How to Write Historical Fiction
by Julia Herdman
Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.
Find a Good Starting Point:
When I wrote my book, 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 wanted to write a book that was a good book to read, but I was struggling for somewhere to start.
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.
The family were quite a well-documented, as the historical record goes. I had already done a lot of research, but I did not have a story and I could not see how I was ever going to write a book.
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.
Keep the End in Mind:
When I was writing my book 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 right 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 basing your book on 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 my book I had to research the history of medicine and the key players in its development, 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.
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 in your book 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.
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 because I want to write a book that is a good read. I want to show my reader 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: