Wednesday 11 June 2014

A Salon Guest... Judith Arnopp on Writing Historical Fiction

Today it is a privilege to welcome a novelist and estimable lady of letters Judith Arnopp to the salon with her fascinating insight into the world of the historical fiction author.


When I first began to write seriously, historical fiction seemed the only option for me. Since I have a Master’s degree in Medieval History it made sense to put all those years of study to good use. I am more comfortable in the world of the past anyway. I am not a ‘modern’ woman and living as I do in the wilds of West Wales, I have no idea about contemporary life – not unless it involves mud, and sheep, and the important matter of keeping your log store full.
Intractable Heart by Judith Arnopp

No matter what era you write in, whether it is pre-Roman or Regency, the principles remain the same. You are creating another world and to do so successfully you have to know your stuff. 

This involves an awful lot of research, reading ancient spidery script, examining paintings, social history, political history, and looking at everything from differing perspectives. 

It can take years to really ‘know’ a period and then the chances are you won’t know it at all. No-one can be one hundred per cent accurate because nobody really knows what the truth was. Our perception of might be way off the mark.

History is a kind of agreed notion of how things might have been. We can only ever glean a rough idea of what the past was like, and we should always bear in mind that a single event can be quite different for a range of people. This is where perspective comes in, and this is why I like to work with multi-narrators to provide as wide a view as possible. I love that fact that a handful of eyewitnesses can paint the same scene in totally different colours. Our world is made up of conflicting ideas, beliefs, and experiences and the past was too. I try to illustrate that.

Having studied until you are fairly expert on the intricacies of by-gone days you might now be tempted to use your knowledge to enrich your writing. But please, tread with caution; it is easy to stuff your novel so full of historical detail that the thoughts and feelings of your carefully crafted characters are lost beneath overly painted scenes. Your novel can easily resemble a beautiful woman wearing too much jewellery; the natural grace is lost. At times like this I sit back, close my eyes and try to move my character through their world in much the same way that I move through mine.

The Kiss of the Concubine by Judith Arnopp

It is a fine line between presenting a convincing back drop for your characters and producing a world that is so ‘over furnished’ with historical irrelevances that the reader loses sight of the novels core – the character and how he/she is feeling or thinking. It isn’t really relevant how the curtains are draped at the windows, or the method used for constructing a battle ship. Be brave and restrain yourself a little; your novel deserves it

If readers can detect your research it can smack a little of showing off. Your knowledge is brilliant, phenomenal in many cases, but that isn’t what crafting a novel is all about. It is important that an author has the knowledge but it is better kept invisible. Your understanding of the past is the bones upon which your novel is constructed and, in my opinion, the reader shouldn’t see them. They don’t need to see them.

If you ‘know’ the world in which you set your novel, you and your character will move through it more comfortably, without recourse to intricate detail. Just as we go into our modern kitchens and switch on the kettle without thinking about it, so should your character go into their wattle and daub hut and heave their flame-blackened pot onto the fire. We are unaware of our wall paper, our furniture and appliances, we just use them. My advice is to provide enough detail to convince but avoid overkill.
The Winchester Goose by Judith Arnopp

 I am often asked if it easier to write in a historical setting but I wouldn’t really know. I haven’t seriously tried to write contemporary stories. It is important to write about a subject or in a setting where you feel comfortable. It you have to try too hard, it shows in your writing and it becomes self-conscious and rigid. Which again bring us back to the importance of research. 

You should thoroughly understand your setting, your character, their motivations and goals until you don’t have to constantly look up your notes or open your research books again. Imagine the setting in your head and stick to that model. Some authors have a map of the house or town where their story is played out. I don’t do that but if it works; do it. The same with character sketches and plot diagrams, use them if you need to.

Writing historical novels gives an author the perfect excuse for lots of visits to historical castles, palaces, churches to get a feel for the past. Sometimes the smallest thing, a piece of ancient graffiti, a tomb stone, a worn step in a chapel can inspire a writer and become the catalyst for great stories. Of course, for professional authors, such trips are tax deductible, which is even better.

