The very special skills of a historical novelist

Occasionally, in moments of weakness, particularly when I get a big bill or I realised I cannot afford to re-do the bathroom, I think about getting a proper job. I have in the past even applied for part-time positions in various fields. None of these employers have offered me so much an interview. And I think I know what the problem is. I proudly state that I am a historical novelist, and have been one for 16 years, expecting them to be impressed. And, invariably, they are not. So no part-time job for me. And no new bathroom.

Obviously, I don’t use a typewriter. I have a very old iMac. But you get the idea

Patrick O’Brian, who is probably my favourite author, identified historical fiction as a “despised genre”, and I have never been quite sure why it garners so little respect. Possibly because it is very easy to do it badly, there is a lot of shitty, ill-written, histfic around, penned by people wholly ignorant or careless of history. Maybe we are all tarred with the same brush. But, equally, there are a lot of people who write excellent, well researched, plausible, even beautifully crafted novels set in the past. Consider the genius of George MacDonald Fraser, author the the sublime Flashman books, or Mary Renault, whose depiction of Ancient Greece is stunningly authentic – and makes me long to write novels set in 5th-century Athens. Their works of historical fiction are unquestionably literature. Fabulous, first-class literature. And yet most histfic authors are still despised.

In a vain attempt to change this, here is a list of reasons why you should revere and respect historical fiction authors. (And why you should rush out immediately and buy their books.)

Education: Most historical fiction authors have spent most of their lives reading history books, studying history to an advanced level or simply reading the books of hundreds of other historical fiction authors. They swim in history; it is their natural milieu. And they are often astonishingly knowledgeable about the past, not just their own subjects but everything from the biblical Moses to the siege of Malta. Sit down next to a histfic author and, if you have even the slightest interest in history, you will never be bored.

Hard work: In order to write a credible historical fiction novel you need to do a great deal of hard work. You have to be thoroughly familiar with the period, which means reading dozens of academic books, and you will also spend a great deal of time looking at maps, either online or old paper ones, and trying to imagine what X could have seen when she stood on Hill Y. And why she took Route Z to get to the meeting place. This is all before the author types a word of the novel. I type fast, when I am in writing mode, and this year, between January 6 and March 6, I bashed out 95,000 words. I had a deadline, and I knew my characters well, but I still worked my arse off to get the book done in time. It was hard work.

Organisational skills: When you have read all those history books, and studied all the maps, and researched all the clothes, food, religious beliefs, and social attitudes of your period, you have to marshal all these facts and present them in an artful, and not too obtrusive, way. You can’t just dump all that info on the reader. You have to work it in subtly. You also have to plot and plan out a whole novel, inventing characters and making sure that each has a satisfying story arc. They have to correctly position big dramatic events, and the quieter more tender ones, too. Some authors use a cork board and Post-It notes, I used scraps of paper, and copious notes. But however the author does it they need phenomenal organisational skills.

Imagination: Historical novelists are creating whole worlds with their writing, and it needs to be complete, thought through and, most importantly, believable. This is not easy. You need to create complex compelling characters, who will eventually take on a life of their own (that is the good part!). You put words in their mouths and thoughts in their heads, You must trick them, make them wise, allow them to be brave or cowardly. And sometimes kill them. You are God. And to be God you need imagination.

Determination: Being a historical fiction author is not easy. Apart from the lack of respect, there is, far more crucially, a lack of money. The average author (in 2023) was shown to have an annual income of about £7,000, which is why they need proper jobs. And why so many histifc authors give up and hang up their keyboards. I’ve been very lucky in my writing career, but I too have to gird my loins and endure the lean times sometimes, like most historical writers. It requires serious determination to continue in the profession, and a deep love of your job, but also the knowledge that what you are doing is important.

And you, dear reader, can help us. Buy the books, leave reviews online, and tell your friends about the books you love. Buy them for your friends at Christmas and on their birthdays. And when someone tells you they are a historical fiction author, please don’t despise them. Give them the respect they are due.

My latest historical novel King of the North (Fire Born 4) is available now as a paperback, eBook and audio. My first book Outlaw, the story of a gangster-ish Robin Hood, is available here. And if you want something short, here is Episode One – Arthur’s Bane of my new Arthurian historical fantasy series

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Ryan
Ryan
1 month ago

A great read and I have huge respect for authors of HF. I remember reading a Ken Follett interview where despite his many years of research for his books he would still make historical errors that would be highlighted by his historian proof readers. Getting the history right is only one element too. There should absolutely be more respect out there.

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