The website of the historical fiction writer.

Archive for October, 2012

Alternative History

The final workshop I attended at the Conference was all about Alternative History, something that is very interesting to me as that is going to form the basis of my next novel! When will it be set? You’ll have to watch this space to find out!

The workshop was led by Christopher M. Cevasco, a writer from the United States who has finished writing a novel set in an alternative 1066. Hopefully it will get published soon as it sounds very interesting.

Alternative history is a genre that is fairly new to these shores but fairly well established in the US, although there are some bestsellers here such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Len Deighton’s SS-GB and the 1960s film It Happened Here. However, asking ‘what if’ has always been a question people have asked and was a popular game in the nineteenth century. Topics such as ‘what if Harold had won at the Battle of Hastings?’, or ‘What if Boudicca had driven the Romans out of Britain forever?’ or ‘What about Napoleon having a BFG 9000 from Doom?’ (although these probably weren’t around in the Nineteenth century but what if…) Two periods of history stand out more than others, one being the Nazis winning the Second World War and a Confederacy triumph in the American Civil War. Like the popularity with Romans and Tudors here, this shows the effects of education on the writing market.

So, how does one go about writing an alternative history? Well, first of all you need to pick a period of history, choose a key event and change the outcome, such as William the Conqueror getting an arrow in the eye or Bonaparte unleashing huge storms of antimatter, Doom-style at Waterloo. (I should, by the way, point out that we did not discuss the use of weapons from popular computer games of the 1990s in history. I’ve just used them myself as examples.) Changing the outcome of a battle, a court case or a religious event is known as the point of divergence, diverging from known historical fact.

The author’s next task is to build a world that shows the possible effects from the point of diversion. One example is 1960s Britain under the Nazis where Edward VIII is re-crowned and popular bands are writing patriotic songs about the Fuhrer. Although you have free-reign on how this works out, the challenge is to make this believable.

So what isn’t alternative history? Hidden or secret histories (such as The Da Vinci Code) are not this as they happen behind the scenes and do not affect history. The same goes for personal histories (It’s a Wonderful Life) but the principle is very similar. Supernatural history and parallel worlds and tales with aliens changing events, like Doctor Who, may have these elements but they are science fiction or fantasy. An important fact to remember is science fiction is set in a different world in the future while alternative history is the same world in the past.

So, that is pretty much it for my conference posts! My thanks go to all those who made this a great conference and all the help and advice I received. The goody bags were really quite something, too! I wish everyone there well in their writing and look forward to the next gathering.


The Many Faces of Historical Fiction

While I was giving my pitch I missed all apart from the last few minutes of a talk on romance in historical fiction which I’m sure was very interesting. Again, this is something for another post but it won’t be a long one as I romance doesn’t really feature in my work but I’m sure you will all be pleased to know that I’m compiling Alternative Wedding Song List Part III so watch this space!

After the Day Conference on Saturday I rushed back to my hotel, got suited and booted and legged it back for the Conference Dinner (and no one tried to mug me on the tube!) The meal, just like the company was First Class and lots of effort went into the costume pageant.

Sunday morning kicked off with a panel session discussing what the genre of historical fiction involves and what the future holds. Historical fiction is like a film, a game or a re-enactment in which they all bring history to life and (hopefully) inspire the imaginations of those reading/watching/playing it.

History in general is going through a change and has been for quite some time. It isn’t all about Kings and Queens with court gossip but about ordinary people be they servants, slaves or soldiers. Whatever your interest, however, it is important to write what you like, whether there is similar stuff on the market or not. Writing for the market is like writing for money: you won’t get very far. Enthusiasm can be very infectious so there’s every chance you could pass your interest onto others.

The electronic revolution is changing publishing at an ever quickening rate and social media is a very good way for authors to reach their audiences, both before and after their books are published. There was some discussion of enhanced e-books (those that have pictures, maps and a glossary) but many said they interrupt the narrative flow and cause a problem with the suspension of disbelief that should come with reading a book. Publishers aren’t also that keen as they cost a fortune and therefore won’t sell very well.

As for Twitter there was much of a divide on whether it is good or not. Personally, as I’ve said before, I don’t mind it that much but it does get annoying when you see @s and #s where they shouldn’t be. Is it really that difficult to type the letters ‘A’ and ‘T’ together? And why on forums do people insist on using @ in replies to people? And why do papers have to use # in headlines?