You can learn a lot from modern people too. The man on the bus might become a background character for your novel or, if you’re lucky on your chosen bus, he might become the hunky hero. A girl behind the bar in the pub might make a good wench in your medieval inn. Humans haven’t changed that much and facial expressions, strange reactions, funny ways of laughing, odd mannerisms can all enrich your characterisation. Using a modern person in a medieval setting, as long as they don’t have a wristwatch or a laptop, can be more convincing than a thigh slapping, moustache swirling stereotype. Get revenge on your enemies, turn them into your villain.

Peaceweaver by Judith Arnopp

One thing I dislike very much is when modern day sensibilities are imposed on historical characters. It is as important to research social customs and traditions as it is to look at living conditions and clothes. In the past (depending of course upon the era) people were more used to death, it was part of life and children weren’t shielded from it. The same with birth; it was often a social event that took place within a gathering of women and men were excluded. Sex and birth wasn’t secret or hush-hush; it was natural, until the Victorians came along and turned everything that happened below the waist into something nasty. 

Even if you are writing in the 19th Century it is important to be aware of the Victorian underworld of sex, violence and drugs –you don’t have to go into detail about it in your novel, but a reference to it or using it as a contrast will strengthen whatever plot you are writing. Again, that comes back to perspective. A working girl will see a royal procession in a London street very differently to a debutant. This adds dimension, tension and drama and makes it all the more ‘real.’

Of course, all this advice sounds very bossy and it is all just personal preference. This is how I approach my own writing and I only offer it as a suggestion. Just as with everything, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. The main thing is to enjoy your writing, usually this means your reader will enjoy it too, which is, after all, our main objective.  

My latest historical novel is about Katheryn Parr, the last queen of Henry VIII. Like my other novels set in the court of Henry VIII I have taken great pleasure in illustrating the king and his contemporaries in down-to-earth, less than sparkling terms. I like to take off Henry’s crown and his fancy doublet and show him and his wives in their nightclothes – the person beneath, as it were. 

Intractable Heart is available on Kindle now and will be available in paperback very soon. 

Author Bio – Judith Arnopp – Historical fiction author 

Judith Arnopp

 In 2007 Judith Arnopp graduated from the University of Wales, Lampeter with a BA in English Literature and a Masters in Medieval Studies; she now combines those skills to write historical novels.

Her early books; Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers and The Song of Heledd concentrated on the Anglo- Saxon/ medieval period but in 2010 she published a short pamphlet of ‘Tudor’ stories entitled, Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens.  Some people loathed it but many loved it and she received endless requests for full length ‘Tudor’ novels.  

For a while Judith buried herself once more in study, refreshing her already extensive knowledge of the period. The result was The Winchester Goose, the story of a prostitute from Southwark called Joanie Toogood whose harsh existence is contrasted with that of Henry’s fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. The Winchester Goose is a multi-narrative illustrating Tudor life from several, very different perspectives; a prostitute, a spy, and a lady-in-waiting at the royal court.

Judith’s next book The Kiss of the Concubine details the life of Anne Boleyn, told in the first person- present tense, the story takes you to the very heart of England’s most talked about queen.

Her third Tudor novel Intractable Heart, is the tale of Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr.

Judith also blogs about the Tudor period, both on her own blog-page and on the English Historical Fiction Author’s website. Her work reaches a world-wide audience and her following is steadily increasing. 

Find Judith online 

Judith’s Amazon page

Judith’s webpage  

Judith’s blog 

Judith on Twitter 

Judith on Facebook

 Written content of this post copyright © Judith Arnopp, 2014.


Unknown said...

Your article was so interesting, Judith. As a reader, I love to be swept back to another time and place and you are right that, sometimes, there can be too much historical detail. For me. I love it when an author can incorporate just enough detail to create the right mood and atmosphere.

Catherine Curzon said...

I agree with that, Carol; it's the difference between immersing you in the world and making it feel a little like a textbook.

Unknown said...

Wow!!!! Interesting post!!!!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you!

Judith Arnopp said...

OOh so sorry I missed your posts ladies. Thank you for the kind comments, I am glad you enjoyed the blog.

Catherine Curzon said...

And thank *you* for such a fascinating piece!