Award-winning novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower shares a short practical exercise for budding historical fiction writers.
Mark Twain famously said (or perhaps he didn’t – the phrase wasn’t attributed to him until 1970) that history never repeats itself but it often rhymes. Whoever coined this aphorism, it is a good one for the historical writer to keep in mind, if only as a reminder of the unreliability of sources. For Daughters of Heaven, the novel I am presently writing, I have been doing a lot of reading about the Vietnam War and am struck by the similarities between the tactics employed by American generals during that war and those currently being used by the Russian Army in Ukraine.
The best historical fiction not only entertains and informs about the period in which it is set, but it sheds light on our own times too. The present is a good place to start when thinking about embarking on a piece of historical fiction. By the very act of writing in the present about the past, we connect the two. Here is a quick exercise to help you get started on writing a piece of historical fiction:
- Find your subject. I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you already have some idea who and what you want to write about so this is the quick part.
- Now go to whatever news sources you use and see if you can make connections between what you read there and what was going on in the period you want to write about. This may involve some historical research also, depending on how well you already know your period.
- Jot down the parallels, the coincidences, the ‘slant rhymes’ which echo between your chosen period and now. Keep these with you as navigational tools to help you find your way through the story you want to tell.
If you’d like more advice from Sarah don’t forget to sign up for 12 weeks of constructive feedback and development on her online Start Writing Historical Fiction course, which is now open for new students.
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. Her fiction has been translated into ten languages. Her first novel, The Needle in the Blood, won the Susan Hill Award in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in magazines and anthologies and been read on BBC radio. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was shortlisted for the Curtis Brown scholarship for 2001/2002. She teaches creative writing for the Open University.