Writing · Writing Treks

Writing Historical Fiction, Part 2.

Continuing on from last week’s post, this week I’m going to talk about characters within historical fiction.

The majority of people who attended the historical fiction course with me at the NSW Writers’ Centre, were writing about real characters from history and even stories about distant relations. I felt quite alone in creating a purely fictitious character!  Funnily enough, when discussing characters, our teacher mentioned Scarlett O’Hara, saying she was ‘a flawed character if ever there was one’.  When it comes to characters in works of fiction, Scarlett is one of my favourites – she is truly memorable because of her flaws, and as writers this is what we want from our characters.

  • Characters help drive the plot.
  • Readers want to go into a different world through your characters.
  • An interesting time in history can’t be interesting unless you have engaging characters.  Test their moral strength so that readers can identify with them today.
  • Fictionalise real characters.
  • When writing about real characters, it’s good to visit family to get more research, anecdotes, etc.
  • You need to have real characters in the right context – don’t make them do anything out of character.  Research the real character.
  • Characters can have weaknesses to keep them real so readers can identify with them.
  • Know the main things about your character before you write – the rest will evolve as your story progresses.  Characters need to ‘grow’ and not remain static.
  • Trust your subconscious – you don’t have to know everything that’s going to happen in your story before you write your book.
  • Characters have to indicate something about themselves; what they’re thinking.   There has to be a purpose in their dialogue.  Do not use modern speech or jargon.
  • If you’re not sure about details, ask yourself:- does it further the plot? set the scene? establish character? set the atmosphere?  Find a way to weave what you want into the story.

Above all, writing historical fiction needs to be historically accurate, well researched and have engaging characters.

Image copyright MGM

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Writing · Writing Treks

Writing Historical Fiction, Part 1.

Recently I attended a Historical Fiction Writing course at the NSW Writers’ Centre.  Our instructor for the day was Dianne Armstrong, an award winning author, journalist and travel writer.

It was great to hear about her own experiences and to listen to some of the projects from other students.  Although tired after a long weekend driving to Sydney, I came home feeling a bit over-whelmed, but nevertheless awed and inspired.

Here are just some of the things I learned:-

  • Read as much as you can about your time period before you start writing – get a fair amount of research done before you start.  Researching as you go along stops the creative process.
  • You need to have some passion in a particular era.
  • Read books that were written at the time to get an idea of how people addressed each other, etc.
  • Read good historical fiction.
  • Give enough information to let the reader know where you are – get grounded in the period without bogging down the reader.
  • Your story has to be important to you in order to help keep your own interest.
  • Make sure your facts are accurate.
  • If possible, visit the place your story is set, if not, research as much as possible.  This helps with atmosphere.
  • Be selective of details – make sure they have a purpose.
  • What was going on in the world during that time?  This can be brought up in dialogue between characters.
  • Write a description of time and place without ‘spelling it out’.
  • Use scenery with the point of view of your character in mind.  Weave it in – don’t list things.
  • You want details, but not to swamp the reader.  You need to know more details than you put in.  Put details in that are powerful and meaningful.  The story becomes more powerful and vivid that way – insert details to help set the scene.
  • Experts are very willing to help – emphasise you want accuracy and be sincere.
  • If your story involves indigenous Australians, read as much as you can about them during your time period to get an idea of their feelings towards whites, etc.
  • Inanimate objects can play an important part in your story.
  • Use stronger verbs than adverbs.  Adverbs weaken the action.

Next week, I’ll be discussing characters in historical fiction.

Image copyright MGM