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Historical fiction - anyone given up?

(27 Posts)
RosaTheOwl Wed 08-Nov-17 13:41:08

I am slightly ashamed at myself for this but...!

I was wondering if anyone started out writing hist fic and switched on account of all the research. It feels like twice the task sometimes. Also, I have learned some interesting things but then there's all the detail that has to be right.

I've got one novel that's about half done and had really good ideas for a couple of others but now wondering about crossing over into different territory. I wasn't trying to write in Philippa Gregory type detail but I feel it's really important to have the background correct.

I'd like to get something published no matter how minor but perhaps a whole historical novel was too much to do. It seems like I can write loads but then research is all stop-start and is this right etc etc.

just wondered if anyone else had this.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 13:48:29

It is more than twice the work ime. It doesn't make any sense to do histfic when it takes so long, therefore you do have to be utterly convinced that is the thing you MUST write.
I write histfic and I have been working on this one bloody book for over 3 years because it's taken me so long to get on top of the material. I will know next time to make pragmatic decisions that take into account how long the research for a particular story will do. However, I love it. The thing I fundamentally feel put on earth to do is to tell stories while trying to figure out the past and bring it to life. I enjoy writing contemporary things but I get my real thrills from doing the research and deploying it in a story in a way that works for the reader.

If you don't enjoy the research, don't feel guilty about moving onto something else. If you do like it but it's just that it's overwhelming you, how about starting small - either write a historical short story or two, or write a story that has historical elements but is mainly contemporary, so you can exercise your history muscles a bit but keep it manageable? You might find that once you have that experience behind you, you can figure out a way to keep it in reasonable proportions for the next book.
My first book was set in a relatively unknown place, with nearly all made up people, covering a historical event about which there are only a handful of books. My mistake this time round was writing a book that covers a period of time when a lot happens, featuring a lot of characters about whom a lot is known. I am getting there though!

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 14:51:46

Thanks Countess, that makes me feel better - I almost thought, am I just being hideously lazy!

"My mistake this time round was writing a book that covers a period of time when a lot happens, featuring a lot of characters about whom a lot is known. I am getting there though!"

yes, I'm covering a period that's pretty popular, though I don't have any real people featured except as background. I have moments where I think, I've done enough research and then I have moments of completely doubting myself because I've forgotten which politician made which remark on 2nd May of 19whatever!!!

The only ideas that I've really fleshed out and wanted to run with have all been historical. I might try short stories instead first and see if things can be extended without a huge amount of research.

I did originally think it wouldn't be so bad as it's very character driven but I'm not sure.

I suppose I just have to try writing other stuff and see what happens. But it's reassuring to know I'm not the only one feeling like it's two tasks rather than just one, thank you, Countess <curtseys>

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 15:02:05

I wouldn't worry about forgetting stuff - I think you're always going to have to go back and check things.
I learned early on that when you're writing you do have to leave some things up in the air with a note to check later, or you lose momentum. Of course, sometimes you then discover your mistake has knock-on effects and you have to change more than just a few words, but most things can be fixed.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 15:09:10

Countess "I think you're always going to have to go back and check things."

yes, this is the thing. Goodness knows what's happened to my memory, but when I started writing (years ago) I didn't have problems remembering things, so that's probably why hist fic didn't seem so daunting.

now I feel like I need to paper the walls with dates and information - obviously I have it all written down to refer to but the fact that I can't recall it the way I used to is an issue.

I actually have a couple of days off work this week and the intention was to get the novel into such good shape that I could start coming home from work and doing edits next week. Now it looks as if I just might not finish it!

It's a weird realisation to have. I honestly thought I was going to start sending this out to agents next year - I have a bunch of time off over Xmas and was perfectly on track to finish it.

sorry, I'm now confusing "is histfic for me" with other things.

But one tip I thought was quite good was to do additional research after the first draft - and now as I write the rest of this draft I'm finding myself dreading the next batch of research.

thanks, it's helpful to have someone to talk to - I do know what a first world problem it is grin

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 16:42:44

If you've got this far with it, wouldn't it be a pity to give it up?
Sorry, when you said it was half done I assumed you meant what people often mean, because many people haven't grasped how much revising books take, which was that it was halfway through the first draft.
If you've already got a draft it seems more worth going on.

Re the memory problem, it's just a matter of having good systems to organise your data, I think. I find Scrivener very useful for managing research as well as different drafts.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 16:49:16

"If you've got this far with it, wouldn't it be a pity to give it up?"

Yes...but sunk costs?

Re how much is done, it depends on your definition of draft. The first 50% is there in full with just editing needed. Then the remaining 50% has some paragraph gaps and some information gaps. The story is fully plotted scene by scene on a spreadsheet.

