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Writing Historical Fiction


In my last blog, I talked about being open to story ideas when they zing by you, and using the what if helper. For me, history releases ideas like a porcupine throws quills. My novel, Blood Moon Road, grew out of a “write-off” session with my friend and writing guru, Michael Hiebert. A “write-off” is where you sit in a room (or a Starbucks), agree on starting point, and both write for three or four hours. Then you critique each other’s work. Though Michael tells of our writing encounter with the theme of how incredibly distracted I am, my version is that I finally found one idea in the book he handed me–a history of the Middle Ages–that ended up as a novel.

The fact that tweaked my interest that day was that King Canute of England in the year 1027 traveled to Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Church’s secular head of Christendom). I was taken by the idea of this English king who was actually a Dane with Viking roots, arriving in a Rome that was but a remnant of what it had been under the Caesars. I started with Canute’s longships crossing the English channel, and after a bit of digging to find that Canute had three sons, I posed the question: what if one of his sons accompanied him? I chose the middle son, Harald Harefoot (so called because he was fast, not because he had furry feet), and made the point of view his. As his character grew, I knew he must part ways with his father king and woman must be involved. From there I mapped it out (with help from the writing guru).

In writing historical fiction, one can always position fictional characters close to historical figures, or have them tragically affected by enormous historical events: wars, revolutions, plagues, assassinations. What was that film about the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts planned the killing of Abraham Lincoln? Fascinating. Now that wasn’t fiction, but it could have been. What if Guy Fawkes had a sister? How would she have been affected by his arrest and execution?

One of my favourite historical novels is The Eagle of the Ninth, by the wonderful British writer Rosemary Sutcliff. She took two events: in the year A.D. 117, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north from Eburacum (now York) to put down a rising of the Caledonians, and was never heard from again; eighteen hundred years later a Roman eagle, standard of the Roman legions, was unearthed in Hampshire. Sutcliff wove a superb tale of a Roman centurion forced to retire after an injury, who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in disguise with his slave/friend to find out what became of his father’s legion and to recover its missing eagle. A marvelous read (and now a passable movie: Centurion starring Michael Fassbender.)

Another great use of a minor historical fact is Geraldine Brooks’ book, The Year of Wonders. In 1666, the town of Eyam in England quarantines itself to prevent the spread of plague. Given that one fact, Brooks creates a strong female protagonist in a town that becomes a small microcosm of believable characters dealing with sickness, death, and betrayal. The story really belongs to the protagonist, Anna Frith, whose character arcs superbly. The result is one of those unforgettable stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To successfully spin fact into fiction requires an enormous amount of research, but that is a topic for another blog. Until then, if you want to send me story ideas or interesting historical facts you think might be launch points, please do.

Garth out.

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