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Are you interested in how to write historical fiction, or do you have an idea set in a different period? Award winning novelist, and previous winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award, Francis Spufford shares his top tips on how to get started writing historical fiction.

1   Build up a time the way you would build up a person.  A moment in history needs to be characterised; maybe even to be treated as a character, an active presence in your story.  Of course, when it is actually happening, a moment in time has no single coherent identity.  Really, it’s made up of a vast simultaneous babble of everything going on at once, a universal white-noise roar.  But just as you would when trying to fix a human being in the reader’s mind in a deft, economical way, you’re going to select from the mass of all the things you could truly observe a few that can stand for the whole truth.  You’re going to go for the telling metaphor, the detail just on the memorable verge of caricature. You’re going to pick out a mood, or a couple of moods, or a kind of chord of moods, that will establish the period of the story for the reader.  Once you’ve got it, you can complicate it.  But first you have establish it, boldly and clearly.

2   Look out for natural ways into the unfamiliar.  Your reader comes from now, not from Athens in the fifth century BC or Tudor England or India in the nineteenth century.  There’ll be things they don’t immediately understand about the new world you’re putting them in, from table manners up to who’s at war with who, and why. You don’t want to explain these things.  It weighs down storytelling to keep stopping and supplying information.  So exploit situations in which one of the characters is naturally an outsider, discovering the situation for themselves, and let the reader tag along as they learn, make discoveries, are surprised, commit terrible errors.  In my novel Golden Hill, I did my best to explain New York in 1746 without explaining, by having the reader get to know it through the eyes of a protagonist just off the boat from London.  Mr Smith came from somewhere that would also be strange to the reader, a Georgian metropolis where the majority of well-off men shaved off all their hair and replaced it with a deliberately unconvincing toupée: but at least, compared to embryonic New York City, it was bigger and more bustling and more modern-feeling, so Smith’s expectations could work as good-enough stand-in for the reader’s expectations.

3   But then remember that baffling the reader is sometimes the point. You’ve got to do justice to the difference of the past, or why bother to go time-travelling?  You don’t want to people your story with modern human beings in fancy dress.  Yes, in every age people did what the ancient Greek historian Thucydides called ‘the human thing’.  They all struggled, hoped, desired, fought, made up, misunderstood each other, cheated, sacrificed; were kind, brave, shallow, cowardly, sweet, bitter, clever, horrible, and so on and so on.  But the ways they acted out these human fundamentals changed, and kept changing, as culture did. You’ve got to internalise the past’s rules.  That doesn’t necessarily mean writing about people who kept those rules. On the contrary.  The outlaws and the outcasts, the rebellious and the unlucky, give you some of the most revealing perspectives.

4   Go to the places in the story, if you can manage to, and if they still exist.  Listen to what the walls and the paving stones and the street plans are saying, as well as the pictures and the statues.  Experience gets moulded by the streets and rooms it happened in.  They were new then, don’t forget.  Your job isn’t to render crumbling, distressed, antique surfaces.  It’s to give us brand-new medieval cathedrals, garish with primary colours; manor houses where the plaster’s still drying; Roman temples made of bright clean marble, fresh from the builders’ yard.

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill won the Costa First Novel Award in 2017, but it was in fact his sixth book.  Having made his late career-switch from nonfiction into fiction, he’s sticking with it. His new novel Light Perpetual (Faber, Feb 2021) is set in South London between 1944 and 2009, and he is presently trying to devise a thriller set in a non-existent city in the American Midwest in 1922.

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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