where guest authors are invited to share a post with us about the historical background to their writing.
Today, we have an extra special treat in that as well as describing some of her own techniques for acquiring a suitable background for her novels my guest, Christy Nicholas, also shares some excellent general advice for writing historical fiction.
Welcome to my blog, Christy. I love hosting new guests who come bearing wonderful ideas for making the background to our historical fiction the most realistic settings possible for their readers...
Historical fiction research
Historical fiction usually has to walk a fine line between historical accuracy and modern readability. There are many factors to consider when walking that line, and different authors will walk different sides.
I see three major sections within the historical fiction realm.
· The first is historical fiction with famous people as main characters. Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman write books within this section, fictionalizing the lives of people within the fame of their time, such as Henry II or Eleanor of Aquitaine.
· The second is using history as a backdrop for entirely fictional characters. Famous persons may have walk-on roles within the narrative, but the main characters are creations. Edward Rutherfurd or Diana Gabaldon writes in this section.
· The third is alternate historical timeline books, where the setting is mostly in the historical world, but with a major part different. The Camber Chronicles is a good example of this – ostensibly set in medieval
, but there is no Pope and the
bishops all perform real magic. Sometimes this section merges with magical
No matter which section you read or write in, attention to historical accuracy can make or break a piece, depending on how well it’s written.
For some people, anything prior to modern times is ‘ancient’ and there is little differentiation between those periods. For an historian, however, or an enthusiast of historical fiction, those differences are important. For instance, a noblewoman of 17th century
France would wear a completely different costume
than a noblewoman in 12th century . France
|Annals of Ulster|
When I do research for my books, I first cast a pretty wide net. I might know I want to set my book in, say, 12th century
the location and precise year is still up for debate. I start by researching
the records available for the time. In this case, the Annals of Ireland are my
first source. They are like an annual diary kept by monks that list the events
of the time. Births, deaths, battles, marriages, dynastic changes, these are
all recorded in dry detail and mostly accurate notation by the scribes of the
This is also a great source for historical names, though I tend to simplify the spelling of Irish names so they aren’t horribly difficult for modern readers. For instance, Muirchetach Ua Conchobhairr can become Murtough O’Connor and be much more digestible.
Once I comb through the annals, I can find a nice, juicy conflict to set as the backdrop to my story. Usually dynastic struggles or major raids work well. Strife and war make for exciting times, and few people read historical fiction for the everyday humdrum things. Once I’ve found a conflict, I can zero in on place and year, and discover what life was like in that place and time for my characters.
Are my characters peasants? Nobility? Soldiers, bakers, herdsmen, each lives a different style of life and has different internal and external conflicts. Many of these can be woven into subplots and subtext.
|Annals of the Four Masters-|
When writing details of the time period, an author could research the different foods a character is eating (Pro tip: McDonald’s weren’t period!), clothing, the way they made their living, etc.
Speech and idiom is the hardest part. It’s a balancing act. Of course the 12th Century Irish character isn’t speaking anything resembling English. They aren’t even speaking modern Irish. They’re speaking Middle Irish, and no one today outside of a few scholars would easily be able to read it. I certainly wouldn’t be able to write it. Even if it was in
12th century language is very different from today’s. If you doubt me, go read
some Anglo-Norman works. English as a language didn’t exist – it was a
proto-mix of German from the Anglo-Saxon peasants and French from the Norman
nobles, with a good dose of Danish from England and ecclesiastic Latin. Northumbria
So we use mostly modern English in historical novels. But we can’t use pure modern English, as that would sound strange. Telling someone that the assassin was going to ‘pop a cap’ in his victim’s head just seems… wrong.
Most historical fiction authors sprinkle older words and phrases into modern English and try to limit the anachronisms to give a ‘flavor’ of the time. Sometimes this is easy – often it isn’t. It involves a lot of research, delving into resources such as Etymonline and historical theses. I have an account with Jstor.com which helps me with academic studies on things, as well as academia.edu.
Once you have written in a particular time period, of course, you get a feel for the language. You can just add a couple or words, or phrases, to your characters’ lexicon and the reader is transported to their time and place—if you’ve done it well.
There is always a danger of putting in TOO much flavor. Have you ever had a dish that was so heavily spiced that all you tasted was the seasoning, and not the food itself? Some writing ends up like that. Where you have to sound out the words on the page to make any sense of what was being said. I’ve seen some too-accurate
accents written this way. Or Cockney. Or deep-south American. Just remember –
less is more! And please don’t use phrases like “Avast ye, knavish varlet!” Glasgow
Swearing is an area that is particularly difficult. A modern person swears differently than someone in the 18th century, 16th century, or the 5th century would. In the past, most swearing was religious in nature – ‘Zounds’, used liberally by Shakespeare, was short for ‘God’s Wounds’. Now, in a society less dominated by religion, we use words more related to physical body functions!
These are little things that must be kept in mind as you are writing your manuscript. Little but important. A glaring anachronism can push a reader right out of the story, and their suspense of disbelief shattered. Often small discrepancies can be forgiven (like rose madder being used to dye cloth in the 12th century when it didn’t become popular until the 13th). These are details only a historian or pedant will care about. Others, not so much (like horned helmets on Vikings, or kilts on a 13th century highlander). Don’t make your 12th century character a Baptist.
Walking the line is difficult, but rewarding. As an author, I stay up at night worrying about someone finding details wrong in my books. So far, I haven’t had any major accusations, but there’s always that concern!
Celtic Fairies, Fables, and Folklore
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I've got a bit of catch-up to do since I've just bought, Legacy of Hunger, the first book in the Druid's Brooch series, but if you're already a fan of Christy's series then you might like to know that....
Thank you for guest posting with me today, Christy. My very best wishes for a brilliant launch of Misfortune of Time in July.