Sunday, 1 November 2015


I had a wonderful time at the third Harrogate History Festival recently, an event that celebrates the reading and writing of historical fiction.  The Swan Hotel, where the long weekend takes place, is only a short walk across town from home. It is also, historically, the hotel where Agatha Christie “disappeared”.

Strangely, that's the second mention of the Queen of Mystery here this weekend, which seems spooky to me. . . (That’s enough about dear old Agatha! Ed.)
As the History Festival was about books written for adults, I felt none of that angst that sometimes seizes me during children’s book conferences. I thoroughly enjoyed being there as a simple audience member.
Even so, I now have a fat notebook, crammed with scribbled historical facts, and with comments about writing. As some of these seem relevant to fiction for children & young people too, I've put a few thoughts from the weekend into today's post, including some from the excellent writing workshop led by Emma Darwin and Sally O’Reilly.

- Aren’t we’re told to “write what we know”?  
We were advised that we should “Write what you want, and make the reader believe  – at least while they are  reading – that they know it.”

The topic of research came up a few times. When did you do it?  
The most common pattern seemed to be a) starting with general reading & research; b) write the crazy first draft, making notes alongside of what you now need to know; c) do the research you now know you need; d) then rewrite and revise the draft. However, several writers were keen to describe this as an ongoing, overlapping process, rather than a strict, scheduled formula.

- How do we get readers to believe in the past or, possibly, any other setting?  
Relate your writing to the senses. Using your imagination, think specifically and patiently about what you would see, hear, feel, smell and taste in that time and place, as well as any kinaesthetic feelings you would experience. Then use that sensory knowledge to add depth to your writing and build the emotional experiences of your characters.

- What is a good way into writing historical fiction?
Artefacts are very useful ways into writing about the past. During the workshop, we  imagined an object that had existed in the past; then we listed three “people” who were linked to the artefact at any time since it was made. 

This could, for example, be the maker, seller, owner, user, finder, observer or another character. Then we briefly imagined a scene where our selected item from the past was, in some way, involved, and wrote on that theme for a brief five minutes. 

Interestingly, first thing the following morning, Michael Morpurgo was speaking to a mixed group of adults and school children. 

To much delight, he walked around the crowded room, showing his "Lusitania Medal", the real object that inspired a recent book “Listen To The Moon” to the eager young audience. A fine coincidence!

Lastly, a fine point from author Andrew Taylor about the mind-set needed for writing historical fiction:
“Remember that people don’t know what’s going to happen to them: 
you have constantly to remind yourself these people are living in their present.” 
To accentuate Andrew's valuable point, I offer this “useful quote”, muttered somewhere during the Harrogate History Festival weekend in the "Things Not To Say" category:
“Oh when, oh when will the Thirty Years War end?”
 (No answers on postcards, thanks.)

Penny Dolan

(Emma Darwin is well known for her excellent "Itch of Writing" blog and several historical novels such as “The Alchemy of Love.” Sally 0 Reilly is a writer, editor and author of “How To Be A Writer: The Definitive Guide To Getting Published and Making A Living From Writing.” The weekend is run by Harrogate International Festivals in conjunction with the Historical Writers Association.)


Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting post; sounds like an excellent weekend! That's an interesting take on 'Write what you know!'

Joan Lennon said...

Really interesting report - that artefact and 3 people idea is brilliant!

And you left me with a smile - thank you!

Susan Price said...

Really enjoyed this. Penny - and found it very comforting as I agreed with all the advice given on writing historical fiction, and already do it! I was going to call it 'excellent advice', but since I think it's excellent because I follow it, I thought I'd back-pedal. For all I know there is excellenter advice out there - but I don't know of it!

Joan's right - that exercise is very good. I imagine variations on it will be turning up all over.

Richard said...

Some great ideas there, thanks.

Writing what you want and making the reader believe that they know it is especially useful for SF.

> the hotel where Agatha Christie “disappeared”.
She was off fighting giant mutant wasps as enyone kno.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for your comments. The exercise will also be part of Emma Goodwins' "Writing Historical Fiction" out next year - the sample I saw looks very interesting.

Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Penny (and spooky about the AC connection!) And I love the final "what not to say"!

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