Today I am honoured to present a guest post from Barbara Henderson who is talking about writing from a historical perspective. If you have for some unknown reason not heard of her, she writes primarily historical fiction for young adults. Her books are full of well researched historical settings and characters and allows the reader to learn about the past without ever taking away from being fun and exciting stories.
Anyway, without anymore from me here is Barbara Henderson’s guest post ‘Writing the past – Tricks of the Trade’.
I’ll tell you a little-known secret – I didn’t set out to be a historical fiction writer. No, sir! I’m not a meticulous natural researcher at all – I’m all about the quick ideas and the broad brush strokes. I wrote a handful of other books before I tackled my fist historical subject (with fear and trepidation) – and that was the one to get picked up by a publisher. Wham, I was a historical fiction writer – by accident. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the genre. The fact that my book (Fir for Luck) did well emboldened me to try again. Now I have six historical children’s novels out there, plus a couple of books in other genres, and I feel a lot more chilled out about it. It turns out, there are shortcuts and some tricks of the trade that are worth knowing.
- Kids are kids. People are people. I think we are often tempted to overthink how different those who went before us were, but I think the central concerns, conflicts and cares were the same: love, loss, power, poverty, doing the right thing, preserving the people and things that are important. When devising stories, these things should remain at the heart of the tale.
- Research your world – but not everything! I was under the misguided impression that I needed to understand every single detail about the period – not so. I needed to understand the big picture (hard enough sometimes) and then I needed to have an idea about everyday life. Food/housing/clothes/music, the things that were daily unremarkable things at the time. Even then, a sprinkling is enough. When you write for young readers like I do, it’s a mistake to weigh young readers down with endless facts and details – they need enough to imagine, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story – which needs to retain its all-important pace. I often spend the two or three months before starting to write about a period just reading around it (both fiction and non-fiction). If something interests me sufficiently, it sticks in my mind. And if it’s interesting enough for me to retain it, chances are my reader will find that detail interesting too.
- Language – the same goes for echoing the language people would have spoken at the time. I try to go for a slightly old-fashioned vibe in my language, but nothing too heavy. My medieval adventure The Siege of Caerlaverock contains a fair few ‘tis instead of it is, for example – easy enough to work out, but a regular hint that we are not in the here and now. My latest book, The Reluctant Rebel, is set in a Gaelic speaking world, so I am sprinkling the odd bits of Gaelic in there – animal and character names, exclamations etc – that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all you need.
- Plot – think of historical events as the pegs on a washing line. They hold your story in place. But in between, let your imagination breathe life into the characters’ costumes and let them flutter in the breeze.
- Top of my top tips (this one is pure gold!) – once your story is done, find out who is the absolute expert on the thing you are writing about (for me in The Reluctant Rebel, that was the Jacobite rebellion of 1745). Make contact, explain what you are doing and offer to buy them a coffee. They will LOVE talking about their pet subject for hours on end – chances are that their own families will have had enough of their special interest – and ask, very kindly, if they would take a look at your manuscript at all. In my experience, these people are helpful, generous and encouraging, and happy that someone else cares about the period they love so much. Be sure to thank them afterwards! This last step has saved me from many a disaster, take it from me.
So, there you have it: Five top tips for bringing the past to life. Which period will you travel to? I’d love to know!
Thank you so much Barbara for this amazing post 😊 I hope you all enjoyed it and want to read more about her work.