Historical Fiction

Changing places: (when) should you disguise the place you're writing about?

Anxious aspiring novelists post questions on forums: Are they allowed to use a real village for their story? If they make one up, will people not like the story? Are they allowed to change the name of a street in Manchester? Are they allowed to create an extra island for Hong Kong? Regular Itch-readers won't be surprised that my first reaction is that it's not a matter of "allowing". Your story? Your rules. Coming at it from the reviewer's side, Stuart Kelly, in The Guardian, has also been asking why novelists disguise real locations, and it's a good question. Some... Read more →


Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... Read more →


Showing and Telling: cooperation not competition

First, can we get get a few things straight? Writing is not an exact science. It's not even an exact art. So it's next-to-impossible to say, "Doing X is Telling, doing Y is Showing", because "Telling" and "Showing" are convenient but wildly over-simple labels for effects on the reader which are achieved by a complex of means. Sorry. I prefer to call Telling "Informing" and sometimes "Explaining", and Showing "Evoking". Those are also over-simple, of course, but still, I think they help. Any text worth reading has writing which Tells, as well as writing which Shows. So you can ignore... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 2: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The second in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS by Andrew Taylor It's the late eighteenth century, and bookseller John Holdsworth has fallen on sad, hard times, with bankrupcty, the death of his child and the suicide of his wife, both by drowning. To help the crazed son of a possible patron... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Happy New Year! To celebrate, this is the first of a new series on This Itch of Writing: not exactly reviews, but mini-posts about a book I'm reading which I think would be useful and interesting to us as writers. I'm planning to interleave these with the normal Itchy fare. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. Not every book I write about will be one I think is perfect, but I shall be focusing... Read more →


Listen Again to my story "Calling" on Radio 4 Extra

I'm delighted that the story I wrote for Radio 4 has been repeated on Radio 4 Extra. Click here to Listen Again for the next four weeks.* Twelve-year-old Tom and his sister first came to Brighton after they lost their father in the great storm of 1883. They left their mother at her new job in the big house and walked to their lodgings in the Lanes. But in the middle of the night Tom hears their mother calling for them. And in trying to find her, he finds his own future. But, of course, that's only how the story... Read more →


Where do you start your story?

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer's dictum of "Start as near the end as possible". Later, I encountered the thriller-writer's "Get in late and get out early", which is a double-ended version of the same idea. Certainly it's rare for me to see a beginner's novel that starts "too late" in the story, whereas perhaps the majority either simply should start at what's currently chapter three, or the writer's realised that, and tacked a zingy prologue onto the beginning, in the (entirely folorn) hope that it will compensate... Read more →


Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction. Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at HNS London 2014

It's just been London's turn for the Historical Novel Society Conference, and as part of a packed programme, Suzannah Dunn and I were asked to give a workshop on "Figures of Speech: Recreating Past Voices". That too, was packed: it's just as well no one else turned up or we'd have had people sitting on the floor! As is the way, I found myself referring quite often to posts on the blog, so here's a roundup of the ones I remember, and any others which seem relevant. Do say in the comments if I've missed any, or there are any... Read more →


Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one? Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't... Read more →


Historical Novel? Biography? When is your life writing actually historical fiction?

I'm delighted to have been commissioned by Hodder to write Getting Started in Historical Fiction, for John Murray Learning's classic Teach Yourself list. It will be published towards the end of 2015, and starting it prompted my post So What Counts as Historical Fiction?. But there's another question I'll need to explore. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography? A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the... Read more →


When do you stop world-building?

Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so... Read more →


So what counts as historical fiction?

If you're reading this in March 2017, and you're in reach of London on Monday March 27th, do come along to our WordsAway Salon, at the Tea House Theatre Vauxhall, where historical novelist Essie Fox, Kellie Jackson and I will be talking all things Historical Fiction. Starts at 7.45, but the venue's open all day, and there's wine, beer, tea and very splended cake on sale! More details here: http://www.wordsaway.info/salons/2016/11/12/writing-historical-fiction-with-essie-fox ------------------------------------------------------------ It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling about the past count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether... Read more →


The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461

Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each: Una – Saturday We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows... Read more →


Agonising over your Creative Writing PhD proposal?

One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits... Read more →


Wives of Tyrants and landing the plane on time: the Harrogate History Festival 2013

As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round. It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes,... Read more →


So...

... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ... - and you have an idea - the first idea... Read more →


Exercises, heroes and your hat-check girl's journey

A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways. - The Other character becomes pure character-in-action.... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at Arvon/Historical Fiction with M C Scott

These are all the posts I think I mentioned at Arvon Lumb Bank, when M C Scott and I had the pleasure of spending a week talking about writing historical fiction with fifteen writers who are rash enough to want to join us - and then wrote some truly fantastic stuff. We also had a splendid evening with Robert Low, ex-Para, ex-journalist and current Viking. If you were there, and remember me mentioning a post or a book or a topic which I haven't put here, do say so in the comments, and I'll do my best to dig it... Read more →


Dreaming the first Queen Elizabeth

When I first started dreaming Elizabeth Woodville, fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the centre of her story was her marriage to Edward IV. But what was that marriage made of? And since writing a novel is "like remembering something that never happened", as the novelist Siri Hustvedt says, how could I write Elysabeth as if I could remember her, so that readers, too, would feel she was someone they knew? If you want to read how I remembered her in full, you can buy or download my novel A Secret Alchemy at the Independent Bookseller's site The... Read more →