Become the historical fiction writer you want to be!
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Historical fiction is one of the most popular literary forms and one of the most varied. A historical novel can be a war-story, a romance, a whodunit, a tense socio-political drama, a quest or a pursuit. It can be a tightly focussed personal confession. It can be a wide-angled portrait of an era, with scores of characters (think of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). It can bring the past to life in vivid detail. It can be a medium through which we view our own society with extra clarity.
If you are setting out to write historical fiction you will want the tools any novelist needs. This online creative writing course will help you with the essentials of how to write historical fiction – narrative structure, characterisation, setting, timing, point of view and voice.
At every point it will also ask you to consider the special challenges and opportunities historical fiction presents. You will be thinking about period-appropriate language, about the beliefs and values of people of the past, about the natural world and how humans’ relations with it have changed.
You will be reading extracts from a wide range of historical fiction and learning from authors’ techniques. You will be doing writing exercises designed to stimulate your imagination and sharpen your awareness of how writers achieve their effects. You will be submitting your own historical fiction for sympathetic and detailed feedback from the course tutor.
What the course covers
Module 1 – Find your story
In this opening module, you’ll explore what historical fiction is and what distinguishes it from other forms of fiction. You’ll also look at some fundamental questions that you’ll have to answer each time you sit down to write a piece of historical fiction: whose story is it, when does it take place, and where is it set? For your first assignment, you’ll write up to 1,000 words about a public historical event. For every assignment in this course, you’ll also have the option to instead submit up to 1,000 words of a longer piece you’re working on.
Module 2 – Voice
This module looks at the various forms of point of view and the ways they are useful in historical fiction. You’ll explore the two most popular choices, first and third person, and you’ll also look at narratives that contain multiple narrators. For this assignment, you’ll write a first-person narrative in which someone returns home after a long absence.
Module 3 – About Time
In this module, you’ll look at where to begin your story, and you’ll explore stories that have non-linear narratives. You’ll also look at the ways in which the time period you set your novel in can effect how much the reader might already know about the way life is going to unravel for your characters. In this assignment, you’ll look back on a turning point in history.
Module 4 – Work
In this module you’ll look at the ways the roles people have in your narrative help to cement it in its historical time period. You’ll read examples from popular historical fiction in which the work the characters do is integral to the narrative and structure of the novel, and for your assignment you’ll describe the daily working routine of a character in your chosen time period.
Module 5 – Hearts and Minds
This is a module focussed on character. You’ve already begun to look at how perspective can shape a novel, but now you’ll look at the voice of your characters, and how their words, actions, and appearances can cement your reader into your chosen time period. You’ll also look into the minds of the characters and the wider society they exist in, and the ways in which a historical novel can help readers empathise with a past world, or feel alienated from it.
Module 6 – War
War has been one of the most popular topics for writing for centuries, and in this module you’ll look at the ways in which you can tackle this daunting topic in your narratives. You’ll read excerpts from stories that have war as a central theme, and rather than a final assignment you’ll have a 1-1 tutorial to discuss your writing and next steps.
By the end of the course you will:
Been introduced to a wide range of historical fiction from which you will take inspiration for your own writing
Written five substantial pieces of historical fiction and learnt from feedback on them
Acquired the know-how and confidence to think more critically about your own writing, and that of others.
Designed in partnership with the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA
Format: How the course works
Our Creative Writing Online courses take place entirely over the internet. All you need is a computer and an internet connection.
The majority of the course is delivered in text form, making it easy to progress through the course chapter-by-chapter.
Your knowledge will be developed through writing exercises and the analysis of samples of writing.
The course is divided into fortnightly modules, each of which introduces an aspect of the craft of writing.
Every two weeks you will submit an assignment to your tutor, who will then respond with constructive feedback and advice. Outside of those assignment deadlines you can progress through the lessons and exercises at your own pace.
You will have 1-2-1 feedback from your tutor and fellow students.
Forum-based student discussions are included throughout the course, providing an opportunity for students to interact with each other and the course tutor. To get the most out of the course, we recommend taking part in as many discussions as possible.
If you have any questions, you can get in touch by emailing Vicki at email@example.com.
This course runs for 12 weeks and is split into several modules, which each last two weeks. Modules consist of multiple chapters and your progress is tracked throughout, making it easy to pick up where you left off.
Although a module is open for two weeks, you are not expected to dedicate that entire time to the course! Our online courses are designed to fit around a busy lifestyle and each chapter is conveniently bite-sized so that you can always be making progress. On average we expect most students to spend between 3-5 hours per week on a course (this time will be a mixture of reading, community discussions, exercises and assignments). This will vary from student-to-student and some modules may be more intensive than others.
Each module includes smaller exercises and a main assignment. How much time you spend on these is flexible and will depend on your own writing style and process.
September 2022 term schedule
Module 1: Monday 19th September – Sunday 2nd October
Module 2: Monday 3rd October – Sunday 16th October
Module 3: Monday 17th October – Sunday 30th October
Module 4: Monday 31st October – Sunday 13th November
Module 5: Monday 14th November – Sunday 27th November
Module 6: Monday 28th November – Sunday 11th December
Zoomsessions: 1-2-1 sessions w/c 5th December.
