A Moment in Time: a PNWA Summer Writers’ Conference Class on Writing Historical Novels

Pointers, Tips, and Advice for Gathering Research when Writing Historical Novels

Image: iClipart

This is my first post on the classes I attended at this year’s PNWA Summer Writers’ Conference. This class, which offered techniques and tips for historical novelists, was presented by Candace Robb…


What do publishers want in historical novels?

Right now, publishers in the US don’t want big blockbuster, doorstops of a book. You may have loads of information from your time period, but the publisher is probably going to cut it back a lot.

Ms. Robb cut 40-50 thousand words from The Kings’ Mistress, when she tried to publish it in the US. But in the UK, they were happy to have a longer book. If a book will need to be translated, though, shorter is better for many European publishers.

Publishers like their historical novels to run between 100k and 120k words (even though some established bestsellers get away with more).


How do you make history exciting to read?

Choose a character from your novel and have them get caught up in a transitional event.

You need to know what is at stake for your protagonist and why getting caught up in this historical event is going to ruin their prospects, change their motivation, or change whose side they’re on. All of this is bound up in that protagonist and what he/she needs/wants. To be a successful historical fiction writer, you’ve got to keep coming back to this motivating factor.

The story is about your protagonist and how he/she changes.


Is there a technique or formula for writing historical novels?

Robb had written 13 mysteries when she started writing historical fiction. She understood the mystery formula, but there was a whole different formula for writing historical novels.

The problem with historical material is that once you’ve done your research, you have a huge bucket full of information from the protagonist’s life, starting with their birth and ending with their death. But that’s too much information to include in a work of fiction.


How do you make sure the reader knows all the facts without going on and on for too long?

Robb says it’s amazing what you can do with two sentences. You may find you’ve written four chapters of back-story before you get to the actual plot. So if a critique partners says, “Chapter 5 is really exciting,” consider starting with that chapter. Take the essential information from the first few chapters and create one sentence of necessary backstory from each chapter. Cut the rest.

Remember what Anne Lamott says: crappy first drafts are how we figure out where our story is going. We get the plot down first, then we trim and embellish.


What should a writer do when he/she is confronted with historical information that is somewhat sketchy or questionable?

Historical facts can be in flux, when new archaeological information comes to light. Also,  experts disagree — they can differ about how to interpret historical documents. So you’ve got to lock down your own opinions about these things and just get the book written.


Should modern writers use historical language in their manuscripts?

Use dialect as little as possible. The modern reader needs to be able to read the dialog and have it all make sense. Avoid “explaining” slang or idioms of the period.


History is often tragic, so how do you make your novels inspiring when we all know the tragic endings of famous, real-life historical figures?

History doesn’t always have happy endings. And you shouldn’t cheat your reader by trying to sweeten it up, but really let your reader experience your protagonist’s emotions, as tragedy strikes him or her. We all die. But sad events can be wonderful if you do it right.


Do you have any tips on research?

The Graduate Research Guidebook by Edward Sarkis Balian, 4th Edition, is helpful. But best of all is to go to a university library and ask a research librarian for help. They can be incredible resources. Don’t be afraid to contact librarians for the resources you need. They can scan material and e-mail it to you. It’s also possible for a librarian to do an inter-library loan.

When you do find a legitimate book on the historical info you’re looking for, look through their bibliography for titles they used in their research. But be wary of 19th century antiquarian texts; they often have very tainted, biased opinions based on questionable “historical” documents.


What about online research?

Robb says, you sort of have to know the field first, because there’s a lot online that you just can’t trust. Know your stuff before you trust a website with its information.


Is it important to visit a location you’re writing about?

Robb mentioned how visiting a cathedral in Lincolnshire helped her realize how steep the streets were when walking from town, up to the cathedral. Documents written during that period don’t include that sort of detail, because the people who wrote the documents considered the geographical terrain common knowledge for their audience at the time. So if you can travel to the place you’re writing about, it would really help you seem authentic.

What you want to avoid is sounding like a researcher. It will pop your reader out of the book. So Robb highly recommends, as much as possible, that you travel to the place you are writing about.

I’d like to thank Candace Robb for allowing me to post her tips and techniques on my website. If you’d like to peruse or purchase her historical books, she writes historical mysteries under her own name and historical novels under the pen name “Emma Campion.” Here are some links to online venues related to her books:

Her Website




2 responses »

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I’m writing an historical trilogy of novels set in 1920s Chicago and these tips are so useful… though, I’m proud to say I’ve already followed most of them 😉

    >Historical facts can be in flux, when new archaeological information comes to light. Also, experts disagree — they can differ about how to interpret historical documents. So you’ve got to lock down your own opinions about these things and just get the book written.

    This was nice to hear. In my story, one of my characters uses divination bones. I could find very little info on bone divination in Europe, so in the end I resigned myself to use the practice as it was in ancient Rome, even if my character is Irish. I know this is probably not very accurate, but the alternate was making it up, and I didn’t want this.

    >Robb says, you sort of have to know the field first, because there’s a lot online that you just can’t trust. Know your stuff before you trust a website with its information.

    I started my research on the Internet, so I did the reverse as Robb suggests. I did this to get a first idea of the events and timelines, of the setting and general feel of the era. Internet was also extremely useful in finding resources, like books, films, archives, images.
    But I have to say that, after four years of research, I seldom turn to the net now, if not for bibliography, because really at this point what the internet offers is too superficial for my needs.

    Thanks a lot for sharing 🙂

    • You’re very welcome. I’m writing a pirate novel right now, so I also found Ms. Robb’s information somewhat helpful. As you said, some of these things I already knew, but Ms. Robb pointed out that librarians are an incredible resource for historical info. Before I took her class, I was hesitant to call libraries in distant places with my questions, but now that I’ve taken her class, I’ve found this is simply to be expected from historical fiction writers. Otherwise, you end up with inconsistencies and misinformation.

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