is part of the attraction of writing historical novels, slotting the two together into a believable whole. Nor do I use real people as my main characters, though they might appear as subsidiary characters. Even then their temperament and dialogue must be compatible with the kind of person they were known to be. Nor would I place them in situations where they would never be just to help my story along. When writing about the Napoleonic wars, I could hardly avoid mentioning Wellington, and I have occasionally given the Prince Regent a line or two of dialogue in my Regency novels.

I don’t know which comes first, the plot or the setting; it could be either or both together. Sometimes a story, by its very nature, cries out for a particular era or background - Medieval, Regency, Georgian or Victorian - or it could have happened at almost any time in history, human nature being what it is. The gamut of human emotions and motivations don’t change down the centuries, except in the way they are expressed. Taboos and morals, too, change over the years; what is right for one period would be frowned on in another. Some eras are more openly permissive than others, some more lawless. Poverty and wealth have always gone hand in hand, sometimes the poverty is stressed, sometimes the wealth. It is important not to give modern motives and reactions to historical characters.

Whatever era I choose to write about, I begin by reading. I collect and read dozens of books on the subject. I make no notes at this stage, simply absorb the ambience of the age, how people thought and felt, how they dressed, what they ate, how they travelled, how they communicated until I get a real feel for the times. Not until then do I plot my book and it is then I go back and research the particular events that I need to include. I make a time-line of real events and another of my plot and slot them together into one chronological list. Not until that is in place do I start to write.

That’s not to say it doesn’t go wrong on occasion - more frequently than I would like. My characters have a habit of doing their own thing. They are so real to me that when I am writing their dialogue, I am listening to them talking and simply writing down what they are saying. Sometimes they say something I haven’t expected, and when I get to the end of the scene I find myself asking, ‘Now why did he/she say that?’ Nothing to do with me at all!

If what they have said changes the way the story is going, then I have to make up my mind whether to rewrite the scene and force them back into line or go with the flow. I usually go with the flow because if they are speaking and acting in character, which they certainly ought to be, they surely know best. I often find myself changing what happens next to accommodate them and sometimes even rewriting some of the plot, and that’s not easy when you have a historical timeline to adhere to. But it’s all part of the challenge. It’s a funny thing but when it’s done and the book published, it’s impossible to tell that wasn’t always how it was meant to be. My characters have served me well.