Historical fiction encompasses a wide range of sub-genres, and some historical novels are more page turney than others. (Excuse the erudite literary jargon there.) A novel like 'The Name of the Rose' demands more patience and application from the reader than 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. 'Story' tends to be more overtly important in popular fiction than in literary fiction, though all these terms are inexact and some writers think that a plot is over-valued by editors in literary writing, as this blogger has pointed out.
So what do I mean when I suggest that you should 'write a good story'? My advice is that you should be able to lose yourself in the world that you have created, that you should create characters that obsess you and fascinate you, and that you should have some idea about the needs and desires of these characters. I don't mean that you should have a three act structure or a shopping list of must-haves taken from 'how to write' books' (Although I do suggest that you should be aware of all these things.) And I don't mean that you should be scared of experimentation. A good story is, in the end, the story that you needed to tell, which you have lived with and lived inside and committed yourself to.
|Millais, Boyhood of Raleigh|
There is something organic and instinctive about the best stories and the best story tellers. Don't just read historical novels, but be voracious and catholic in your reading, and return to books that you have loved in the past. My personal favourites include 'Rebecca', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', 'Lucky Jim', 'The Talented Mr Ripley', 'The Weather in the Streets' and 'Affinity'.
The only historical novel on the list is Affinity, and I read it before I had any intention of writing in this genre myself. I challenge anyone to write a better plot than Sarah Waters has in that book. I finished it on a train and actually laughed out loud, not because it was funny especially, but because of its sheer audacity and cleverness. It was the perfect ending, the most satisfying and wonderful sleight of hand by the author. If you haven't read it, and you are wondering what I am banging on about, please do.
A good story is a succession of events which make you want to know what happens next. A clever story is one which surprises you constantly, subverting your expectations. You can write anti stories or meta fiction or undermine the form if you like. But this series of blog posts is aimed at anyone starting to write historical fiction, and in my opinion, mastering the art of story telling is a sound starting point. Just as Picasso began by learning the conventions of drawing, so we can learn from the convention of the traditional tale.