Mastodon The Writing Desk: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

15 April 2020

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

“ No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ~ Robert Frost

The best historical fiction provides readers with compelling emotional connections to the story, and enables them to experience life in a different time and place. Every author brings their own approach to achieving this, but after a lifetime of reading and writing historical fiction, there are certain common principles which can help.

The characters

Readers want to understand who matters in the story, the conflict the protagonist has to overcome, and why they should care about the consequences. The key to this is to make characters relatable, with human flaws readers can identify with. For example, my book HENRY, about the first Tudor King of England, opens with:
Henry had a secret, a chilling truth only he would ever know. He’d never wanted to be king. He once tried to tell his Uncle Jasper. Dismissing him with a laugh, Jasper risked their lives to make it happen, so Henry learnt to live with his secret, which troubled his waking thoughts and haunted his dreams.

I can imagine how such responsibility could be overwhelming, and found it useful to think back to how I felt when I was about to begin a new job in a senior role. Readers will also have experienced self-doubt at some point in their lives, and the challenge is to draw on such feelings and memories to help readers feel sympathy for characters.

The Conflict

The classic story structure has our protagonist struggling against seemingly impossible odds, thwarted at every turn, and finding ways to deal with injustice and treachery. Screenwriter Robert McKee, in his book STORY, says, ‘Use the past as a clear glass through which you show us the present.’ This is where historical fiction can add to the bare facts of the historical record to engage readers in new experiences through exploring the human aspects of past conflicts.

The simplest source of conflict is when there is an obvious ‘villain’, but some of the most powerful emotional triggers can come from more nuanced relationships. Readers appreciate fine-point distinctions, and notice the small details that reveal potential conflict. In my book KATHERINE, about the life of protestant reformer Katherine Willoughby, she finds herself in opposition to the Catholic faith. 

I found it useful to make the conflict personal, largely manifested through the real character of Bishop Stephen Gardiner. This conflict provides a narrative thread through which Katherine’s feelings and emotions about her faith are explored. Her feelings, such as contempt for Bishop Gardiner, develop into less controllable emotions, such as anger at his actions, which breathe life into the historical facts.

The set up

We need to set the scene with as little exposition as possible. I like to visit the actual locations, to have a sense of the buildings and how they are placed in the landscape. Even five hundred years later, it’s possible to understand the sights and sounds our characters would have experienced. The season of the story setting can help evoke sensations of warmth or cold, and research into food and clothing adds a sense of place and time.

It’s important to have clarity about what the character needs to do and why it matters. The task of the author is to find the barriers and obstacles to achievement. Invariably there will be people with vested interests in different outcomes, which emerge throughout the story, although ambiguous motives will help keep readers guessing.

Once the context and desired aims are established the reader begins to guess the likely outcome.  This is where the storytelling reveals character flaws, and characters think and talk about how they are feeling. Often such introspection includes trying to justify their behaviour and reactions to actual events. The ideal is for your character to amaze the reader with an unexpectedly brilliant response, and the true events of history offer a rich vein of possibilities.

The surprise

The stories you remember are those with a twist, the unexpected surprise. Throughout history people have died in battle, through illness and disease, inept medical treatment, and more relatable life events such as childbirth and old age. People have fallen in and out of love, lied and cheated, yet this is not always apparent from the historical records.

One of the many ways to elicit emotion is through rising action, and surprise can be triggered by having your character show an emotion not immediately obvious in the scene. The skill for the writer is to add clues to dialogue, foreshadowing a response which leads readers to believe they know the likely outcome. Something which comes as a surprise to your character will be more likely to surprise your readers.

In my  initial research for a new book I’m always vigilant for opportunities to surprise readers.  Often these are little more than footnotes to history, which most readers are unaware of. In some cases the historical record is silent about what actually happened, creating the opportunity to propose an original and surprising solution to the mystery.  

Tony Riches

The #AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event on the topic of resources and learning for authors. Feel free to hop around to the various blogs and see what you learn! The rules and sign-up form are below the list of hop participants. All authors at all stages of their careers are welcome to join in.


  1. Ah, yes, the surprise. And isn't it fun when you're writing the story and the surprise that develops surprises you? Enjoyed this post. Thank you.
    JQ Rose

  2. Thank you for the examples along the way--they do a good job of illustrating the different steps. Cheers!

  3. The idea of you just heading for an outing to visit the ACTUAL historical settings of your books, that's pretty cool. I'm jealous. I don't write historical fiction (yet!) but if I do, I'm totally going to have to do this with respect to twists: "Often these are little more than footnotes to history, which most readers are unaware of. In some cases the historical record is silent about what actually happened, creating the opportunity to propose an original and surprising solution to the mystery." Very clever.

    1. Thanks Raimey - I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, hence my fascination with the stories of the Tudors :)


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