How does one go about writing historical fiction? Tessa Afshar, author of award-winning Pearl in the Sand and forthcoming Harvest of Rubies, offers a few inside tips. These tips originally appeared on Elaine Stock’s blog and were also recently hosted on our sister blog, www.rivernorthfiction.com, where you can keep up with the latest novels and fiction authors from Moody Publishers’ fiction line.
Tip One: Don’t Misplace Your Sense of Humor
Henry Tilney, the hero of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, has a cynical attitude toward women. For example, he says, “No one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Austen wrote those words over two hundred years ago, and they’re still rich with a biting wit. Dante, Bronte, and Dickens frequently make you laugh. The Bible is also rich with humor. So don’t misplace yours, just because you are writing about people who lived a long time ago.
Tip Two: Love the Period You Are Writing About
When you write a historical novel, you will spend endless hours researching your period. If you like that time in history, the research will be a pleasant pastime as opposed to an onerous chore. More importantly, your love will spill out on the page; it will show through your writing. The reader can feel it in your words. And it will influence the way she or he responds to your story.
Tip Three: Know the Period You Are Writing About
Some years ago, I was reading a good novel based on the life of Esther. Suddenly, I came upon the phrase, “Arabian night” and the magic was gone. I was no longer in another world. The reason? The phrase should have read, “Persian night.” Although Arab tribes existed at that time, they lived leagues away. Persians are not Arabs, and therefore, their nights aren’t Arabian. Even small anomalies can snap the reader out of the world you are trying to create, so research, research, research.
Tip Four: Watch for Anachronisms
Anachronisms have a nasty way of creeping into historical novels. For example, one of my editors found the word “raccoon” in the manuscript of the novel I am currently working on, A Harvest of Rubies, which is set in ancient Persia. It turns out raccoons are a North American animal and would not have existed in ancient Persia during the time of Nehemiah. That small detail would have ruined the moment for a zoologically savvy reader.
Tip Five: History Is Exciting
Of Gods and Men is a French movie about eight monks living in North Africa. While this is an amazingly well made film, what makes it utterly spell-binding is the fact that the movie is based on a true story. The truth has a way of grabbing your attention. To take advantage of this reality, try to insert historical events into your storyline without sounding like a history book. The events of history are often stranger and more exciting than anything the human imagination can manufacture. Inserting true events—or scenes that are inspired by a true event—into your story will lend your novel an air of believability that will increase your reader’s involvement. The best historical novelists such as Alexander Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson knew this trick. It’s part of what makes their novels a charming read in spite of the passage of time.
Tip Six: Exercise Grace Frequently
Have grace both for yourself and other novelists! You will probably make mistakes; most of us do no matter how careful we try to be with our research and editing. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
What are some of your favorite historical fiction books? What stands out to you in fiction in general as marks of great writing?
TESSA AFSHAR was born in a nominally Muslim family in Iran and lived there for the first fourteen years of her life. She survived English boarding school for girls before moving to the United States permanently. Her conversion to Christianity in her mid-twenties changed the course of her life forever. Tessa holds an MDIV from Yale University where she served as co-Chair of the Evangelical Fellowship at the Divinity School. She has spent the last twelve years in full and part-time Christian work and currently serves as the leader of Women’s and Prayer ministries at a church in New England. Visit her at www.tessaafshar.com.
Watch for Tessa’s newest novel, Harvest of Rubies, in May 2012!