Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion

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Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has long been the aspiring authors’ bible. The publisher now has an array of ‘companions’ covering crime fiction, children’s fiction, life writing and now historical fiction, presumably aimed at the same readership, people who have not yet published any historical novels but are eager to do so. One might presume that these are readers of historical fiction who need no persuading that it is a respectable form of literature, although the authors of this book seem have their doubts.

The book has three parts: Historical Fiction, Tips and Tales, and Write On. The first consists of two ‘Reflections’ written respectively by the two authors on the cover, the second is a series of guest contributions by 28 bestselling historical novelists, while Write On is a miscellany of directories for research material, short pieces about agents, publishers, etc. (similar to those in the Yearbook), an A-Z of pithy advice (e.g., Cuts:Delete whatever is not vital for telling the story), and writing exercises for individuals and groups. The ensemble is more a kit than a book, a file of materials for students and novices.

The first Reflection by Duncan Sprott, who writes novels set in the classical period, is the only part of the book covering historical fiction other than novels; he even includes computer games. His thesis is that there is no fixed frontier between history and historical fiction, e.g., the classical chroniclers were never shy of invented dialogue. Celia Brayfield’s novels are set in later centuries when historians were less openly inventive. Her Reflection emphasises the selectivity of history and values historical fiction for writing in those whom history ignores, such as women. She concludes with a summary history of the historical novel. Both authors appear defensive about writing fiction about history and make high claims to uncover deeper truths by telling lies. Their main concern is literary fiction, and they give comparatively little space to popular fiction.

The guest pieces are all under two pages each. There are few tips and more information about how satisfying and strenuous it is being a famous author. The big question, How Did I get Here?, is seldom addressed.

Write On is too miscellaneous to review easily. The directories are useful, but much of the material is also in the Yearbook. Some readers will find the A-Z patronising.

In summary, the book attempts too many different things in too little space. It is best used as an introduction to fuller works, such as de Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel and Myfanwy Cook’s Historical Fiction Writing.

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