This post, by Liza Perrat, originally appeared on The Writer’s ABC Checklist on 7/30/12.
Some wonderful advice from historical novelist, Liza Perrat, on how to breathe life into your novels.
I was initially drawn to historical fiction because I love history, and historical novels bring it closer to us in an entertaining fashion. I have only just set out on my third historical fiction adventure, so I’m far from being an expert, but this is what I’ve gleaned about this fascinating genre so far.
It appears very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Most authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of good fiction in the same way as contemporary novelists. Knowing how to write a good story, which hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages, is as vital as getting the historical details right.
Yet we do have to get those period customs and technological details right. Our ancestors had very different attitudes about many aspects of life than people of today. What was your heroine’s relationship with her husband, her children, the people with whom she lived? Did she use cutlery and plates? What job might she have had? Would she have been literate? Historical fiction falls flat on its face when the characters jump off the page as modern-day people dressed up in period garb, and details like this can be frustrating to research. But these days, with all the historical resources available, and the internet, authors spending the time and effort can usually discover those golden nuggets that will bring their story to life.
Besides spending hours online and frowning over the barely legible print of yellowed letters, postcards, diaries and old books, there’s nothing like spending time in a place, trying to imagine how it might have looked, felt and smelled, in the past. Readers like to sense the spirit of place –– the vegetation, the seasonal light, the odours. It pulls them into the story, makes them empathize with the characters, and provides a stage on which they can visualize the story. But readers will quickly become bored with history lessons, so information should be integrated into the story, without it coming across as school textbook.
Historical monuments and structures evoke the past and I like to study them as closely as possible, and take lots of photographs (preferably minus any lurking tourists!). A walk around the rural French village in which I live gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels, the first novel in my historical series, set during the French Revolution, and recently published under the Triskele Books label. On the banks of the Garon River, I came upon a cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly). Engraved with two entwined tibias and a heart shape, it is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried?