How to Write Historical Fiction

How to Write Historical Fiction

How to Write Historical Fiction

by Julia Herdman

Sinclair_Cover Julia Herdman

Sinclair by Julia Herdman is rated 5 Star on Amazon and Goodreads

Find a Good Starting Point:

When I wrote my novel, Sinclair, I had no idea where or when to start my story. I had had the idea for a book for a long time, but it was very unformed. I had discovered I had married into a family whose ancestors were apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s Hospital and living in Tooley Street close to London Bridge in the late 18th century. They were quite a well-documented family, as the historical record goes, and I had already done a lot of research, but I did not have a story.  Determined not to give up on my quest to be a writer of novels  I searched the internet for ideas and found one that I thought would work for me. I looked for a dramatic historical incident, adapted it and put my characters into it. Suddenly, my writer’s block had disappeared, and my characters were telling their own story.

The sinking of the Halsewell, by Turner


Keep the End in Mind:

When I was writing Sinclair, I always knew how the story would end. I did not know how my characters would get there, but I knew where I wanted to get them. Keeping the end in mind is a tried an tested technique in many endeavours, and it works well when you’re writing historical fiction or any book for that matter.


Hit the Books: 

Getting the history write is important when writing historical fiction, but don’t get hung up on having to get everything right in the first draft. If you don’t know what they called something in the 1870s, just give the thing its common name and get on with the flow of your story. Details can be corrected later. What cannot be repaired are fundamental errors such as having an iron or steel ship in the 1780s when everything was made of wood. Details matter, to the avid historical fiction reader.  I remember reading a book set in the 1950s and the author described the stuffing coming out of an old settee as foam. It grated on me all the way through the book.

When I wrote Sinclair, I had to research the history of medicine and the key players in its development of modern medicine, particularly the London teaching hospitals. To my horror, I found that medicine of the 1780s was very primitive. There were no anaesthetics, no antibiotics and doctors didn’t even have stethoscopes.


Visit Locations:

Getting a feel for scale is hard when you’re writing about the past. Visiting the sites or similar locations to those you are writing about will help you get a sense of how long it took people to do things in the past. Putting the house or the street you are writing about into its context will help you paint a more vivid picture. I looked at old maps, old painting and illustrations and used contemporary descriptions of places I used in my story when I could find. I also visited the central locations in Sinclair – London, Edinburgh and Beverley in Yorkshire.

Guy’s Hospital, London

Remember: It’s the story that counts

When I write about the past, I know I am taking my reader into a foreign country.  Beyond the memory of your own generation, the past is a mystery, it is an uncharted territory that is both dangerous and exciting. I aim to create a world my reader can believe in, a world that they might have experienced if they had lived in that time and place. As a writer, I place myself inside my characters, I see the world I have created through their eyes because I am telling their story.

So, remember to think about the journey your characters will take, what will they be like when your tale is told. What will they have learned about life, themselves and their friends? No matter how accurate your history is if your characters are not believable and do not grow, you have not written a story, people will want to read.



Here are some websites to try if you’re thinking about writing historical fiction:

How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity





The Tragic Life of Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla

The Tragic Life of Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla

The tragic Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla was born around 150 AD.

Her father was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, her mother the Empress Faustina the Younger. Lucilla was the elder sister of Emperor Commodus. A character loosely based on Lucilla was the love interest to Russell Crowe in the block buster film Gladiator in 2000. The film was directed by Ridley Scott. In the film the character based on Lucilla was played by the Danish actress Connie Nielsen. Crowe portrays the Hispano-Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, the man  betrayed by Commodus. Reduced to slavery, Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena to avenge the murders of his family. That, of course, was fiction.


The real Lucilla was married her father’s co-ruler Lucius Verus in 164 when she was 14. Marriage at such a young age was normal in the Roman world. Early marriages led to an astonishingly high death rate among the aristocracy. Even today a woman  getting pregnant in her early teens runs higher risks than a more mature woman. Her husband was 18 years her senior. Upon marriage, she received the title of Augusta and became a Roman Empress. Together they had three children: Aurelia Lucilla was born in 165 in Antioch, Lucilla Plautia and Lucius Verus. Aurelia and another boy died young. After Lucius Verus died, in 169, her father arranged a second marriage for her. This time it was to Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, a Syrian Roman who was twice consul and his political ally. Quintianus was at least twice Lucilla’s age. They were married in 170, and she bore him a son named Pompeianus.


