Monday, December 1, 2014

Surviving as a Creative Historical Fiction Author

by Deborah Swift

Quite a few people who  read this blog are writers, and spend many hours a day locked in a lonely room with their works-in-progress. During my time as a writer of historical fiction, many people have given me advice and inspiration which have enabled me to approach my writing with renewed enthusiasm for history, or with renewed creativity.

Here in no particular order, are ten bits of advice I have found particularly useful.

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."
Napoleon Bonaparte

1. Feed your imagination - Taking time to be inspired by books, visits to museums, and research by watching videos or films is not wasting time.

2. People need good books that move them and entertain them,  so never think what you’re doing isn’t valuable. Re-appraisals of history are essential to humankind.

3. Keep your stories to yourself before you write them, or you will lose the impetus to re-tell them when you sit down to write.

4. Every time you go to your desk to write, you are shaping the public's conception of history, and increasing your stature as a writer.

5.  Be kind to yourself when things don’t go to plan, because history can be an awkward beast to manipulate. Turn on the radio, listen to all those other creative people that you admire – they had setbacks too.

"Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration."

6. Comparing yourself to another writer is like The Beatles comparing themselves with The Bee Gees. They had different creative visions, and there is still a place in the world for both.

7. The most interesting history is often hidden from view, so take your time doing the archaeology of your research, and when you unearth the treasure, do not draw the first obvious conclusion.

8. Be appreciative of the shoulders you stand on - all the non-fiction books you devour in your research are written by other writers like you. Remember to leave reviews for non-fiction writers as well as novelists.

9. Historical novelists are not historians, they are storians.

10. Though historical novelists deal with events long dead in the past, it is the author's function to resuscitate them, and let them loose to rampage in the mind anew.

E. W. Bean working on official files in his
Victoria Barracks office during the writing of the
Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918

"When you're writing, you're conjuring. It's a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you're inviting into the room."
Tom Waits

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."
Gustave Flaubert

My latest book: Past Encounters, set in 1945
"The way in which the book is written is beautiful… 
For lovers of history and drama, this book is a perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon."

Do you have any more advice to add? Better tips? Did any of these resonate with you too?


  1. Such a good list, Deborah. I particularly like Number 9. And I very happy to be reminded to leave reviews for non-fiction titles I use for research. It's something I have never done. I have a lot of reviews to leave, it seems. Many thanks for this excellent post.

  2. Just as I read this I had set down the very provocative Find Arthur by Adan Ardrey, which I am using in my editing of The Curse of Fyvie: Green Woman II. And yes, exploring the mythic vs the historical Arthur is taking time I hadn't intended to spend. Now I feel less guilty.

    1. Love the whole King Arthur myth. Your explorations into it all would make a good post Linda, hope you'll share some of your process when you're done.

  3. Thank you! I especially like the quote from Flaubert.

  4. Points worth remembering! Thanks,

  5. Thank you for all this! Particularly thank yo for number 6. It is important (and hard) to not to compare yourself to others, especially as a new writer. I am still finding my voice in the process of writing my first historical novel. The journey is fascinating and full of challenges but should hopefully create something unique and worth telling.

  6. You really touched my writer's heart with this, thank you. Writing is a lonely old job, until that is, we connect with heroes from our collective past.

    1. hi Alexandra. I collected all the bits and pieces over quite a few years - and of course I should have credited the authors, but at that time I thought they were only for me. But it's been nice to share them with other people today!

  7. A very good list and I love number nine too...

  8. What a great list. Yes, like the others I love #9

  9. I'm a Storian! That, Deborah, is going on a tee-shirt. :) Thanks so much for such an interesting and lovely post.

  10. Your list and quotes are terrific and give me some new topics for meditation when stuck. Kurt Vonnegut has excellent tips scattered throughout his books ... the one that challenges me the most is "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Consciously giving historical characters motivation is hard ... much easier to just report their actions,

    1. Ah yes, I'd forgotten about Kurt Vonnegut. Thanks for reminding me! Guess there may be a lot of glasses of water in novels now!

  11. I have now defined myself as not a historian, but a storian! Thank you Deborah!

    1. Hi Paula, Nancy Bilyeau suggested we should get T shirts, not a bad idea!

  12. Great piece - I have my first novel coming out this year, about Margaret of Anjou. It's a heavily-researched work and has a great publisher behind it but was dismissed by someone as 'oh you've written one of those stories for people who don't read real history.' Grrrrrr!! Thanks for reminding me what we do


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