Emma Darwin ponders the challenges of writing her new guide to historical fiction.
I’ve been known to argue that writing historical fiction is the ultimate challenge for a novelist, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that when John Murray Learning commissioned me to write Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction for their Teach Yourself imprint, I found myself tackling a whole lot of challenges.
The first popped up on the very first page. From my years of teaching and mentoring I know that there are two kinds of writer who approach historical fiction. The first is the experienced writer who’s always loved historical fiction, but felt daunted by the thought of writing it: there’s the research, of course, and then there’s the challenge of writing the voices, the world which, by definition, the writer hasn’t experienced. The second kind of writer is new to writing of any kind. They may love reading historical fiction so that their new desire to write naturally gravitates to it. Or they may just have been seized with a passion for a particular historical figure or event, and long to evoke and communicate it to others. They may also be daunted by doing the research. Or they may revel in it, but be daunted by the need to write thoughts, feelings and dialogue, and the freedom to put in things that aren’t “true” in the strictly factual sense.
So not only would some readers already know how to do research, or how to read analytically, and some not, but I had to explain Showing and Telling, for example, in a way which made the basic idea clear to the complete newbie, without boring the more experienced writer. Fortunately, while the basic ideas are straightforward, the way they play out in practice can be subtle and shifting, and later chapters built on those ideas, so I reckoned all readers would benefit from having the strands of these fundamental concepts unpicked and laid out clear.
Of course, it helps that it is a book, not a face-to-face course: the reader is free to use it as they choose. I did build it so that if you work from Ch.1 (“What Counts as Historical Fiction?”) to Ch.11 (“Going Further, Getting Published”), reading each section and doing each exercise in order, you will have had a solid, basic course in writing historical fiction. But the clever format of the Teach Yourself creative writing titles means that it’s equally easy to use the book in other ways, and I had to allow for that. Exercises had to stand alone as warm-ups, confidence-boosters or ways to start a story when you’re feeling blank; I had to remember that a reader who doesn’t need something explaining might simply skip, and that a writer in a pickle might use the index to go straight to the discussion of five-act structure, invented documents, or ways of handling feedback.
The third challenge was one I deliberately set myself. I passionately dislike the snobberies and inverted snobberies that raise their ugly heads faster than you can say “literary or commercial?”, and I was determined that the book would be relevant to someone writing any kind of historical fiction. That meant being careful to draw my examples and suggestions from the full literary-commercial spectrum, as well as from North American authors, and from non-European history. I also wanted to help writers to stretch their readerly knowledge and experience, learning from the strengths of genres and types of writing that they wouldn’t normally go near. That meant not only drawing on the full range of my reading, but going beyond it: asking writer friends for recommendations and advice, and – no great hardship! –browsing bookshops.
Another challenge was that although “historical fiction” is often talked of as a genre, it isn’t really. The term “genre” is all about what kind of story this is: what kind of world the reader’s entering, what’s at stake in the plot, what outcomes we’re hoping for or dreading. So I put in sections exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of historical crime, historical romance, historical adventure, and so on. And then I realised that there are several genres which have a historical quality, and which need the writer to think at least partly in terms of historical fiction: steampunk, fantasy, and other kinds of speculative fiction.
And the last challenge was for myself. On my blog, This Itch of Writing, and now in Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, I never dictate a right way to write anything, because there’s no such thing, just lots of ways which might work, and others which usually don’t. My job is to help the writer understand them and start making their own choices about how to tell their story. But as a teacher you do need to project a certain confidence in what you’re saying, if the writer-student is to feel confident in their turn, and so brave enough to make some of those choices. But, like all writers, in my own work I regularly get rejected, sink into horrible muddles, and have huge wobbles of confidence. Several times I sat down to tackle the next chapter, and was overcome with shame: “How can I say X works, or Y? How can I advise any writer? What do I know?”. Curiously, it was that which made me realise that writing Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction was just like writing a novel. You don’t know if you’re the right person to write it, and you can’t tell how it reads to anyone else. Once I’d realised that I was just suffering a non-fiction version of The Fear, for which the only antidote is to keep writing, the fear lost its power over me, and when I delivered the manuscript my editor said all sorts of nice things about “exemplary” and “very strong indeed”.
Of course, in the end I can’t know whether the book works for anyone else, but so far the reviews suggest that it does. And now I can get back to my own historical fiction. I wonder if there’s a book that will help me write it?
Emma Darwin is Historia’s resident agony aunt and can be found dispensing advice in her regular column, Doctor Darwin’s Writing Tips.
She has a PhD in Creative Writing, was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy. Her latest book, Get Started Writing Historical Fiction is out now.