Her Brother

The Roman Historian Cassius Dio wrote that Commodus ‘was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, was as guileless as any man that ever lived. He was simple and cowardly and a slave to his companions. He developed cruel and lustful habits. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died. He had advice from his many guardians in the Senate, which he steadfastly ignored. He hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city.’[1] Commodus’ behaviour became increasingly disturbing as the years went by. Lucilla hatched a plot to kill and replace him with her nephew her daughter, and two cousins; one of which was Marcus Ummidius Quadratus Annianus who wasmost probably her lover.


The Plot

Lucilla planned to take over as empress, but as her nephew attempted to stab Commodus, he shouted, “Here is the dagger the Senate sends you!”

The plot was foiled and Commodus was spared. The male members of the plot were immediately put to death, while Lucilla, her daughter, and cousin were banished to Capri. However, they did not escape death for long, Commodus had them executed a year later, in 182 AD.


[1] Epitome of Book LXXIII, Roman History by Cassius Dio,  Vol. IX of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her novel Sinclair is available of Amazon.

Questions in Egyptology No. 1

Questions in Egyptology No. 1

The cartouche – protective circle or protective loop?

The conventional view of the cartouche in Egyptology was first identified in royal architecture by Flinders Petrie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although his chronologies and his views on race have not stood the test of time, Petrie was right in almost every respect when it came to the architectural survey and analysis of Egyptian monuments says David Ian Lightbody, in his article, The Encircling Protection of Horus, Current Research in Egyptology, 2011.

In Egyptology, the cartouche is considered to be a form of protective symbolism that was represented graphically, and as a partially abstracted concept, by the shen ring, or shenu. It was depicted as twin oval loops of rope, tied at the bottom. These protective symbols encircle the hieroglyphs of the pharaoh’s name

The cartouche is not circular. Circular symbols include the royal uraeus, represented in the image of a snake and the vulture goddess Nekhbet.

The god most closely associated with the Shen ring and the cartouche was the royal falcon Horus. Together, the Shen ring and the cartouche are said to represent royal protection and dominion over the encircled world in Egyptology.

Scenes incorporating images of Shen rings and cartouches were often depicted on the architectural elements of tombs and temples, particularly at entrances and on thresholds, such as under architraves, down door jambs or along the tops of enclosure walls. They are said to protect the royal building entrances and perimeters.

The earliest known shen ring image belongs to King Den‘s tomb and dates to the Second Dynasty. It appears on a tag from the royal tombs at Abydos, found by Petrie (Petrie 1901; Pl VII Wilkinson 2001, 207).  The symbol for gold is also on this tag and is considered significant in this context. The king, particularly close to Naqada or Nubt, the golden city, was always associated with gold (Wilkinson 2001, 207). The tag was part of the protection system for valuable goods, control of the treasury, and more generally, control and redistribution of food surplus that were the fundamental functions of the kingship and the basis for his power. This tag could have labelled an item of the king’s gold in the royal tomb.

The critical questions are were these images symbols of something or were they part of a functional magical system of royal protection. Was it protection in life or protection in death, and can a tied loop be considered a circle? I know it’s picky, but I’m pretty sure they are not the same.

If the loop is functioning as a protective magic circle, it provides a protective boundary by enclosing positive and beneficent energies within its confines. In otherwords, it protects what is inside the circle not what is outside. Or, is working like a charm or amulet? If so it may have been thought to offer protection to a given space, in much the same way as a horseshoe charm operates over a doorway. Was the king’s name really a lucky charm? It seems undignified and unlikely.

The idea of forming a protective circle suggests there are things in the world the protected something in the circle needs to be protected from. In Egyptology, there is a commonly held belief that the ancient Egyptians thought that chaos was all around them and that it was in danger of crashing into the world at any time and subsuming everything within it. This view makes the ancient Egyptians seem a bit like nervous wrecks, they sound like people who thought they had no control over the world they lived in which seems at odds with their culture which was highly organised and efficient.  In the cases mentioned by Lightbody, the protective encirclement is around the name of the king, not the tomb and certainly not the land of Egypt.

Now we come to the loop which is made from two pieces of rope. Why two pieces? Why was a single piece of rope not enough? The ropes are never joined wholly; why was that? The ancient Egyptians were perfectly capable of representing a continuous line, but they chose not to. What does this tell us about the way they envisioned the world? Do the two ropes represent duality? If so how?

