If you write historical fiction, you’ll want to know about The History Quill, which provides editing and other necessary services specifically for historical fiction authors. Here’s Rachel Smith, the executive editor of The History Quill, to share her thoughts about our favorite genre.
Meredith Allard: Why are you fascinated by historical fiction?
Rachel Smith: I’ve been fascinated by history and stories since I was very young, helped along by my dad, who is the most brilliant storyteller. It was almost inevitable that I’d fall in love with historical fiction.
When I was ten, I got a set of My Story books (which I’ve recently learned are the UK equivalent of the Dear America books). These were fictional diaries of young characters living through key moments of British history, such as the Great Exhibition, the Titanic, and the Blitz. I devoured these books. I’d always loved learning about history in school, but reading it brought to life in this way, through the eyes of such believable, relatable characters, was a revelation to me.
I think that’s the key reason why I love historical fiction: it’s one thing reading about history in a non-fiction book, but for me, nothing brings the past to life better than being drawn inside a historical character’s mind, sharing in their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, experiencing the sights, sounds, even the smells of the era with them. I love gaining a deeper understanding of the past through observing how characters behave and interact with one another, but more than anything, I love experiencing characters’ inner lives – the bits that would otherwise be kept hidden.
What I also love about historical fiction is the voice it can give to those who were marginalised at the time – the people whose stories didn’t make it into the history books. Not only that, but it can expose patterns and parallels between then and now, illuminating the ways in which the past has shaped the present and reminding us of the price of not learning from our mistakes.
M.A.: Who are your favorite historical novelists and your favorite historical novels and why?
R.S.: As a child I loved Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart mysteries, which I think cemented the Victorian era as my favourite. Those books sparked in me a love of mysteries that has endured to this day. I read in a variety of subgenres and historical periods, but some of my favourite authors include Carlos Ruiz Zafon (his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is breathtakingly good), Laura Purcell (I’m drawn to gothic fiction; I’ve loved everything she’s written), and Sarah Perry (I thought The Essex Serpent was excellent (and not just because I’m from Essex), but Perry’s partially historical novel Melmoth will stay with me forever).
I’m a huge fan of historical chillers, like Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger, or Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters (about Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’), or Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I’m very drawn to the idea of the past coming back to haunt us.
On that theme, I also love dual-timeline novels, such as those by Barbara Erskine, Kate Morton, and Lucinda Riley. Those are great for demonstrating how past deeds can echo through time. Recently I’ve been enjoying Elly Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto series, featuring a detective and a stage magician in 1950s and 1960s Brighton, and I also enjoyed Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton. Finally, I must also mention Andrew Taylor, whose books The American Boy and The Anatomy of Ghosts I loved, and Ken Follett’s epic Century trilogy.
I appreciate historical fiction that focuses first and foremost on telling a good story. It should never just be about showing off the author’s extensive research. The authors I mentioned above know how to weave in their research in a way that serves, rather than stifles, their plot. They create rich, immersive historical settings, peopled by authentic characters, with themes that resonate in the modern day.
M.A.: What do you find to be the particular joys and challenges of writing historical fiction?
I think the biggest challenges are striking the right balance between history and story (choosing which bits of research to incorporate; deciding how far you can bend the truth), using historically authentic language (creating the impression of authenticity without being so accurate as to be incomprehensible to a modern reader), getting the finer details right, and knowing how much research is enough.
I know from first-hand experience that writing historical fiction can feel hugely daunting when you’re just getting started. The fear of making a whole host of anachronistic blunders is very real. But immersing yourself in another time can be incredibly rewarding. If you’re drawn to historical fiction, chances are it’s the challenges that initially seem intimidating that will give you the greatest satisfaction once you get stuck in. The key things to remember are that everyone has to start somewhere, and nobody can get it right all of the time. You just have to give it a go. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re a fiction writer, not a historian. By all means strive for authenticity, but never forget that your aim is to tell a good story.
By writing historical fiction, you’re giving the gift of time travel to yourself and your reader. It’s incredible, really, when you think of it like that.
(We also have a blog post here that explains in detail the top challenges of writing historical fiction and how to overcome them.)
M.A.: What is The History Quill and how can it benefit writers of historical fiction?
R.S.: We provide dedicated support to historical fiction writers at every stage of the writing journey. This includes specialist historical fiction editing services, coaching programmes, beta reader and ARC services, and a wealth of free resources specifically tailored to the genre, such as our comprehensive guide to accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction. Our blog features regular posts on aspects of writing craft and historical research, and we also have a book club aimed at helping historical fiction readers discover books they’ll love and, in doing so, promoting the works of historical fiction authors to an engaged readership.
M.A.: How can historical fiction authors get in touch with you?