Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I have a book deal. Why don't I feel euphoric?"
Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam

Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to try writing it, GS Hist Fic will lead you through the skills of imagining, researching and writing stories set in the past; it will also help you decide what form your story should take, where it might fit on the bookshop shelves, and how to go about getting it there. To read a bit more about the book, follow links to buy it, and download the first chapter for free, click here

What's more, Just Write, Teach Yourself's site for writers, is running a historical fiction competition: your story could win you publication on the site, and a copy of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, along with four terrific historical novels including Marina Fiorato's The Double Life of Kit Kavanagh, which I loved when I read it for Harrogate History.

And, also on Just Write, you can read my Twelve Do's and Don't's for Writing Historical Fiction.


But having a new book out is a bit like a mini-New Year's Day: after I'd done the Happy Author Dance round the kitchen (you know, the one which has a chorus of "It's a book, it's a book, it's a real, real book!") I found myself thinking back to where it came from. Did it only start existing when I said Yes to John Murray Learning when they enquired whether I'd like to join their Teach Yourself Creative Writing list?

Or did it start with my PhD? A Secret Alchemy was under contract, but the commentary could be what I wanted, within the regulations. It was my supervisor, Maura Dooley, who suggested that it shouldn't just be something that would get me through the viva, but also be actively useful to me in the future. And so I chose to explore how what I'd done with A Secret Alchemy fitted into the context of the writing and reading of historical fiction in general, and parallel narratives in particular. (And if you're wondering what on earth a PhD in Creative Writing is all about, click here. )

Did it start with the day I heard I'd got a place on the MPhil course at what was then the University at Glamorgan, and had to plan and write enough of a new novel to workshop it in October? In Stephen Fairhurst, who had been born years before in a writing-course exercise, I already had one of those characters who doesn't go away. Now he needed a novel, but because I'm always thinking about history as change and process, not just the moment we're in, it didn't seem interesting enough to confine the novel to what Stephen would write in his own story. So I dreamed up another character, quite cold-bloodedly, to be as different as possible from him, and to write her own story in a way which would mean each story played off the other, and was enriched by it. Anna Ware was born, and that novel became The Mathematics of Love

Did it start when I failed to get into Drama School, but succeeded in getting a place to read Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, and spent three years working in ways that turned out to be the best grounding for a novelist that you could ask for?

Is it a product of my gap year reading Peter Ackroyd, Georgette Heyer, Robert Nye, A Tale of Two Cities and Angela Carter, and later Simon Schama, Hilary Mantel, John Keegan, Rose Tremain, Roszika Parker, Barry Unsworth and Allan Massie?

Did it begin when A Level History turned out to be a whole lot less fun than I'd expected? It wasn't just because acting was being so much more fun: it was also an accident of my excellent, up-to-the-minute History teachers being steeped in a discipline that happened to be in a particularly Modernist and anti-Victorian phase of dry, quasi-scientific and impersonal scholarship: a discipline that was refusing grand narratives and colourful individuals.

Or does it go all the way back to my childhood love for Rosemary Sutcliffe, Cynthia Harnett, Geoffrey Trease, Gillian Avery, Henry Treece, Barbara Willard and E M Almedingen?

Actually, it goes all the way back to this, which I rather think I asked my grandmother for, for my sixth or seventh birthday. Dipping in again (you didn't think I actually ever get rid of books, did you?) I'm rather impressed. 

It's almost entirely social history: the poor and the middling much more than the rich, the clothes and food, the songs and the technology, crime and punishment, theatres and fairs. Kings and queens make only a cursory appearance, given as a handy structure for placing people and things in their time but not as the essence of the world that human beings live in: Lord Shaftesbury's campaigns get more space than Charles I, and the state of Georgian roads twice as much again. It's stuffed with photographs of real historical objects as well as line-drawings whose claim to careful research is not ridiculous.

