Writing Historical Fiction
a one-day course from the Writers’ and Artists’ organisation held at the offices of Bloombury Publishing in London
Taking time out to spend with fellow writers, authors, agents and books – that’s the sort of break I really enjoy. And this one-day course was educational, enlightening and enjoyable.
I commented last month that you are just as likely to pick up words of wisdom from fellow-writers at events such as this and that’s what happened within five minutes of my arrival. I learned of a small publishing house that I could send my mss to and I was told that Iran is a wonderful holiday destination! The sequel to my novel is set in ancient Iran but I had never really considered taking a holiday/research trip there. Now, thanks to Roger, I shall certainly investigate. All that over coffee before the day actually began.
The 30+ attendees were divided into groups according to their historical eras. The medieval and contemporary modern had the most, we in Ancient History numbered just three. And that meant we were given individual attention by Anthony Riches, author of the Empire series set in Roman times. He was first published in 2008 and is currently on number 9 in a series of 25! He really brought home to me the commitment of a writer: sometimes he can write up to 5,000 words in a day, his books taking between 3 and 7 months. He had a lot of anecdotes, advice, tips, insider stories and experiences to pass on to us, interspersed with three writing exercises that certainly made me consider my writing with new eyes. We looked in particular at beginnings of novels – your one chance to make an impression; dialogue – the most important skill throughout a book; and setting – you tell the reader what they can see, the characters tell the story. His main piece of advice: be persistent.
The afternoon began with a talk from best-selling author Suzannah Dunn and her agent Anthony Topping. Suzannah is a very animated, fluent and entertaining speaker who spoke of how she goes about her writing, what does and doesn’t work in historical fiction and how much detail should be included.
Because I’m at that stage of sending my mss out to agents, I was interested to hear Anthony Topping and then Heather Holden-Brown, head of her own literary agency. They both spoke about how you should go about approaching agents, what they want and don’t want in a submission and then, the vexing question of how long you should wait for a reply! Heather also spoke about the pros and cons of self-publishing, something I hadn’t expected. She said there’s no shame or embarrassment about it now, that editors do look at e-books and that it’s a worthwhile way to go even though the author has to do all the work.
I came away from the buzz of the end-of-day drinks party with renewed motivation and a plan: to re-read and perhaps re-write my opening page to make as much impact as I can, to target more agents and to keep writing my sequel. A good day out but now it’s back to real life!
If this is your first visit, a very warm welcome to you. This website will be offering writing prompts and exercises, articles on different aspects of writing, links to competitions and other websites, book recommendations and feature articles.
This month I’m addressing writing courses – and what to expect from them.
In a couple of weeks’ time I shall be attending a one-day workshop in London on writing historical fiction, being run by a leading international publisher. I’ve been on half-day, weekend and week-long writing courses before, run by colleges or individuals, so this is new territory for me and I’m not too sure what to expect. It’s not the most expensive but it’s certainly not a cheap day, lunch not included!
I’m definitely hoping to learn something – quite a lot, in fact – that I didn’t know before. This might come from the morning workshop, from the guest speaker or from the panel Q and A session. But just as easily, new insights, knowledge and writing wisdom could come from talking to other participants as well as the guest speakers and organisers.
I was asked to nominate the author whose workshop I would like to attend in the morning. The choice was between ancient, medieval and contemporary historical authors. My genre is definitely ancient – my novel is set in 63AD. The author on this
one-day course specialises in military Roman history. So although that’s definitely not my area, I’m hoping he’ll be able to give me some hints and tips on
(a) incorporating research,
(b) how to make my characters’ dialogue sound authentic and
(c) how to establish ancient attitudes and customs that today come across as barbaric and uncivilised.
I can honestly say that I have learned something from every course I have been on. I still use an excellent zig-zag technique for plotting all my stories that was taught on a residential course where most of the participants, me included, went down with food-poisoning! We all had to take a turn at cooking the evening meal. No more to be said!
On a similar course, the opening scene of a different novel was, very kindly, torn to shreds. But the author took time to explain all her comments and I later re-wrote it, understanding every last point she had made.
So, two things to bear in mind:
(1) If you sign up for a course offering individual feedback, whether from agents, editors, guest authors or fellow scribes, be prepared to receive it. Don’t argue. Take notes. Then make up your mind later, when the dust and your heart-beat have settled.
(2) Have a realistic idea of what you want to get out of the course. You are not going to be delivered an agent on a plate (although that image definitely has possibilities….), nor are you going to be given W. Somerset Maugham’s apocryphal Three Rules of Writing.
But if you are anything like me, any time away from “life”, just talking about writing with those who have succeeded and those who are on their way, will be sociable, enjoyable and motivating. You will, I am sure, also learn something.
I shall report back next month as to how realistic my expectations were.