England, 1185. John is a prince without prospect of a crown. As the youngest son of Henry II, he has long borne the hated nickname ‘Lackland’. When warring tribes and an ambitious Anglo-Norman lord threaten Henry’s reign in Ireland, John believes his time has finally come. Henry is dispatching him there with a mighty force to impose order. Yet it is a thwarted young man who arrives on the troubled isle. John has not been granted its kingship—he is merely the Lord of Ireland, destined never to escape his father’s shadow. Unknown to John, Henry has also sent his right-hand man, Sir Benedict Palmer, to root out the traitors he fears are working to steal the land from him.
How to Write a Historical Thriller
It’s a real privilege to be able to write a guest post here on The Writing Desk. This is one of the blogs I come to when I am seeking writerly wisdom and advice and I hope I can add to that! Today I’m sharing what I know about writing a very popular sub-genre: the historical thriller. This is the category into which my medieval Fifth Knight series belongs. As the sales for the series are now into six figures, I must be doing something right.
For those of you for whom the historical thriller is an entirely new concept, I also suggest you read Robert Harris’s hugely enjoyable Pompeii or any of C.J. Sansom’s magnificent Tudor Shardlake series. Ken Follett is a marvellous read, too.
In discussing this topic, I’m including the related mystery and crime sub-genres, as thriller, crime and mystery have huge crossovers. Note that the historical thriller is also a sub-genre of the giant of a genre that is the thriller, as well as historical fiction. You may be wondering why I’m so hung up on genre definition. But this brings me to my first point.
Define your genre- and thus your market
By being clear about what your genre is, you are already starting to define the market for your novel. You may be a writer who likes to write for the sheer pleasure of it. Nothing wrong with that. But if writing to make money (as in ‘Pay Electric Bill’ rather than ‘Buy Island’) is your aim, then defining your market one of the things you need to consider from the outset. Like it or not, readers mostly make choices on whether a book will appeal to their existing taste.
‘But I don’t know what my market is!’ I hear you cry. ‘I haven’t written/sold the thing yet!’ Think of it in terms of a bookshop. If you have a historical thriller that has a young woman on the cover in a big dress, beautiful though it may be, it is highly unlikely that a reader who favours a cover with a broken sword and a dented helmet lying in the mud is going to pick it up. You need to decide not only on your story, but the tone and the level of violence and what its themes are going to be. If your dented sword cover has a plot that centres on embroidery or vice versa, be prepared for the 1* reviews and indifferent sales.
Do your research- but it’s still a thriller
Part of what draws us all to writing historical fiction is that we all love history. We especially love our own specialist areas of history. Any novelist has to do some research, but the commitment is huge in writing historical fiction. We all want to make our novels as representative of our time and place as we can. We want to get the facts right. We want our readers to be immersed in our worlds. And of course, that’s all well and good. It’s what our readers, people who love historical fiction demand.
In your hard, hard work to get the type of grain in the field correct or the right baron on the right horse, do not neglect the other important element: you are writing a thriller. Your readers will expect action. They will expect pace. They will expect intrigue. They will expect danger. They will expect violence, betrayal. Murder. Mayhem. They will expect to be surprised.
If these elements are missing, then you may not be writing a historical thriller- you may be writing something different. Nothing at all wrong with that. But ask yourself the question. It might also be that you’re not writing a thriller, but these elements are creeping in and you’re enjoying them the most. Then maybe you’re a thriller writer at heart, and you need to ramp up all those elements and really, really go for it.
It’s not serious historical fiction- is it?
Anyone who writes genre fiction faces criticism. Genre fiction is commercial fiction. It’s not literary or serious fiction. Those of us who write commercial fiction know perfectly well that our work can be sneered at. But ask yourself this: what do you read? If the answer is that you like to read commercial fiction, then why not write it? You enjoy it hugely. That’s what you want your readers to do.
You know how much hard work you’ve put into making your book the best it can be. The hours and hours that you’ve put into creating worlds and characters your readers can get lost in and will keep them hooked until the last page. In my book, that’s serious. Go forth and thrill!
E. M. Powell
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About the Author
E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, which was a #1 Amazon best seller. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in the northwest of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is a regular blogger on English Historical Fiction Authors and a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. Learn more about E.M. Powell on her website www.empowell.com and find her on Twitter @empowellauthor.