In short, it's just about everything that a seven-year-old, who didn't yet know she wanted to write historical fiction, could need to clothe and feed and dress her imagination, and send it off into the world where the wild things are

And did I mention that Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on Thursday, in paperback and e-book? You can buy it from your friendly local independent or other good bookseller. Ordering from Hive, incidently, directly benefits your independent bookseller, and of course the book is also available from all the other online sources. Just click on the link you prefer:




Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Indigo Canada

Barnes & Noble

Amazon US


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Sophie Beal

a. I don't think you're the only one excited by this being published.
b. I love looking back at the seeds of things, and seeing shape in my life's narrative.

Jennifer O'Neill

Congratulations from Australia, Emma. Your childhood historical interest resonates with me. After a life as a Literature teacher (Head of English for 17 years), I escaped from school and went back to University to do all the archaeology they hadn't taught when I was an undergraduate (in antediluvian times). Now I have a PhD in Archaeology; thesis on the EB Aegean. But my interest was originally sparked, I know, by my Year 5 Prize (in my all-girls school): Biggles Flies South, about Cambyses' lost army, swallowed up in a sandstorm in the Egyptian desert. .

Lesley Walker

Congratulations Emma - the origins of my love of history is similar to yours despite growing up in Australia and as a child yearning to come to UK where the 'real history' in all the books I read happened! Including Unstead, Sutcliffe, Trease et al. Now ironically I work as a heritage consultant in the UK.

I have had a look through the first chapter and it looks great. You must be very pleased and I will order a copy. One query - do you look at writing creative non-fiction at all as that is the area I am working in so would be interested in approaches to getting going with that. Having written a PhD thesis of 100,000 words on UK-Australian migration history, I am finding it hard to generate the creativity needed to go beyond the historical facts as I know them in the story I am developing.

Lydia Syson

Huge congratulations! How very exciting. Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. And I've still got my old copies of R.J.Unstead too... By the way, unfortunately Hive doesn't benefit independent bookshops quite as much as it likes to make out - the shop only gets a miserably 5% - so if you have the option of ordering directly, it's much better for the bookshop.

Sally Zigmond

I'm rubbing my hands in anticipation. many congrats, Emma and thanks for all your inspiration, advice and encouragement over the years.

Congratulations, Emma. Any chance it will be available on Amazon in the US before May?

Emma Darwin

Good to know others are excited!

I do think it can be not purely self-indulgent to look back and see what at the time seemed random, or you moved on from, and given enough time begins to make sense. Apart from anything else, it helps one be philosophical about apparently random problems, and fast-vanishing good things ...

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Jennifer! And your Biggles story is an exemplar of how important commercial/popular/genre fiction is in inspiring children and, indeed, grown-ups.

Emma Darwin

Stephanie - it's available in e-book from tomorrow, as far as I could tell. It's only the PB which is published in May. And thanks for the congrats!

Emma Darwin

Lesley, the book doesn't look in detail at creative non-fiction, although it does discuss how to decide whether your project would be best suited to that, or to writing as full fiction. And of course all the basic techniques of fiction also apply to creative non-fic, and the book covers those in a bit of depth: showing and telling, psychic distance, scene building, world-building, voice, storytelling structure...

Off the top of my head, the problem is leaving the research behind, isn't it. With creative non-fiction you need a story, as you don't necessarily, quite, with more formal history etc. Which means finding one or two or three characters who can be the centre of that story. You could have a look at The Hare with Amber Eyes, maybe things like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Also perhaps The Short Life and Long Something of Mrs Beeton, or if you're veering to a group-based story, even something like Sue Roe's Private Lives of the Impressionists

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Lydia! Yes, the Hive dividend isn't huge - but not everyone has an independent shop handy. The main thing is it keeps business out of certain other online retailers' hands... I think of it as a vote for independent shopping in general, as much as cash in the bookseller's hand.

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Sally!

Rick Watson

I will look for this baby.

Sandra Davies

My copy ordered. My two potential novels both based on real events, one of which is a proper story. It is the characters I need to give voice to I find most daunting.

Emma Darwin

Hope you enjoy it!

Emma Darwin

Thanks for ordering. Yes, voice is a big issue - although an exciting one. There's a whole chapter on it in the book, though, so hopefully that'll help!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)