There are many elements in a historical narrative, but one of the most important is setting. If your reader is going to trust you story, and trust you as a story teller, you have to make them ‘see’ the period and the way that people lived.
One of the reasons that I set my first two novels in the present/recent past is that I like to write about what I can see. A sense of place is important to me, both because it gives the story context and depth, and also because it can be used to illustrate or dramatize the themes that drive the narrative. When I switched to writing historical fiction and set out to write a novel set in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, this seemed like a huge challenge. My historical novel ‘Dark Aemilia’ tells the story of the relationship between two real historical characters: William Shakespeare and Aemilia Lanyer, the first woman to be published as a professional poet in England. How do you build a credible reality when you are writing about a world that has disappeared, and that you will never know?
The first step – and one that may seem daunting – is research. There is no getting away from this, and if you can’t stand the idea of reading (quite a few) history books or spending time in old buildings or library archives, then this genre of fiction may not be for you. I was surprised to find that I loved it, and that historical research can be addictive. I found that until I know what people would wear, what sort of chairs they would sit on, how, where and what they ate (and so on) I couldn’t see the scene myself. Another surprise was that research and concrete facts are inspiring in themselves, and many elements of my story – such as the belief in the occult and the spirit world that dominates the thinking of my main character – came from reading heavy tomes such as ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’ by Keith Thomas.
Historical fiction is a diverse and vibrant genre, and you can spin it any way you want. Your story may be set 50 years or go, or 500, and you can tell a page turning yarn, or write in an impressionistic and experimental way. You can retell familiar stories, dramatize the lives of people forgotten by time, delve into your family’s past or invent an alternative historical world.
Whatever approach you take, and whatever your ambition for your own story, I would emphasise the importance of being precise and specific in building up your ideas. Plot and characterisation are essential elements of story, and in my workshop I will be looking at ways of developing these using research, imagination and observation.
Research helps you unearth new knowledge that enables you to enter your chosen period with confidence with a sense of the rules and constraints that affect the choices your characters make. Imagination gives you permission to add your own supposition and invention to what is known about your period – Hilary Mantel has talked about writing in ‘the gaps in history’ and you can do the same. And observation is essential – weather, nature, physical sensations like pain or hunger, or emotions like fear, excitement, love – all of these aspects of the world you have experienced can feed into a story set in the past.
On Saturday 28th June 2014, I’ll be at the Omega Centre in Portsmouth to talk to WEA workshop participants about the importance of A Sense of Place. We’ll talk about the possibilities for setting a story in the past and exactly how much and what sort of research you may need to do.
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