Writing your Historical Novel

Writing Historical Novels

Insight provided by Penny Ingham, author of The Saxon Wolves (published by Imbali for the South African market)

It was Ernest Hemingway who once said, ‘there is nothing to writing. You just sit at a typewriter, and bleed.’ If you don’t mind the idea of a little metaphorical blood-letting, here are a few tips I have found helpful over the years.

Historical novels are often inspired by actual events – a useful foundation to build your plot upon, but it is how your characters react to these events that will bring your story alive. The Saxon Wolves is set in fifth century Britain, a time of great upheaval, of invasion, of clashing cultures. In the novel, my fictional protagonist, Anya, is exiled from Germania by the decree of the high priest. She sails to Britain where she is racked by feelings of alienation and homesickness. Nevertheless, she accepts the high priest’s decision. In her mind, her sentence is irrevocable. Human emotions haven’t changed over the millennia, but our beliefs, our culture, our moral code, certainly have. Perhaps it is this contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar which makes historical novels so enduringly popular.

Getting a feel for the language of your chosen period, its nuances, its slang, can add a vivid sense of realism to your story. If your novel is set in a distant past where the language would be incomprehensible today, aim instead to convey an illusion of authenticity. Anachronisms can jolt the reader out of the world you have carefully created, so avoid ‘modern’ words or expressions, including contemporary slang. See a scene through a character’s eyes and give them an individual voice: a warrior will spy a city and immediately assess its defences, whilst a healer will notice the yarrow plant growing by its walls. A warrior will speak bluntly, plainly; a healer with more empathy and finesse.  

And finally, whilst including your research about dress or food or herbal remedies can add realism, too much of it can come across as heavy handed. Include it if you think its adds something to your narrative, but make sure to blend it in organically.