I never set out to write a historical fiction novel.
If you go back far enough, it can be argued I never set out to write a novel period, for I never believed I’d be able to sustain a story for that length.
But once it did occur to me that I had a novel-length tale to tell, I didn’t expect for it to be a historical one.
As a result of this lack of foresight, the way I’ve gone about writing this novel (technically novels, for there’s two of them; so much for not thinking I could sustain a long story) is definitely not something I’d recommend.
There’s no one right way to write a novel, but what I’ve done may well be the one wrong way to write HF. Don’t believe me? Behold my list of what NOT to do, all of which I did, to my detriment.
1) Begin your HF novel as a fantasy novel.
Why I did it: Because historical fiction? Too much research! Too much reliance on reality and things that really happened. Plus, what about magic? That’s not historical. What about creating my own world and reality? I need to be freeeeee!
2) Decide you’re up to the challenge of HF after all – midway through the story.
Why I did it: Because after the first 10 reference books on medieval England, my story was about to become the most historically faithful “fantasy” novel ever!
Besides, magic can be historical; people in the Middle Ages were superstitious as hell, believing in all manner of paranormal phenomena. Magic realism anyone?
Except (1/2 novel fantasy) + (1/2 novel historical fiction) = 1 future editing nightmare.
3) Decide upon your specific historical timeframe – midway through the story.
Why I did it: Because since my novel contains fictional characters (as opposed to real figures from history), my mind evidently took that as immunity from the fact that “the medieval times” spans hundreds of years, with each century – each decade – considerably different from all the others.
4) Go location scouting as if for a film, but forget to visit one of the most important sites.
Why I did it: Because when writing fantasy, you can just make up whatever geographic features to your plot requires.
But after jumping genres, I now needed a real castle guarding the sole navigable pass through a real mountain range in England. Did England even have mountains (it’s not exactly known for its skiing), or would this be yet another major revision of my HF/F Franken-novel?
Google Earth and Wikipedia assured me there are indeed mountains in Mother England, but the virtual tour only took me so far. I needed to see it for myself.
So I went there. For weeks I trudging through the countryside, up to my eyeballs in sheep (yet next to no sheep crap; even the animals are proper over there).
And lo, what did I find nestled amidst England’s Peak District in Derbyshire, much to my surprise, and relief, and amazement at how utterly perfect it all was, but mostly relief?
I was so relieved, in fact (and let’s be honest – so smug about how amazing and adventurous I was for having found my location all by myself), I completely forgot that a substantial portion of my novel also takes place on the other side of said mountains, i.e. in Yorkshire, where I didn’t once set foot.
5) Enchain yourself to history and the way things actually happened.
Why I did it: Because it’s called HISTORICAL fiction.
And because nobody wants to read a spurious plot that’s been shoehorned into the historical record. Besides, fictional characters or not, anchoring a HF novel around an actual event from history is an important genre convention.
6) Play fast and loose with history and the way things actually happened.
Why I did it: Because it’s called historical FICTION.
And because I learned the hard way that Hollywood’s not a reliable teacher about life in the Middle Ages (or anything, really.)
Plus, we all know that history as it’s recorded is just the winners’ interpretation/delusion of how it went down. That is to say, itself just a story.
7) Disregard the awesomeness of what you’re doing.
Why I did it: Because I believe anyone with enough desire and discipline can write a novel. And when you interact with other writers on a regular basis, none of what you all do feels especially remarkable.
And yet, can anyone write a historical fiction novel? I’m starting to think not so much – that it’s a special snowflake that only the most meticulous of writers who can balance the needs of period detail with creativity, of history with a story that resonates with readers of today, can achieve.
At this point, I don’t know if I fit the above description or not, as my HF novel’s not yet finished and it’s my first time trying to write one. Only time will tell.
Writers – what writing mistakes or questionable writing decisions have you made along the way? Tell me about it in the comments.
(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G.Noelle)