All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary. Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.
1. Bad Parents
When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.
Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!
American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.
The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.
The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.
Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.
The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.
The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.
When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.
Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.
Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.
God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.
This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.
Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!
Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.
Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.
Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.
Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)
After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.
The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.
Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!
This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.
Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.
The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.
7. Feeling Invisible
In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.
One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.
Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.
Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.
This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish:You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)
Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.
Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.
9. Lies and Betrayal
In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’ The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.
Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.
10. Being a Psychopath
Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.
Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.
British art has always been slightly different from that of mainstream Europe. Perhaps it’s because we’re an island. European painting in the eighteenth century is generally conceived as radiating from Paris. There was a strong move during the course of the 18th century towards the development of a national school – a desire for academies of art where the latent English genius could be nurtured.
French Rococo portraits and decorative mythologies invaded Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia and the French influence was powerful in Rome and Spain but as the French Revolution approached, France, in the person of Jacques Louis David, took over the leadership of the emerging Neoclassical style (which perhaps originated in Rome) and established its primacy killing the age of Rococo and the Baroque.
The two great centres of resistance to Neoclassicalism are generally held to be Britain and Venice. During the 18th and 19th centuries, young members of the British upper classes broadened their education with the Grand Tour of continental Europe. They encountered a sophisticated level of artistic achievement that influenced their tastes as art patrons. To ensure similarly high standards in Britain, the Royal Academy was founded in London in 1769. Its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds, a brilliant painter as well as an influential teacher and author whose Discourses authoritatively addressed many aesthetic topics—including the preeminence of history painting.
Landscape and romanticism were two key themes of two masters, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Constable’s true-to-life views of the verdant English countryside emphasized the essential harmony and purity of nature. Turner, on the other hand, was a romantic who expressively dissolved forms in terms of light and atmosphere. With their fresh vision and powerfully original styles, Constable and Turner profoundly influenced the work not only of many subsequent British painters but of countless other American and European artists as well.
The death of court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1723 brought to an end the long dynasty of foreign artists who had dominated English painting for two hundred years. Kneller’s pupils and followers were conventional ‘portrait manufacturers’, whose work had neither life nor charm. It was left to his pupil and son-in-law, William Hogarth, to restore English fine art painting to dignity and honour.
The young artist William Hogarth broke the mould of Britsh art in the 1730s when he began his series of moral fables in paint. Hogarth’s earlier style, although strongly personal, is an English variation on the style of the French Rocco painter Watteau and his contemporaries but Hogarth’s moral fables fit in exactly with that climate of Enlightenment thought which was to produce Diderot and the Encyclopedists. William Hogarth dominates English art in the first half of the century. Scornful of portraiture, he single-handedly created a new genre, the ‘Modern Moral Subject’, and introduced the original practice of paintings and engravings in series, and of telling a visual story.
Hogarth is called a moralist and a genius and is acknowledged as the first great English painter of modern times, but in his own lifetime, he waged a perpetual struggle for recognition and patronage in a society indifferent to native talent. He was the son of a schoolmaster and literary hack and born at Ship Court, Old Bailey in 1697. About 1712 his father apprenticed him to Ellis Gamble, a silversmith in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Fields, from whom he learned something of the processes of engraving. He took to drawing, it is said because he wished to record the humours of London life as he saw them. He devised a system of drawing from memory so that he could record in the evening the things he had seen during the day. This, he believed, was the only way ‘living art’ could be produced.
In 1733 Hogarth settled in Leicester Fields, where he remained for the rest of his life with the exception of a brief trip to France in 1748. His trip resulted in the picture of “Calais Gate”, now in the National Gallery but while making a sketch of the old gateway Hogarth was arrested on a charge of espionage and, though subsequently released, the incident had the effect of confirming his truculent insularity which finds full expression in this picture.
Towards the end of his life, Hogarth contrived to produce satirical engravings and paintings. He also painted a fairly large number of portraits, and a few pictures in the “grand historical style”, which are not on a level with his other work. Late in life, he published his “Analysis of Beauty”, in which he expressed his own aesthetic ideals, and endeavored to establish a definite canon of taste. In 1757 he received some official recognition in his appointment as serjeant-painter to the king, but he died on 26th October 1764, four years too early to become one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy.
Illustration: The Ladies Waldegrave. Reynolds was particularly skilled at choosing poses and actions which suggested a sitter’s character and which also created a strong composition. Here, three sisters, the daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave, are shown collaboratively working on a piece of needlework. The joint activity links the girls together. On the left, the eldest, Lady Charlotte, holds a skein of silk, which the middle sister, Lady Elizabeth, winds onto a card. On the right, the youngest, Lady Anna, works a tambour frame, using a hook to make lace on a taut net.
Sources: Ellis Waterhouse, Tate Gallery, London National Gallery Scotland.
The Palazzo del Re was home to the exiled Jacobite court and the Stuarts in Rome. Owned by the Muti family, it was rented by the Papacy for the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart. Both James’s sons, Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) and Henry Benedict, were born in the palace. The event depicted here is a celebration organised in honour of Henry’s appointment as a cardinal deacon on 3 July 1747. James, wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, is shown greeting his younger son, who is dressed in the black coat, scarlet stockings and shoes with red heels often worn by cardinals in the eighteenth century. The palace itself has been lavishly ‘dressed’ with temporary architectural decoration, somewhat like a theatre set.
During their long exile, the Stuart dynasty commissioned a steady stream of portraits and subject pictures as propaganda for the Jacobite cause. The Portrait Gallery has an extensive collection of images of the deposed King James VII and II and of his son Prince James and grandson Prince Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), many of them of high quality by the leading artists of the day. This picture occupies a special place among this wealth of material. It is large, colourful and celebratory but the apparently joyful mood here belies some harsh political truths. In reality, the painting captures a moment when the Jacobite ambition of re-establishing a Stuart monarchy in Great Britain was effectively at an end.
After their disastrous defeat at Culloden in 1746, the Stuarts were left politically isolated and vulnerable. In Rome, Prince James, the Old Pretender, finally acceded to the desire of his younger son Henry to become a Cardinal, immediately guaranteeing not just a degree of status but also much-needed financial security for the family. But for Henry’s older brother, Charles Edward, this pragmatic move was a catastrophe. By linking the Stuarts so closely to the papacy, it was clear that any hope of reviving Jacobite sympathy back in Britain was now fatally undermined. Charles Edward refused to return to Rome and never saw his father again.
Our picture was commissioned to celebrate Henry’s appointment as Cardinal in 1747. In the foreground, James, wearing the bright blue Order of the Garter, stands with his court outside his residence, the Palazzo del Re, to greet his son, shown in a cardinal’s costume of black coat and scarlet stockings. A recent papal regulation required that new cardinals should decorate their home with a false façade and provide a fete for the local populace. In the background, the palace is dressed with temporary architectural decoration to create an elaborate backdrop for the celebrations, with the arms of the English monarchy and the papacy prominently on display on top of the palace. The foreground is filled with incident to evoke a festive if somewhat unruly mood among the onlookers. Alongside the fashionable courtiers here are parading soldiers, beggars scrambling for coins and even some figures fighting. Elsewhere, musicians are preparing to play while food for a banquet is carried into the palace.
Until comparatively recently, the identity of the maker of this work was uncertain and it carried a traditional attribution to Giovanni Panini, the great Italian painter of topographical views. After it was acquired in 2001, an examination in the Gallery’s conservation studios indicated that more than one artist was involved in painting the figures as well as the background, and it now appears to be the work of three minor artists. It is nonetheless a fascinating document in which pomp and theatricality, colour and noise, mask the poignant significance of the event for a dynasty now destined to remain permanently in exile.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.
Benjamin Franklin wrote a good love letter. In 1779, Benjamin Franklin fell in love with Anne Catherine Helvétius, the widow of the Swiss-French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. He was serving as the U.S. envoy to France at the time.
Nicknamed “Minette”, Anne maintained a renowned salon in Paris using her dead husband’s accumulated wealth. Among its habitués were France’s leading politicians, philosophers, writers, and artists.
Courting her attention, Franklin sent her many letters expressing his love, admiration, and passion. In one, he claimed that he had dreamed that their dead spouses had married in heaven and that they should avenge their union by doing the same on earth!
He wrote In another passionate plea: “If that Lady likes to pass her Days with him, he, in turn, would like to pass his Nights with her; and as he has already given her many of his days…she appears ungrateful never to have given him a single one of her nights.”
“Don’t be upset. Don’t listen to me. I only meant that I am jealous of a dark, unconscious element, something irrational, unfathomable. I am jealous of your toilet articles, of the drops of sweat on your skin, of the germs in the air you breathe which could get into your blood and poison you. And I am jealous of Komarovsky, as if he were an infectious disease. Someday he will take you away, just as certainly as death will someday separate us. I know this must seem obscure and confused, but I can’t say it more clearly. I love you madly, irrationally, infinitely.”
I think you’ll agree that’s powerful stuff but how would you feel if you got a letter like that? Would it please you or make you run a mile? I think I’d make a run for it. So what should you write to your love? Well if want to woo your love successfully science has some tips for you.
Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of love, suggests that the ideal love letter should include the following components—intimacy, passion, and commitment. To test this hypothesis Donelson Forsyth and Kelli Taylor constructed a number of letters and asked people what they thought of them.
They discovered that, when it comes to love letters, commitment conquered all. The letter that proclaimed, “I know we will be happy together for the rest of our lives” and “I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it,” was rated much higher, in terms of expressing love, than one that made no mention of commitment.
Adding language that spoke of closeness and caring increased the letter’s good impression with readers, but it was a commitment that left readers feeling loved and in love.
As to expressing passion in a letter; frisky letters, which went on for too long about the sender’s sexual passions, were viewed generally negatively by both genders; perhaps because they were more about lust than love.
They also discovered that a message of commitment need not be delivered in a traditional love letter or a card; a simple email will do which is lucky as so many of us have lost the art of putting pen to paper. However, research shows that people think that letters are more trustworthy, and a handwritten letter shows effort and care too.
Therefore, if you want your love letter to get results you need to write it yourself, show your commitment to the relationship and put it in an envelope. Call me old-fashioned but a bunch of flowers wouldn’t go amiss either.
Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction is an umbrella term; though it is commonly used as a synonym for describing the historical novel. Historical fiction also occurs in other narrative formats – the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted. Historical fiction writers frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.
Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of readerly or genre expectations for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity, or historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of comment for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for its other thematic and critical interests.
When Wolf Hall won the Booker prize some commentators suggested that the term “historical fiction” was itself becoming a thing of the past. So many novels these days are set prior to the author’s lifetime that to label a novel “historical” is almost as meaningless as to call it “literary”.
1. Small details matter more than large ones.
The art of fiction is, in large part, the art of small-scale illusions. Focus on the things that set the period and the character – the snap of a fan, the recoil of a rifle, the sound of the hurdy-gurdy playing in the street. In this quote from The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Moss we are whisked immediately back to the 15th or 16th century with the mention of the lute, viol, and citole, the title of the story tells us it is set at Christmas and the drinking and goose fat glistening on merry faces lets us know everyone is feasting.
‘It is my wedding day. I should be happy, and I am.
I am happy, yet I confess I am anxious too. My father’s friends of wild. Their cups clashing against one another and goose fat glistening on their cheeks and their voices raised. There has been so much wine drunk they are no longer themselves. There is lawlessness in a glint of their eyes, but they are not so far gone us to forget their breeding and manners. Their good cheer echoes around the old oak hall, so loud I can no longer hear the lute or viol, or citole s set out for our entertainment.’
2. Period characters require more than period clothes.
Similarly, just as the exterior world requires research to establish believable, small details, the interior world of a character requires research as well. Good historical stories promise to not only transport readers to a historical setting but to reveal the interior life (the mind, heart and aspirations) of a character. For me, some of the large questions here had to do with interior perceptions: You need to find out how people viewed love and romance in your chosen period. What do your characters expect or want from life.
3. Use common names, not technical ones.
It’s all very well knowing the technical terms for the clothes and accoutrements of the past but if your reader is going to have to Google everything you mention it will spoil the story for them. Remember you’re writing a story to entertain not a history textbook. Let your characters engage with both historical details and their place in society. Not only have them interact with the politics or religion of the day – but allow them full use of their senses to recreate their environment, the smells, sounds and feel of their surroundings is just as important as having them know who was King at that time.
4. Immerse yourself in the culture.
To write historical fiction of any kind – short stories or not – you need to be able to close your eyes and have the past blaze up around you. Always remember research takes time. Research is an investment; you draw on it when you need to. Use it like capital and keep most of it in the bank. Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story. Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art. Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is described on the Booker prize website as “historically accurate but beautifully imagined”, as if “historically accurate” implied a literary problem. In some respects it does. Ask a historical author: how do you stop that facts getting in the way of the story? And the novelist, driven by his or her imagination, will offer a wealth of answers. The historian will assure you that the facts are the story.
5. Find experts.
Have fun with research, but do your homework. Use reference books, watch films, read novels of the period. Make sure you’re comfortable with all aspects of the time from politics to illnesses, from food to fashion, from local geography to language (even if you choose not to use it.) Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up. Use the internet wisely. We are so blessed nowadays with the amount of information at our fingertips, the access we have to old maps and stats is amazing. But ALWAYS triple check your facts, be aware of false information and never rely solely on Wikipedia! Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy and double-check everything. Bad mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
6. Historical facts are not the storyline.
Anyone who has tried to make a story out of historical narrative will know it’s impossible. History is the context out of which fiction grows. Fiction is the examination of the human heart as individual characters move through scenes that test – or perhaps change – their souls. History is just the backdrop. Of course, if you’re writing about a real historical person it is necessary to stick to the facts.