Anyway, rant over. Tune in tomorrow for a talk about Alternative History and why this workshop was of a particular interest to this writer.


One of the reasons why I am glad I went to the conference (other than having the chance to meet and listen to fellow readers and writers) was the chance to pitch my novel to a literary agent.

Now when dealing with people from the business side of writing, it’s been done either through the mediums of letter writing or e-mail or, more recently, a few minutes talking about work I have already sent them (such as my one-to-one appointments at the Winchester Writers’ Conference). This time I was going to present my work for three minutes to a literary agent.

I spent the weeks leading up to the conference reading blogs and books and watching YouTube videos about how to pitch to an agent but they all seem to say different things. The best advice I can give is:

1) Be able to explain in a few sentences what your book is about. This can be like the blurb on the back of a book as it should encourage people to read more.

2) Practice the pitch. I found when I was at the conference and speaking to people during breaks that when I was answering questions about what my book was about I was in fact pitching the novel.

3) Ask people what their books are about. They will be pitching to you as a result and you can listen and learn from them.

4) Read the agent’s website and look for submission advice. Each agent has their own requirements of what they want so plan your pitch around that.

5) Don’t panic. Easier said than done…

Anyway, the pitch went well and I managed to answer all the questions and was asked to send some chapters in. Although this isn’t a definite ‘yes’, it sounds promising…

Good luck to all those who pitched at the conference and… well, to everyone else who have been making pitches! Stop by next time for a discussion of the Many Faces of Historical Fiction.

The Lying Art

On the Saturday afternoon, after I got several books signed (this novel better start paying for itself as this writing habit is costing a fair bit) I went to another panel session which again had authors, historians, agents and people from the publishing world.

This talk, called ‘The Lying Art’ discussed the problems faced when trying to write a narrative using, for want of a better word, historical facts. The subject of facts is a topic for another day (preferably after a couple of pints and some cultured classical music, followed by a shower and a lie down in a darkened room with whale music soothingly singing from the speakers of a nearby stereo). I can, however, speak from experience that although having more sources to work from when writing a story, they can limit what your imagination can do. For the Viking novel, there was very little written about the time as most of it is set in Norway from 789-825. Apart from a few entries in chronicles from England and Scotland I was pretty much free to make it up, providing it was realistic. The Russian Revolution, however, has lots of source material on offer. A researcher really is spoiled for choice with what is an embarrassment of riches, particularly since the end of the Cold War. These include eyewitness accounts, films, photographs, etc. Again, on the one hand this is great for information but you are very limited when wanting to make your own story.

One interesting point in the discussion was whether taking liberties with facts could actually be classed as lying or invention. It was generally agreed that such things were fine as long as it was done sparingly and was believable. One way of getting around this is to not use historical figures as the main characters but have them in the supporting cast. Also it is important to highlight this in the Author’s Note bit at the end of the book just in case people take fiction as fact.

Also, have a look at this: Games and history is a post for another time but this might give you something to think about. The books look good as well.

Join us next time when we shall be looking at Pitching!

Killer Blows

The first workshop I attended for the Conference was called ‘Killer Blows’, all about writing convincing combat scenes in historical fiction. Leading the workshop were four experts in the field who have written fight scenes at various points through history. Angus Donald has  recently published the fourth book in his Outlaw series about the legend of Robin Hood, Douglas Jackson has written novels about the Roman Emperors Claudius and Caligula and has had three books published in the Gaius Valerius Verrens series. Russell Whitfield has recently published the sequel to Gladiatrix, a novel about a female gladiator and Bernard Cornwell is well-known for Sharpe, set during the Napoleonic Wars and The Warlord Chronicles about the legend of King Arthur. He has also written about the American Civil War and England during the time of Alfred the Great.

Designed as a question and answer session, the first topic of discussion asked whether taking part in re-enactment groups was a good way of researching a battle. Answers given included that they were useful for understanding the choreography of a fight but also martial arts classes can help as can using imagination (how to balance with swords and shields with footwork). One common mistake writers make is to have too many moves in single combat scenes. Most did not last longer than a couple of minutes. Terrain and weapon accuracy are important and too many adjectives can be a problem.

