George Green's advice on writing historical fiction

On Friday, we were visited by George Green, a tutor of historical fiction and creative writing, as well as writer of novels Hound (2004) and Hawk (2005). He has done this many times in the past on the Writing the Past module and students benefit a lot by hearing from him. During this visit, he offered a lot of advice on writing history with fiction:

George's visit in 2015. Photo credit: Ian Seed
How do you handle research?

If you love research, you can’t be a good writer. If you research too much, you’ll never get around to writing. You could read something that’s outside of your remit. The thing you’re doing is work, not pleasure. Most writers get to about chapter six or 15,000 words in before giving up due to this. This is a recipe for not finishing a novel. You spend too much time reading and not enough time writing.

Just take a basic image and begin writing from there. Images such as; a Victorian street, a WW1 trench, or a colonial American townhouse. Research the details and edit when you have finished.

If history doesn’t work with the story, what do you do?

“You can’t mess with history” – no, but history has different interpretations. The story comes first. History gives veracity, so it’s worth getting it right, however there will be mistakes and you will be slightly off, and there will be people who disagree with you. It’s a given that this will happen. It shouldn’t stop you, though. If need be, acknowledge the inaccuracies in a fore or afterword.

Yes, the novel is making a pitch for history, but story comes first!

What do you do about real people?

A lot of historical novels, or even many novels in general, are narrated by minor characters. Instead of writing from the perspective of Julius Caesar (which would be a bloody tough accomplishment), write from the point of view of a minor character – such as the cupbearer, a soldier, or a slave. This allows you to act as a voyeur or third-eye on the events but also add fiction by using a fictional protagonist.

How do you narrow down your idea for the plot of the novel?

You need to work out who or what your novel is about. James Frey writes on ‘aboutness’ in his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel. You need to have a one-line pitch, the thing at stake or what you plan on writing about.

E.g. ‘I think love cannot survive jealousy’ could be your idea.

You also need to use your default setting well. Everyone has a default setting; a particular scene that you enjoy writing or find yourself using a lot in your work.

‘Two men exchanging wisecracks while the bullets fly overhead’
‘Two women at a bar slagging off men’
‘A man and a woman travelling in a car’

How do you plan your novel and ensure you stick to that plan?

Before you begin writing the piece, grab three sheets of paper and write down a one-sentence premise. One sentence, three lines maximum. On the next page write a paragraph summary. This will be your premise but also include some themes you want to incorporate as well as writing on what your work is about. This will be six lines maximum. On the final page, write a one-page summary of the entire plot – then get writing.

Every so often, take a look at your work and compare it with your notes. One of two things will happen; either your writing will agree with the summaries, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, then one doesn’t agree with the other, and needs changing. This will help you from getting off track and save you precious time.

I’ve just written a scene – so what?

‘So what?’ is an important keyword. Yes, something has happened in the work you’ve written, but so what? Your scene needs to have a point. A lot of novels can suffer from having too many unnecessary scenes and need to be cut. Every time you write a scene, step back from it. Now imagine, if that scene was to be removed from the larger work, would anyone miss it? Would it take anything away from the novel? If it wouldn’t, make it important or remove it.

Ask yourself; “what happens in this scene that changes the course of the novel?” Think in scenes; stuff that changes relationships, a character’s understanding, or a major event. Cut anything that doesn’t add to the story. Be expected to cut 50% of you work, but never throw it out! Just move it into the junk folder to recycle for another piece.

Trust your readers

They are intelligent and literate. They don’t need everything to be spelled out. Don’t waste words describing everyday items or routines. When writing action, use highlights. You never remember a fight in real-time, you do it in flashes. “A man raises his fist, and then a moment later, the other guy is on the floor” – that kind of thing. One of the problems is we tell the reader way too much.

Using knowledge

Hemingway’s Iceberg theory is a good method of writing historical fiction. Use the hard facts that you know on the surface, and leave everything else out of sight from the reader. Get the most from the least, one significant detail outweighs minor details.

Using other languages

An old colleague of George’s said that a good way to use other languages is to have it read like a good translation. Basically, it will read in English but be slightly off. The lexis and register will give away that it’s a foreign language.

A big thanks to George for taking the time to visit and offer us his wisdom. I will be bearing all this in mind for my future projects.

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