Writing Your First Historical Novel
After all, it is hard to master both life and art equally well. So if you are bound to fake one of them, it had better be life.Joseph Brodsky
My mother had Tatar blood flowing in her veins. One summer, having met a full-blooded Tatar in my travels, I flirted with the idea of writing a historical novel set in the 13th Century. I imagined horsemen bearing spears and sabers galloping across the steppes of Central Asia, feasting on raw meat, quenching their thirst with horse milk – mixed with blood!
I never wrote more than a paragraph. I suspected my imagination was not up to the challenge. There was also the pesky problem of time. A historical novel demands more time than your average novel; time not only to write but to research a subject so thoroughly that, awakened in the middle of the night, you might be able to recall the name of your hero’s great-grandfather, or the color of your heroine’s favorite knickers.
I did not know much about the Tatars but, having spent the better part of a decade living in the Aegean, I knew a lot about Greek island life. Eventually, I became tantalised by the story of a village iconoclast rumoured to have collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation. I had by then published three books and numerous short stories, many of them set in the Greek islands. The research for this novel, I told myself, should not be too onerous. There were books and films about WW2; there were Greeks who had lived through the historical events of the 20th Century, eager to share their stories.
My fictional goal was to weave the personal and the historic, telling the dramatic story of a bold schoolmistress named Calliope Adham and, through her, the little-known saga of her beleaguered nation. Had anyone told me that this project would take seven years to complete, I might have decided in favour of a longed-for journey around the world.
“Why hadn’t anyone told me that Novel Number One would be instrumental in the loss of my sanity?” Stacey May Fowles asks in ‘The First Time’. “Why hadn’t I stumbled across a blog-post titled ‘What first-time novelists won’t tell you. Ever.’”
I’m about to tell you.
Writing a historical novel is a journey of indeterminate duration and unforeseeable twists and turns. The average novel takes 1 – 2 years to complete; a historical novel is likely to take a far bigger chunk of your time; a considerably more substantial slice from your private life. I am not necessarily advising against it, but the process of immersing oneself in the past is so absorbing that you may well find yourself abandoning all your favorite pursuits, as people do afer the birth of a child. If you already have children, chances are that even as they do their best to cajole and charm, your guilty mind will keep straying towards the ill-fated children populating your fictional landscape.
And then, in all likelihood, there is your spouse or partner, who may have been your most ardent supporter until the unforgettable night when, during a particularly exquisite amatory moment, you had to – had to! – turn on the light because you had just been struck by the most brilliant idea you’d had in weeks; an idea that by morning would have evaporated as predictably as a tantalising dream! So now you know why authors habitually dedicate their books to their long-suffering spouses. It is an olive branch sprouting from a heart as contrite as it is incorrigible.
“But is it worth it?” I hear you ask. “When all is said and done, is it really worth it?” To which my earnest response is: Don’t do it unless you absolutely can’t help it! Unless your devotion to your story equals what you feel for the mother who gave you life, the dog who saved you from the jaws of a grizzly, and yes, the children you would gladly die for. Because let’s face it: Dying for your children is surely easier than abandoning a thrilling chapter in medias res just because daycare workers happen to be on strike or a blizzard has shut down your children’s school!
I was lucky. My daughter was grown by the time I began writing The Captive Sun. I was already divorced and teaching only part-time. It might explain how I ended up with an impressive but unmarketable manuscript of a quarter of a million words (the average novel runs to 90,000 words).
“What an amazing achievement!” my literary agent pronounced. “I love it. Only I can’t possibly sell a Greek War and Peace in this day and age!”
As with most relationships, a compromise was clearly called for. The cuts hurt and hurt, and then I got used to living with the pain. It was not unlike the pain a new mother feels nursing a newborn. The nipples are sore; they may crack and bleed, but the infant is visibly thriving, the pain gradually abates and, one day, your child looks up and smiles into your haggard face and all is forgiven.
“Only another writer can know how much damage writing a novel can do to you,” Norman Mailer states in The Spooky Art. “Gloom descends when you have wounded too many psychic tissues in your determination to achieve one urgent goal.”
Still raring to go? Brace yourself then as you prepare to venture into a perilous fictional realm, about to encounter characters you think you understand but who, like recalcitrant children, will not necessarily obey your wishes. But if you are lucky – if you are talented, determined, and lucky – the day will come when you open a heavy cardboard box and find yourself staring at your freshly printed, shining brainchild. And as you pick up the very first copy of the first edition, you know – for about 5 minutes you know without any doubt – that thousands of readers will gladly give up their Facebook posts and X-Factor votes for the pleasure of sojourning in the world you have, against all odds, created.
If you’ve done your job well, they might go so far as to send you an eventual thank-you note.
1 – Fowles, Stacey May. “The First Time,” in Finding The Words, edited by Jared Bland, McClelland and Stewart, 2011.
2 – Mailer, Norman. The Spooky Art. Random House, 2003.
This article first appeared on Writing Historical Novels (January 8, 2013)