By Liza Perrat
Fiction First, Historical Fiction Second
Very few historical fiction authors hold university degrees in history. Writers of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of fiction, as any other novelist. Learning how to write a good story that hooks readers, then keeps them turning the pages is as vital as getting the historical details right. Yet if they are not spot on, the HF author risks drowning in his own moat.
Old diaries, letters and public archives abound with authentic information, but these days, with its treasure chest of maps, images, videos, and historical documents, the internet is the researcher’s best buddy. Our friendly worldwide web, however, is also rife with errors.
Beware Flawed Information
Check “facts”, where possible, against other sources, but just because you’ve done your homework, don’t give your reader a history lesson, or put him to sleep with these interesting titbits.
Integrate Historical Facts
Action and dialogue can evoke historical facts, as can characters eating from bread trenchers, wrinkling their nose at a tallow candle, or waltzing off to the privy with a wad of moss for toilet paper. (Never believed that one!) Despite quadruple-checking your facts, hiring endless copy editors and critiquers, some mistakes are still bound to slip through. And Ms Diligent HF reader will spot them.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Readers might tell you the coin you mentioned in February was not actually minted till July of that year. They will point out that the word “miscarriage” was not used in 1348. Thank them kindly, and move on.
Build a Setting
I find nothing more inspiring than spending time in the place where my story is set, trying to imagine how it looked, felt and smelled, in the past. Even if your story takes place centuries ago, evoking the spirit of a place––the trees and flowers, the seasonal light, the scents –– pulls readers in.
A walk around my rural French village gave me the idea and setting for my novel, Spirit of Lost Angels. On the banks of the Garon River I came upon a stone cross engraved with a heart shape. Dated 1717, it commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown? I had to write their story –– to give them an identity, and a village.
Historical monuments and buildings also evoke the past and I like to study them and take lots of photos (preferably minus tourists). For my novel, Wolfsangel, I visited the haunting memorial of Oradour-sur-Glane, on which the story is based.
The Rise of Historical Fiction
Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, and winning major literary awards. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, won the 2000 and 2001 Booker Prize, respectively. The success of adaptations illustrates this rising interest – films such as Gladiator, Titanic and Braveheart, and TV series like The Tudors and Wolf Hall.
Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, working as a general nurse and midwife. She has now been living in France for twenty years, where she works as a part-time medical translator and a novelist. She is a co-founder and member of the author collective, Triskele Books and a book reviewer for Bookmuse. Liza is the author of the historical Spirit of Lost Angels set in 18th century revolutionary France, and Wolfsangel set during the WW2 Nazi Occupation of France. She is currently working on her third novel –– Midwife Héloïse – Blood Rose Angel –– set during the 14th century Black Plague years. Find out more: www.lizaperrat.com