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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The differences of historicals and historical fiction

From the Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus BoschI'd like to point out a few ways in which historicals are - well, different. I love reading historical novels of all genres and I love to write them, so are my five 'star' points that I look out for in the stories that I really enjoy.
1. Realistic reactions. In the past, the roles and pressures on people were different to now and a good historical reveals this. Women's liberation as a movement did not emerge until the late 1960s. Women (and working class men) did not acquire the vote in Britain until the early 20th century. Before then, the role of women was determined by family and peer pressure, by the church, by society's expectations, by class and above all by biology. (My great-grandmother had 14 pregnancies, 12 births, 2 miscarriages. In the days before reliable birth-control, women often spent their child-bearing years doing just that.)

In earlier warrior societies, where brute strength was prized as a means of winning booty, only a very unusual woman would be big enough and strong enough to fight as an equal warrior. Remember, food would often be in short supply and the sons and men ate first, not simply because of their higher status but because of survival. Men are generally more physically strong in pushing heavy ploughs, and so on. They needed to be well-fed.

2. Realistic dress. Fashion and past fashions is a fascinating business to me, but in a good historical dress also reveals class and tactile elements. A heroine who is changing her gowns every chapter may not be realistic. Clothes were costly and time-consuming to make. Fashions in the country would be less cutting edge than those of the city. Even cloth and colours would vary - the rich would have access to silks and more expensive dyes.

3. Realistic settings. How people lived in the past is very different from modern-day life (at least in the developed parts of the world) and that is worth showing in a historical. The daily trudge for water would be part of someone's life, as were the anxious waiting on crops and the hunger experienced while the harvest slowly ripened. In an unscientific age the fear of the unknown affected everyone - was the hail storm the sign of an angry god? Was a sudden illness in the village the result of witchcraft? If illness is not understood, then the evil eye becomes as good a reason as anything else. If 'everybody knows' that disease comes from the stench of the gutter, it becomes understandable to protect your cottage from pestilence by growing fragrant roses around the door.

4. Realistic plotting. In the past, communications were a major problem. In a world without the internet, battles could be lost because the flanks of an army literally could not talk to each other. A messenger could take days to ride or run from one part of any country to another. There were no policemen in ancient Greece, where the family was expected to take revenge and seek redress if any one of their people was murdered or injured. A good historical is aware of these difficulties and exploits them.
5. Realistic names. Sorry, but - unless the story is fantasy or timeslip - in a story set in 10th century AD somewhere in western Europe, or in China or India, 'Brad' or 'Chantelle', although pretty names, simply don't fit the places or the period and pull me out of the story.

Those are my 5 key points. What are yours?



  1. I agree with so many of these, especially the names thing. I was once jolted out by a Princess Holly. I also agree that for many, the fight for change for women seemed to change little until very modern times, and that it only became mainstream for many women in the 60s. Many wins, which were important stepping stones for future generation, were hard won throughout the 19th & early 20th centuries though. Many groups who fought slavery turned their attention to women's rights from the 18th century. Robert Burns wrote about women's rights in 1792. Things like a raise in the age of consent (or bringing in one at all), the right to inherit and own property, and improved access to education, did bring some improvements to working class women's lives; and were all feminist battlefronts a century or more before the 1960s. You are spot on that a writer has to echo that time, class, and place, in that complex social mosaic to make the book realistic. A modern woman in the wrong time only works for time travel. But doesn't that give us all wonderful conflicts which aren't available to writers of contemporary plots?

  2. Very interesting. When I'm researching, I look for the anomaly and try to write about that. How does the odd piece fit into the accepted or normal. Vikings in addition to looting and plundering also spent time trading, and research is finding that 'unknown' woman warrior. Women in Germany were expected to fight, along with the children if there lands were threatened. These are the pieces of history I'm drawn to. In more recent history, the suffrage movement and its connection to the proliferation of women doctors in the West makes me want to jump in an go for it. Doris

  3. Agree with you, Christine and Doris. I find in history there are usually always anomalies and gaps I can exploit. I agree, too, about past mores and customs giving writers great chances for all kinds of scrapes and plots!
    Thanks for commenting.