Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. The author of five historical novels, Sharratt shares her secrets for succeeding at writing historical fiction.
The past is another country with its own customs and mores. But history isn’t lost to us. Good historical fiction is our passport to that far shore. The vanished shtetls of Poland are forever immortalized in the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer while Robert Harris’s novels of the ancient world are time travel par excellence. How do they do it? Writers hoping to craft convincing historical fiction need their own set of rules to help navigate this unfamiliar landscape and bring it to life for the contemporary reader.
1. Research comes before writing
Research is the bedrock and the foundation on which you build your historical novel. If you don’t get the facts right, the whole edifice will come crashing down. Believe me, readers of historical fiction are very knowledgeable and particular. They will know when you haven’t done your research.
So immerse yourself. Read primary and secondary sources. Visit museums. If possible, travel to the place where your novel unfolded. You can even join a historical re-enactment society to discover what it’s actually like to row a longboat or cook goat meat over an open fire.
I generally research for at least six months before beginning a new novel. But it doesn’t end there.
For me, research remains ongoing, in parallel with my writing until I reach the final page proofs—just in case I’ve missed any tiny detail.
2. Inhabit the mind and skin of your characters
Unless you can get under the skin and inside the heads of your historical characters, all your painstaking research will remain mere window dressing. People in the past had completely different sensibilities than our own. When you write historical fiction, you have to remind the reader, again and again, that they’re not in Kansas anymore.
Reveal to the reader what it would be like to live in an era where marriages were arranged, not based even remotely on our modern notions of romantic love. Imagine leaving our secularized world behind to live in a time and place where your religious faith permeated every aspect of your daily life—and where deviating from this faith could quickly make you an outcast. What would it be like to live in a world where it was commonplace for women to write their wills before going into childbirth? Or where even educated people dreaded witchcraft and evil spirits?
In bringing the past to life, sensory description is paramount. Show us what it feels like to wear a hair shirt, to sleep on straw, to endure long winters where the only light in your cottage comes from a smoky fire and a few tallow lamps.
3. The language has to match the setting
The language in your narrative has to convincingly mirror the period and place. That doesn’t mean you have to use archaic speech patterns and pepper your dialogue with thous and thees, but it does mean being thoughtful and creative. Your every sentence must evoke the period. Read master writers for inspiration. In his epic Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh immerses the reader in the Pidgin English spoken by 19th century ship hands in the Indian Ocean, while in The Red Tent, Anita Diamant brings the nomadic tribal world of the Old Testament to life with lyrical prose that seems to be drawn straight from the psalms.
Above all, avoid anything that sounds too jarringly modern. Nothing rudely awakens the reader from the narrative dream like clunky anachronistic language.
4. Do explore real historical events and people
True history is a lot stranger and quirkier than any fictional fabrication you could make up. Men in Shakespeare’s England wore iron corsets and hugged and kissed each other openly. Weeping was considered manly. European women in the late medieval period enjoyed more rights and privileges than their 19th century counterparts—they worked as miners, physicians, and merchants. Failed business woman Margery Kempe (1373-1440) abandoned her husband to set off on a spiritual journey of discovery that took her from her native England to Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and finally Jerusalem. Kind of like a 15th century Eat, Pray, Love. (Dear reader, please feel free to grab this idea. I look forward to reading your best-selling blockbuster based on the exploits of Margery Kempe.)
Exploring these surprising aspects of history is engaging for readers, allowing them to re-examine all the stereotypes they may have held about the past.
Pick a historical time and place that have resonance for you and try to focus on some unique aspect of that setting to show us something fresh and new.
5. Don’t over-rely on historical celebrities
While novels based on the lives of lords and ladies and kings and queens continue to enjoy huge popularity, sooner or later people will get tired of reading about the Tudors and start looking for something that hasn’t been done to death. The most innovative historical fiction, to my mind, draws obscure characters from the margins of history and sets them center stage.
If you do choose to write about the famous and fabulous, try approaching it from a slightly oblique angle. In Tracy Chevalier’s masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, we see the great artist Vermeer through the eyes of his sixteen-year-old maid, which lends an aura of both poignancy and gritty veritas drawn from the author’s research into the distinctly unglamorous lives of servants. Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt takes us a journey to 1930s bohemian Paris which we view through the eyes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cook.
Some master writers like Toni Morrison have used historical fiction as a medium to explore the uncharted lives left out of our textbooks, such as the experience of African American enslaved people.
Remember that historical novelists have the power to literally rewrite the forgotten and dispossessed back into history.
Mary Sharratt is the author of five novels. Her new book, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, is published October 9 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com