filed under How To Write A Book, Writing Historical Fiction.

Two weekends ago, I headed off to Sydney to attend the inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia’s Conference and I’m so glad I did. What a fabulous conference! There were so many great discussions about reading and writing historical fiction and I’m going to do my best to distil the wisdom here for you.

Colin Falconer’s opening address was inspiring and I especially loved what he had to say about why we are drawn to historical fiction:

“the past tells us more about ourselves and the future than speculative fiction. Because things that have happened in the past will, without doubt, happen again.”

Colin Falconer

History as Scaffolding for Your Story

One of the big things most of the writers discussed at the conference was research.

I’ve often said that I think research for a book is best done after the first draft is finished. I was pleased to hear Sulari Gentill agree with this. As she says, history is the scaffolding on which the story is built. If you have a first draft, then you can research to fill in the gaps, rather than wasting time accuumulating a cache of useless information that might slow the story down. And, as Belinda Murrell said at the conference: if all you have is research, then you can’t sit down and write. To begin, you need a story.

Juliet Marillier spoke about similar ideas. She said that writers are storytellers first and historians second. It’s the writer’s job to never let the research get on top of the story. And Jean Bedford’s tips on how to do that were great; she does the research and then tries to forget it. Then she lets it bleed into the story from her unconscious.

Author Toni Jordan on the importance of thinking about the reader when you write

One Of My Favourite Sessions

Toni Jordan and Posie Graeme-Evans had a fascinating conversation. Toni talked about something I thought was really interesting: the reader. Readers often get left out of conversations about writing and it can sometimes seem as if we are writing, writing, writing and not thinking of the person who will sit down and enjoy the book. Toni said that when she writes, she always tries to think about:

“Where is the space you are leaving for the reader in the story? Think about how to invite them in to the imaginative space of the story.”

I loved that idea, of making a space for the reader in the story. It’s something I’m going to be more conscious of when I write.

And for anyone who sometimes sits down to write and can’t find the words, Toni’s advice was to get out of your own way, to stop trying to control the the writing. Just let it happen. I think that’s great advice. The more relaxed I am, the better I write.

And for anyone who worries about sticking to the absolute factual truth of the way people spoke and behaved in the past, I thought Toni’s advice was excellent. As she said, sometimes the facts are too strange for fiction. She aims for the believable, rather than the strictest of truths. This idea was seconded by several other writers at the conference: focus on writing what could have been, what could plausibly have been possible.

And Posie Graeme-Evans earned a place in my heart when she said that the great beauty of stories is that they show the world that life has the possibility to be enchanting. Hear, hear!

The Always Excellent Kate Forsyth

I always love listening to Kate Forsyth talk about writing. A couple of things she said at the conference really resonated with me. When writing Bitter Greens, Kate said she mined her fears, her desires and her private griefs. It was an intensely personal process that gave her nightmares, but she wrote on, regardless.

Bitter Greens is her favourite of her books, she said, because in it she took the greatest risks. I think that’s really great advice; that sometimes we censor our writing before we begin because we think too much about who might read it and what they might think. We have to let go of that and do as Kate did, access our most deeply felt emotions because that’s where the beauty is.

She also gave us this great quote from Joseph Campbell:

“In the inmost cave where we are most afraid to enter is where the greatest treasure lies.”

So, if you’re a writer and you can’t feel the energy in what you’re writing, go dig deep for treasure!

On writing into the things that scare you to give energy to your writing.

The Tudors

The panel about the Tudors was very entertaining. Who’d have thought one English family could hold such a sway over the collective imagination? The most hilarious part of this discussion came when the panel were united in dismissing the Showtime television series, The Tudors, due to too many errors of fact. Someone in the audience posted a pic on Twitter of the rather gorgeous Henry Cavill, who was one of the stars of the series, noting that she rather enjoyed the series. Yes, even I could overlook the many factual errors when compensated by Henry Cavill!

Tips From Publishers

One very interesting session involved ten writers who were brave enough to submit, anonymously, the first chapter of their book for critique. The chapters were read aloud by an actor and then two publishers and a manuscript assessor talked about the problems and the things well done.

The best piece of feedback was that you must have storytelling and character development in your first chapter. There must be a hook i.e. something must happen so that the reader wants to read on. Overwhelmingly, the panel found most manuscripts to have far too much detail and description in the first chapter. This stops the reader from getting to know the characters, and from feeling their emotions. In many cases, we saw the emotion explained to us, but we didn’t feel it and we weren’t hooked into, or drawn into, the story.

Louise Thurtell from Allen & Unwin made a really interesting point when she said too many writers are being taught to show and not tell, when they should be taught to show and tell. As she said, narrative summary is a critical technique that allows the scene to be set and the story to progress. Constantly showing can make the pace very slow and it means you have to rely heavily on dialogue. This means that sometimes characters have conversations simply to tell the reader what they need to know. If that’s the case, narrative summary is probably a better way of conveying the information.

Well, those are the highlights! I wrote down so many more wonderful things but it’s impossible to share them all. Please ask me any questions in the comments, and let me know which parts of this most resonated with you.


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9 Responses to “On Writing Historical Fiction”

  1. Cassie Hamer

    Hi Natasha, Great tips, thank you! Am interested in the point about character development. To me, character development implies some kind of progression or change. Should this really occur in the first chapter? Or – is it more about establishing character? Cassie

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Cassie, great question! For me the character development that should hopefully happen in the first couple of chapters is taking the reader form a place where they know nothing about the character at all, and therefore don’t care about and aren’t emotionally invested in them, to a place where they begin to know and like/understand the character and feel as if they want to go on the journey of the book with them. So the emotional attachment is started from a place of nothing. It’s so important to have that hook in those first chapters, the thing that draws the reader in to beginning to care about the character and that’s ideally the kind of development that should occur. Does that make sense?

      • Cassie Hamer

        Yes – what you say makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, I have this tendency to write characters who are in difficult positions and are therefore a little bitter/cynical/sad/insert negative emotion here – and while I care about them, may make them a little unlikeable.Sometimes I think ’emotional investment’ is code for ‘likeable’!

        • Natasha Lester

          Cassie, as a veteran of writing two novels which both had unlikeable-ish main characters, I know where you are coming from. And I think it depends where your book is aimed. I have to say that for commercial fiction, I think likability is something that publishers look for. Whereas in literary fiction, there is more room to move. But I’ve also learned that readers tend to prefer characters that lean more towards the likeable. I wish you all the best with it because I think we should have a range of likeable and unlikeable characters in fiction and I hope you can make it work.

  2. Penelope Whitcombe

    Good morning Natasha, thank you for sharing your conference experience with us. As always, interesting, thought-provoking and generous in content.
    Getting the balance in show and tell is a conundrum for me – still trying to tip-toe through it.
    And a huge congratulations on your book deal, fantastic and well deserved.
    Don’t stop inspiring us.

    • Natasha Lester

      I think all writers struggle with the show and tell thing at times! Especially in a first draft, I find I tell a lot more than I need to. It’s always good to be reminded of the importance of both narrative summary and showing, and working out the balance takes many drafts for all of us. Thank you for your lovely words about the book deal too, I appreciate it!

    • Natasha Lester

      You would have loved it Emily. Next one is in Melbourne in 2017. You need to come along to that one. It was one of the best writing conferences I’ve been to. Totally worth it. And yes, Henry Cavill ….



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