I really tried to get on with Scrivener as I can see the advantages but I didn't find it intuitive at all. I'm used to using spreadsheets for work etc so found that better.

If you don't mind me asking, have you had work published? I can imagine that's a big motivator?

I suppose there's an argument for me trying something else and then if I feel a burning urge to return to this, then I will.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 16:50:41

btw when I say "Just editing" I am not underestimating editing, but I set out to write a draft that was quite polished anyway ISWYIM, so it's not like a pantser draft.

Diamonddealeroncemore Thu 09-Nov-17 16:53:56

I totally understand where you’re coming from. I love history and studied it at uni etc etc, previously I’ve written contemporary romance but I always wanted to write a historical novel. I’ve just started a time slip one but the research into the history is simply never ending. Why did I decide on tudor times when I know almost nothing about it?! I read books set in that era when I’m not writing just to try and keep my head in the right place but my MS is full of ‘xxx’ where I’ve left something out so I can go off and research it later.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 17:05:04

Rosa - I have self-published on my agent's advice, got taken on by an agent but she didn't manage to place the book (YA historical is a hard sell) so I am not trade published yet but am approaching it seriously and optimistically iyswim. It's a motivator in the sense that even if she doesn't manage to sell this one, I already have a small core of readers who liked my last one who will buy it if I self-publish, as well as the ones who will buy anything with Anne Boleyn in it (and criticise it brutally if they don't like the way she is portrayed). So I am not in the position of writing something I don't even know will be read, and it's a more saleable topic than the last.

Of course, the market is another issue to consider. Is there much market in the type of historical you write? What about the genre that you would be writing if you weren't writing historical?

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 17:09:24

Diamond, I do Tudor so if you need any book recommendations for research I have many.

I love time slip books and have always wanted to write one but I haven't yet come up with a 'passage to the other world' that convinces me enough to think it will convince a reader.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 17:52:22

Countess, I just read histfic when I was a young adult! I think publishers have such a set list that it can be very hard to beat.

there is interest in the period I'm writing about, yes. I'm not sure any more if that's good or bad, but I'm thinking in terms of writing for myself rather than fixating about getting published. Though I seem to go round in circles with that.

Diamond, I'm writing a period I do know a bit about and that's hard enough! The other ideas I had for novels involve periods I don't know about and I think I have to strike those completely - or at least leave them till retirement!

Humpsfor20yards Thu 09-Nov-17 18:14:01

Mine is historical fiction, I guess, although its based on a real-life people. It'll be published next year as part of a three-book deal.
I flew through the writing, its very character and dialogue led. I know a bit about the period - a lot of people do - but certainly not historian level. Still, I didn't let it hold me back writing. I was pleased with it, and the agent/publisher like it. I didn't realise but there's quite a market for it, IF it works.

I'm editing now, and absolutely shitting myself. I just imagine Amazon reviews going, no, those weren't invented until 2 years later, or, no, they would NEVER have eaten that, etc. Gah.

So my advice is get the thing done. Then send it out or leave it. Give it a month or so and then go back to it and shove in all the missing details.

Good luck!

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 18:20:52

Humps - congratulations!

yes, I have been thinking to myself that actually maybe if there are errors, there are errors. "Victoria" on ITV - S2 - was full of blatant changes to history to fit the plot and I think even the film Lincoln had a couple of major errors in it, so perhaps I should stop worrying about it.

There were meant to be key scenes revolving round nearby bombs - it's WW2 - but now I'm thinking rather than memorising the entire Blitz period I should stop worrying, it's going to be me that has a calendar in my head rather than a reader, isn't it?

btw if anyone else is doing this period, you might also need to allow time to weep over pictures of bombed areas!!

Humpsfor20yards Thu 09-Nov-17 18:38:11

Yes, yes. My editor actually said, 'Don't let the truth stand in the way of the story' - and when I worry about it, I tell myself 'Sound of Music' - which apparently was a real bastardization of the Von Trapp story.

I also heard this story recently: WG Sebald allegedly received a letter from a reader saying the clock in Antwerp station is on the left of the departure board in one of his books when in fact it’s on the right. Apparently, he wrote back and said, ‘In my book, it’s on the left.’

I'm definitely going to borrow that line!