Equipment and software: What you need
You will need access to a computer and you will need access to the internet.
You can view the study materials on a mobile device but we recommend using a desktop or laptop computer for working on assignments and taking part in community discussions.
Important: Your web browser must be up-to-date to access the courses. We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
We use two platforms to deliver our tutored online courses:
This online course platform hosts our study materials and community interactions. You will be provided with a login for a Teachable account at the beginning of your course.
We use zoom to host any live tutored elements of the course. Please see the course-specific pages for full details
What people think of our courses
“I’ve taken away a much greater confidence in my creative work, an ability to be much more flexible but also decisive with my writing ideas and have learned many new writing techniques and ways of working.”
“I have learned a huge amount on this course. I feel I have leaped ahead in my knowledge of writing and what I am capable of writing at the moment.”
“My output has improved a thousand-fold in both content and quality.”
“The course had a therapeutic effect. I gained a sense of freedom from getting lost in the characterisations and dramas of my stories.”
“The course exceeded my expectations in every aspect with how well-structured it was, the exercises and the feedback. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Motivation and focus
Motivation and focus
“Having someone read and feedback on my writing gave me focus and motivation.”
Who is this course for?
This course is ideal for people who have done no formal training or courses who want to:
Learn the basic skills of structuring and writing historical fiction
Core areas of expertise: I read English at London University, then entered the Vogue Talent Contest, won a prize and got a job on the magazine. I was at Vogue, writing features, for five years and won the Catherine Pakenham Award for Young Female Journalists for a profile of Roald Dahl.
In my thirties I became the television critic of the Evening Standard. My daily deadline was 8 am, which meant I had the rest of the day free to work on my first book, Cleopatra. My twin daughters were born two weeks before it was published, which partly explains why it took me a while to finish my second book.
Throughout my working life I have written book reviews. I currently review for The Guardian, the New Statesman and the TLS. I have also written introductions to new editions of classic novels – Jane Eyre, Villette, Dombey and Son and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for Everyman Books; the Mayor of Casterbridge for Vintage. I have judged a dozen literary prizes. In 2021 I was Chair of the Judges of the International Booker Prize. Over the years I have spoken at numerous literary festivals, in this country and in India, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
In 2018 I curated Metamorphoses, a festival in Greenwich bringing together architects, artists and writers who take their inspiration from the classical past.
As well as teaching courses for NCW, I teach a creative writing course to American undergraduates at the London Centre of Arcadia University (Philadelphia). I have taught courses in Life-Writing and Fiction for the Arvon Foundation. I am an accredited lecturer with the Arts Society, lecturing to branches around the country on topics arising from my books. I am a Fellow of the Royal Literary Society and Associate Fellow of the Historical Association.
Notable works: I am the author of five books – two works of fiction and three of non-fiction.
My book The Pike, a biography of Gabriel d’Annunzio, won all three of the UK’s most prestigious awards for non-fiction – the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize (now renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize) and the Costa Biography Award. It was chosen in The Observer as ‘the biography of the year’ and in The Sunday Times as “the biography of the decade”.
My other non-fiction books are Cleopatra (winner of the Emily Toth Award and the Fawcett Prize) and Heroes. I am currently writing a book on George Villiers, the 17th century Duke of Buckingham, known as ‘the handsomest man in Europe’. He was the adored favourite and first minister of King James I, who addressed him as ‘my sweet child and wife’. Cleopatra was published by Bloomsbury. The rest of my books have been published by Fourth Estate.
My historical novel Peculiar Ground was set in a big house in Oxfordshire, partly in the 1660s, partly during the Cold War. The Guardian’s reviewer described it as “Tolstoyan in its sly wit and descriptive brilliance”. Roddy Doyle wrote “It gripped me from start to end. I abandoned work and family to finish it.”
My short stories, collected in Fabulous, are versions of stories from the bible, or from Graeco-Roman myth, relocated to modern Britain. St Joseph is a window cleaner. Actaeon is an estate agent. King Minos is a people trafficker.
Teaching creative writing gets me thinking about the techniques I use in my own work. It’s a useful exercise for me to define what I am doing, and to find ways of passing on what I’ve learned from many years experience of historical writing, both fictional and non-fiction.
What’s great about the courses you run?This is a course for anyone who enjoys entering the past imaginatively and wants to develop the skills and confidence to write about it in fiction.
The core of the course is your writing. You will be doing plenty of writing exercises, and at the end of each module, you will submit a substantial piece of original writing. My appraisal and feedback is central to your learning process. I will be suggesting detailed revisions and improvements, as well as advising you on the overall direction of your work.
For me the most exciting part of the teaching process is observing how writers acquire the craft and seeing their writing become more fluent and powerful as the weeks pass.
We learn to write by reading. These courses contain a large number of brief readings, most of them extracts from brilliant works of historical fiction, with my commentary, and questions guiding you to think about how the authors get their effects.
You can learn from those authors’ strategies. You will also, if you decide to read the whole book, be giving yourself many, many hours of pleasure.