The Egyptian magician spends a large part of his time tying knots according to Bruce Trigger et. al. A magic knot is a point of convergence of the forces which unite the divine and the human worlds he and his colleagues say in The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt, (Nancy Thomas, Gerry D. Scott, Bruce G. Trigger, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1995.)  How does the cartouche or the shen ring unite the human and divine worlds?

We see the knot tying image in the sema tawy image, a motif that shows the gods Horus and Set pulling on opposing ropes with the throne of Egypt in the centre. (in the image below it is two versions of the god of the inundation, Hapi.) The image is said to represent unity and shows the king’s name in a cartouche joined to the heart and lungs of a bull. The symbolism of the heart, lungs and trachea illustrate the complementary relationship between the organs, the lungs must work together to preserve the heart. It is an image of the two lands united by the king.

The image shows the king’s name is set within a cartouche.

The shen ring quite a different object, but it is tied in the same way as the cartouche. The Shen ring is usually seen carried by the vulture goddess Nekhbet and the god of eternity Heh. The Shen ring may be a protective charm when held over the king by Nekhbet.  The vulture goddess may be constantly on guard to catch the king’s soul as soon as he shuffles off his mortal coil. In the hands of Heh, it represents millions of years or an eternity of cycles.

We believe the cartouche holds the king’s name together in the same way that bandages held his dead body together. The ancient Egyptian were obsessed with thwarting the process of decay. They understood that bodies if left unbound disintegrated into a pile of bones.  The cartouche was designed to hold the king’s name together so that it would remain intact, could be read and said, and in this way, it preserved his Ka spirit or his worldly persona. The cartouche protects the king’s name not his tomb or the adjacent area. It provided the king with one of the many ways the ancient Egyptians believed a person could survive the decay of mortality. The two ropes represent the two ropes of time that are spooled out by the gods (See The Book of Gates). The shen ring, in our opinion, was principally a symbol of eternity.

Let us know what you think?


Paintings from the tomb of Nebamun

Paintings from the tomb of Nebamun

This beautiful illustration is laid out in typical ancient Egyptian style. The strange but charming perspective is called ‘aspective’ and it is the opposite of our modern western view called ‘perspective’. The aim of the ancient Egyptian artist was to show all the essential details of a thing or person from a universal, not a personal viewpoint.

The image of the pond is a halcyon one, the animals, fishes and trees represent the peace and tranquillity of the ideal afterlife. The colours are cool and tranquil to illustrate the peace and comfort of life in the Hereafter. Heaven was not perceived as a garden but gardens were thought of as heavenly.

The painting is one of 11 paintings acquired by the British Museum from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun in the 1820s. Dating from about 1350t BC, they are some of the most famous works of art from Ancient Egypt.

The Tomb of Nebamun is from  Dynasty XVIII. It was located in the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes (present-day Luxor), in Egypt. The tomb was the source of a number of famous decorated tomb scenes that are currently on display in the British MuseumLondon.

Nebamun (c 1350 BCE) was a middle-ranking official scribe and grain counter at the temple complex in Thebes. His tomb was discovered in 1820 by a young Greek adventurer called Giovanni (“Yanni”) d’Athanasi, who was acting as an agent for Henry Salt, the British Consul-General. The tomb he found had plastered walls  that were richly and skilfully decorated with fresco paintings, depicting idealised views of Nebamun’s life and activities.

D’Athanasi and his workmen literally hacked out the pieces he wanted with knives, saws and crowbars. Salt sold these works to the British Museum in 1821, though some of other fragments became located in Berlin and possibly Cairo. D’Athanasi later died in poverty without ever revealing the tomb’s exact location.

The best-known of the tomb’s paintings include Nebamun fowl hunting in the marshes, dancing girls at a banquet, and a pond in a garden. In 2009 the British Museum opened up a new gallery dedicated to the display of the restored eleven wall fragments from the tomb. They have been described as the greatest paintings from ancient Egypt to have survived, and as one of the Museum’s greatest treasures

The frescoes are now on display together for the first time at the British Museum. Following the restoration process they now give a true impression of the colour that would have been experienced by the ancient visitors to the tomb-chapel.

Objects dating from the same time period and a 3-D animation of the tomb-chapel help to set the tomb-chapel in context and allow visitors to experience how the finished tomb would have looked.

Julia Herdman is currently working on the first book to tackle the subject of Ancient Egyptian Sacred Numbers for over a hundred years. To support this work please visit

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