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 18:44:40

I think so too. I think I slowed myself down far too much worrying about getting everything right and the more I do the more I think what matters is story.
It's all an interpretation anyway. History is still just our own age using a different age to explore the themes we are interested in. If one in five hundred readers doesn't like your book because they know something was invented two years later, does it actually matter? I found a costume error in Wolf Hall ffs - who cares? Of course egregious errors matter - I also read a book set in Tudor England where someone hunts chipmunks and that was a bit much. But don't worry so much about the small things that it paralyses you.
You might also want to bear in mind that some people might say in reviews you have got things wrong but they'll be wrong. You can't live in terror of reviews picking holes because even perfection won't protect you from that - I have seen reviews of other books where people have picked holes that weren't there.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 18:45:33

Humps - thanks, you've made me realise I am over worrying.

I'm going to look at ways to make this stressful. I was never one to detail clothes etc in my writing because tbh it's not detail I want to read, but there are few political moments injected into dialogue - I could probably just remove them and stop stressing.

I thought at first they made the book stronger - well they probably do - but not to the extent that I should be thinking about dropping it through all the stress.

RosaTheOwl Thu 09-Nov-17 18:47:54

Countess, cross post.

yes, I must admit some of this fear was triggered by a comment made by a friend this weekend - she didn't understand a comment I made about a particular thing and I have now realised that probably both of us could find evidence backing us up.

it's like with going to shelters, I have a relative who really did rush to the shelter the minute the siren sounded but also there were people who just thought "fuck it" and didn't want to go to the horrible shelter!

Humpsfor20yards Thu 09-Nov-17 19:23:34

History is still just our own age using a different age to explore the themes we are interested in

That's so interesting.

Yes, don't get bogged down in the details, rosa. It's more important that it 'ring true' than 'it is true' (keeping in mind that it won't/can't ring true to everyone and that's ok)

Diamonddealeroncemore Thu 09-Nov-17 19:29:45

Thank you Countess, that’s very kind of you. So far I’ve read How to be a Tudor, and I have The Tudor Housewife and A Visitors Guide to Tudor England on their way (I’m a complete sucker for cheap 2nd hand paperbacks from Amazon!). I’ve got something else ordered at the library but I can’t remember what it was. I’ve also got Life in Tudor Palaces and Houses on my kindle to read at some point. For pleasure reading in the evenings I’m ploughing through all the Phillipa Gregory and Hilary Mantel back catalogue just to get my head ‘in the era’.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Thu 09-Nov-17 19:53:08

'Yes, don't get bogged down in the details, rosa. It's more important that it 'ring true' than 'it is true' '

Yup. The event in my book that some of my readers had trouble believing was copied directly from a real one.
Of course, that doesn't mean the readers were wrong, just that I should have set the character up better so it felt right when he did it.

BurningTheToast Tue 14-Nov-17 12:16:55

Coming late to this but I wanted to chuck in my two penn'orth...

I write historical crime fiction (agent has my first novel out on submission at the moment) and I hadn't thought about writing historical until I had an idea for a character.

I'd always been fascinated by the period immediately after end of WW1 and of the changes in women's lives and opportunities then and it must have been brewing because one morning, driving back from IKEA to be precise, my central character came to me and I knew what the story was.

The hardest part for me wasn't the research, it was getting the plot right. I spoke to an author I know who advised that the story is the most important thing and so for my first draft I made sure that was right and tried not to make any howlers re historical detail. Then I tweaked the plot again, went through checking specifics and wrote my second draft.

All through the editing process I've checked details and once it's sold (hah!) I'll do another fact check - how many hansom cabs in Edinburgh in 1920 etc.

I haven't gone for by specific details - no quotes from Hansard or anything - but I'm told that it's got a really good sense of the period without labouring things. I didn't want to do too much research early on because I knew it would be tempting to shoehorn it all in for the sake of it.

So, if you love the period and are genuinely interested in it, then I'd maybe stick with it. But look at that draft and before you worry about any historical detail, make sure the plot works and that your characters are well developed. Those aspects are timeless.

Good luck

Humpsfor20yards Thu 23-Nov-17 18:15:07

How are things going, Rosa?

I wanted to suggest listening to Hilary Mantel on this subject on Radio 4. I think you'd like it.

Hope you've had good news, burning toast.

User45632874 Thu 23-Nov-17 19:35:07

Yes, I'm currently struggling with this - I have to research a couple of issues - one I think I've sorted but the other, I can't seem to find the information anywhere - it's like fitting together pieces of a puzzle but I am determined to keep going as I'm really enjoying other aspects of my writing.

Lucydogz Thu 28-Dec-17 17:11:12

Thanks for the great thread OP, the same thing is playing on my mind, to the extent that my writing g is paralysed.
There is a historical character that I really want to write about, and hasn't been covered by HF. But their life was so complex and full that I don't know how to do it. It deserves a trilogy at least.
My nightmare is that Philippa Gregory will cover them (I have considerably less respect for her writing than the OP does).

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