Character feelings were discussed with the advice that personal experiences of similar situations should be considered. Examples of this included the dressing rooms of rugby matches, the war in Afghanistan and police riots which is a modern-day version of the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. Depending on the training and discipline of the fighters, they either rely on their training to control them or let lots of booze carry them through the fight. War memoirs (for any war, not just the one you write about) are useful as they convey the feelings of what it is like to be facing possible death or injury. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle was named as a very useful book.

Writing about atrocities at any time of history is a challenge. How should the protagonist react? It is important to remember that the laws of morality in war are different. Different cultures in different time periods have rules of war, such as the laws of chivalry in the Middle Ages. Some authors have the character showing mild disapproval while others tell it like it was and let the reader decide.

The role of women in battle was something that interested a lot of people as they do not feature anywhere near as much as men (one reason being that they are far too sensible for such things.) Some women did fight, such as Boudicca and Joan of Arc but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Anyway, the workshop was very enlightening and if you are stuck for anything to read then go out and read what these people have written:

Tomorrow’s post will be all about whether or not historians and historical fiction writers lie or are just somewhat creative with the truth.

Opening Address

Part 2 (or should that be Part II?) of the posts for the Historical Novel Society Conference is about the Opening Address from Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and the Cousin’s War Series set during the Wars of the Roses. Very interesting it was too.

Philippa Gregory spoke of history being a public art. The archive is not history but simply contains the material needed to make it. History is the narrative, the story that can be woven from the information gathered from the documents and the random facts that they contain. It is the job of the writer (just like the historian) to select the facts and use them to tell the tale they want. The only trouble with this is some important issues can be ignored or glossed over. One example is Henry VIII where the role of women in his life are almost completely ignored despite having six wives, being the father to two Queens and having a strong mother and grandmothers. Therefore, although some professional historians do not take historical fiction seriously, both they and the author do the same level of research and use the same sources. They just have different agendas. Also, the reading of non-fictitious history makes the reader use their imagination. Reading a biography of Elizabeth I will make you imagine her in real life – her speech, her mannerisms, her clothing – and this creating a character based on the information given.

For more information on Philippa Gregory, have a look at her website and read her books:

Next time we’ll have a look at fight scenes and how to strike some real Killer Blows (in fiction, that is, not real life.)

What Sells Historical Fiction?

Whilst I’m trying to choose a suitable theme for this blog, perhaps you’d like to find out about what happened last week at the Historical Novel Society Conference. I wrote a few thoughts after the drinks reception on Friday before I fell asleep so the next few posts will talk about what happened on the Saturday and Sunday.

After some much-needed tea and pastries (very nice they were too) the day opened with a panel discussion between booksellers, agents, authors and representatives from the publishing industry to discuss what sells historical fiction.

Obviously a good first page is essential (which is true of any writing) but when it comes to historical periods and genres pretty much everything has been covered. The last ten years have seen the bookshops swamped with historical novels mainly about Romans, Tudors and Nazis and one reason for this is people are familiar with these being major topics at school. This is why you see very few American Civil War novels on British bookshop shelves but an abundance of Romans and vice-versa in the United States. So, if you’re a British author who has written an epic series set during the Roman Empire you may find it a struggle but that’s not to say it will be impossible to get published. If you have a niche that will be even better and great characters always sell wherever and whenever they come from.

Another interesting topic of discussion was the design of the book and the question of author influence on the cover/jacket design was considered. The answer was that new authors have next to no say in the book design but key images will be considered. The process of book publication is a joint enterprise and everyone has their own job in it: writer, designer, publicity, editor, etc. There was an interesting observation where books aimed at the male readership featured armour, battle scenes and ships on the front while books aimed more at women featured people. Possibly an important thing to consider if an author decides to publish the book themselves and would have a completely free choice on the cover art.

Reviews and electronic publishing were also mentioned. Publishers are beginning to take an interest in books published on sites such as Kindle and Smashwords, particularly if they are successful. Reviews are also important but there are very few in the newspapers. Historical fiction sadly does not get the attention it deserves, however given the number of subgenres (romantic, military, alternative and steampunk to name but a few) and the increase in popularity that comes with film adaptations this could soon change.

Drop on by tomorrow to read about Philippa Gregory’s opening address: