5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing an Historical Novel

I’m now almost two weeks and more than 25,000 words into my first novel-length work of historical fiction.  Figured it would be worthwhile to pause for a minute to pat myself on the back (pat. pat.) and to reflect on what I’ve learned from and about this process so far.

1. Planning is important, but there’s a time to jump in.  The story of the novel is set in the present — well the future actually: Spring and Summer of 2015 — but it’s about people who reenact Napoleonic battles, so even though it isn’t technically a historical novel, the history certainly matters and I want to get it right.  Oh yeah, and I had no background in Napoleon whatsoever before this.  So I read histories and biographies and took a lot of notes for over a year…and I’m still not an expert.  It was beginning to feel like a problem.  But thanks to National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org), I decided it was time to stop talking about it and start writing this thing.  Either poo, or get off the chamber pot.  What I’ve discovered is that I’ve got enough historical knowledge to know how to tell the story, and enough to know where I’m lacking and what I’ll need to revisit later to fill in the details.  You need to plan enough, but you don’t need to plan everything.
2. Your characters will tell you who they are.  As with historical detail, so with my characters.  I had their lives and identities all sketched out before I started writing, but then they started surprising me like, you know, real people do.  This one was supposed to be fifteen years old, then I start writing and it turns out she’s five.  That one was supposed to be an arrogant, snooty bastard — turns out he actually has the biggest heart of any character in the work, he’s just been living a hard life and built up a lot of walls.  (I was with everyone else: I just thought he was a jerk for no reason….)  When you read a book it feels as though the characters have always existed exactly as they are in their little world, but I’m beginning to realize that at this stage of the game they have a lot of say in who they become.
Yes, we'll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon...but first, why don't you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?"

Yes, we’ll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon…but first, why don’t you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?”

3. The devil is in the details, but so are the baroque cherubim.  What’s harder than writing about historical characters who demand accuracy in details?  Writing about contemporary people who passionately and obsessively recreate history down to the authentically ornate carving on their early 19th century antique cherry-wood writing desks*.  I don’t know much at all about antiques, but my characters do, so I’m going to also be doing a lot of research to find the right objects to decorate their offices and living rooms.  And I’m kind of excited about that.  At this stage in the writing, I feel that it’s more important to get the story written than to worry about decor.  Right now I’m giving the characters rooms to exist in.  Later I’ll help them decorate.  They should be grateful because no one likes to help you move.

4. It is possible to write.  That was a misquote of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours when she says, “It is possible to die.”  That line has been in my head a lot lately, not because I’ll be putting stones in my pockets, but because I love Virginia Woolf and her specter has haunted me for many years, intimidating me and keeping me from writing.  It isn’t her fault, but that’s how it is.  She and Faulkner and Joyce and Morrison, all of whom I love, have intimidated me and I haven’t attempted to write a novel despite the overwhelming desire to do so.  But this year I’ve overcome that.  This year my pantheon of writing deities is cheering me on.  It helps that I have (what I think to be) a really good idea that’s full of characters who are fun and original and who nag me to let them out of my head so that they can live in the world with the rest of you.  It helps that I have real life friends who also push me.  And again, it’s helped to have NaNoWriMo and all the participating writers out there in the world to ride on our collective, frenetic, creative energy.
5. I’d rather be writing.  I’ve not slacked off at my job (I love my students and wouldn’t let my teaching be trampled on by my writing), but I definitely have a lot of moments throughout the day when all I’m thinking about is how to get the characters through that next obstacle, or how to flesh out the secrets of their past interactions and relationships with each other in an interesting way.  It’s really a lot of fun.  And, okay, maybe I put off grading a stack of papers while in the midst of a writing sprint…but they got graded eventually.
How about you?  Has anyone reading this written historical fiction — or fiction of any kind — and have any additional insights to share?  Comment away!
*I don’t even know if desks in early 19th century France were made of cherry-wood.  I made that up to make it interesting.
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5 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing an Historical Novel

  1. I write historical non-fiction, professionally (published mostly by Penguin Random) and I have to say that the spectre of writing historical fiction is daunting because the kind of fidelity of detail needed to flesh out scenes and help sustain the suspension of disbelief is not something easy to obtain from the usually available sources. Possible, but a lot of specific research is needed. Good on you for tackling this particular Challenge Mountain and all best wishes for success!

    • Thanks, Matthew! I may concede that it was pure naïveté in the end that caused me to embark on this journey — but that might also be exactly what allows me to see it through (never realizing it should have been impossible to begin with…)!

      • It is only by exploring these unknown territories of writing – often with that joyous naivete that more experienced writers long to be able to recapture – that we realise, as writers, what is possible. And we learn along the way, extending the limit of the possible!

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