We’re delighted to announce a special offer for Historia readers who’d like to join the first Writing Historical Fiction course run by Curtis Brown Creative (CBC). The six-week online course is tutored by Stephanie Merritt, who, as SJ Parris, writes the best-selling and much-loved Giordano Bruno spy thrillers.
Steph spoke to Curtis Brown Creative about her writing and her plans for the new course.
Your extremely popular Giordano Bruno historical thriller series is set in Elizabethan England. What first drew you to this time period?
I was always obsessed with Shakespeare since I first visited Stratford as a child, and my interest in him opened up the world of Elizabethan literature and theatre, which was how I first came across a mention of Bruno when I was a student. His story led me to the rich history of espionage and conspiracies that thrived in that period, when England’s break with the Catholic Church was still so precarious.
The latest novel in the series, Execution, is set against the backdrop of a famous rivalry: between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. How do you balance fact with fiction and start to make historical figures your own? When do you know when to stop researching and start writing?
I think the novelist begins with the parts of the story where the historical record raises questions or leaves gaps. If historians have had very different, conflicting ideas about who someone was, that’s interesting to me – which version is closer to the truth? Why did people have such different ideas about him or her? If the documents tell us what someone did, but give no insight into why they did it, I want to understand their motives.
I try to read as much as I can to understand the characters and find the detail that will allow me to create a plausible fictional version of them that remains true to what is known, but hopefully fleshes them out and makes them recognisable as real people to the reader.
Another key element of this series is your gripping thriller plots, filled with political intrigue and murder conspiracies. You have also written a contemporary psychological thriller under your own name – While You Sleep. What are the main differences between writing a contemporary thriller and a historical thriller?
The contemporary psychological thrillers (I’m currently working on another) are really a way for me to write more about women’s lives. There are plenty of excellent historical novels that foreground women, but having chosen to write about Bruno in my S J Parris series, I found I really wanted an outlet to write about things that were closer to my own experience, like motherhood and relationships.
I like the contrast between the kind of stakes at play in Bruno’s world, where nation states and religions can stand or fall on someone’s betrayal, and the much more intimate jeopardy of the psychological thriller, which is often all about how far we can trust the people closest to us. But both can be a matter of life or death.
What was your favourite part of creating and filming the Writing Historical Fiction course?
It’s been great to have the chance to encourage other writers with a passion for history. I really enjoyed revisiting some of my favourite historical novels to compile the reading list, but it was really helpful for me to think about how to distill everything I’ve learned in the process of writing ten books, of which six are historical. I was trying to think of what advice would have been most useful to me when I started, to see if I can help people to avoid the mistakes I made at the beginning!
Could you share your top three tips for aspiring authors who want to write a historical fiction?
Certainly: 1) Read, 2) Read, and 3) Read. Seriously – I don’t know how anyone can think of becoming a writer if they are not also a voracious reader. Not just historical novels – read all around your subject and see if you can dig out obscure books on the period. Often you’ll find anecdotes or incidents that might not be well-known and these can be real gems in inspiring fictional episodes or unusual perspectives on events.
Looking for a story that hasn’t yet been told, or a different view on familiar events can often be the best starting point for your novel. Try and write something every day, even if it’s just a small target like 300 words. Over time, those words will build up into a draft you can work with.
Stephanie also answered a couple of questions for Historia:
How important is it to you to stick to the known historical record in your books?
This is the perennial question when it comes to historical fiction, and I think the answer is that it depends very much on what kind of novel you are writing.
If your aim is to dramatise historical events in a way that keeps as close as possible to what we know of ‘what actually happened’ then you’ll be more scrupulous about things like conflating characters or incidents for dramatic effect. That’s especially true if you’re writing about people who actually lived.
But of course any reader of history will know that ‘what actually happened’ is often up for debate and dependent on perspective, so there’s usually a gap in the record with room enough for the novelist to imagine missing parts of the story. I tend to feel that, since the historical crime genre is somewhat anachronistic already, I have a little more room to take liberties than someone writing a more straightforward historical novel.
The important thing then is to make sure the small details are absolutely accurate. I’m asking my readers to suspend disbelief by engaging with a story in which Giordano Bruno, a real historical figure, solves murders in Tudor England which, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, he never did (though there is sketchy evidence for the theory that he worked as a spy for Elizabeth’s government).
In asking them to enter that imaginative world, I want to make sure that the way I describe 1580s London is as close as possible to the truth, to ground my invention in a plausible version of historical reality. If you do make imaginative leaps, I think it’s only fair to signal that to the reader, perhaps by way of an author’s note at the end.
Is this a good time to be writing historical fiction?
Absolutely! I think film and TV drama over the past decade or so has revived our interest in historical stories, particularly those that foreground women. And in fiction – five out of the six books on the Women’s Prize shortlist this year were either historical novels or had a historical plot strand, and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light was one of the most important new titles of the year. Hamilton has been the biggest theatrical success story of the past decade.
We’re living through dramatic times politically and I think that does often prompt readers and writers to look for historical parallels or reconsider how we might look again at historical perspectives that have been taken for granted.
It’s also a great time to be writing historical fiction from a purely practical point of view; so many libraries and archives now have materials online that twenty years ago would only have been accessible in one place, so it’s never been easier for those of us who are not professional historians to carry out research from our desks.
Whether you have the germ of an idea or are already half-way through your book, have a look at what this new six-week online writing course from Curtis Brown Creative offers you.
Writing Historical Fiction explores what makes a compelling historical novel and identifies fundamental writing techniques. Each week will focus on a new topic, packed with practical advice in a series of specially-filmed teaching videos, detailed notes and resources, Stephanie illustrates her points by drawing on her own experience of writing her bestselling series about the 16th-century heretic philosopher and spy Giordano Bruno.
This new online course will equip you with the tools to help you research your story, construct your plot, and bring your chosen historical moment vividly to life in novel form.
Historia readers and newsletter subscribers can get an exclusive 20% discount on the course using this discount code: HISTORIA20.
Writing Historical Fiction runs for six weeks online from 18 March to 29 April, 2021. Find out more and apply.
You’ll need to enrol by 15 March, 2021.
We’d like to thank Curtis Brown Creative for this generous offer for Historia readers and for permission to reprint part of CBC’s interview with Stephanie Merritt. Thanks also to Stephanie for taking the time to answer Historia’s questions.
Stephanie Merritt is an author and journalist. Writing as S J Parris, she is the bestselling author of the Giordano Bruno series, which follows the renegade monk, philosopher and heretic in Elizabethan England. Stephanie regularly writes for the Observer and the Guardian.
The sixth SJ Parris Giordano Bruno book, Execution, was published by HarperCollins on 9 July, 2020.
Curtis Brown Creative is the writing school led by literary agency Curtis Brown. Launched nine years ago with the mission of finding and nurturing talented new writers through writing courses in London and online. So far, 100 novel-writing students have gained commercial publishing deals, including Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), Jane Harper (The Dry), and Janet Ellis (The Butcher’s Hook).
Writing Historical Fiction is the latest in a series of specialised Curtis Brown Creative creative online writing courses led by bestselling authors and award-winning writers, including Writing a Psychological Thriller with Erin Kelly, Writing Short Stories with Cynan Jones, and Write to the End of your Novel and Edit & Pitch your Novel with Anna Davis.