7 June 2021

Guest Post by Savannah Cordova: Five Crucial Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

 Knowing how to write a great short story is tough. To condense a narrative into 3,000 words or less, the writer really has to sculpt every sentence, being careful not to sacrifice substance or theme. Despite this difficulty, each week my colleagues and I read dozens of standout short stories as judges of Reedsy’s short story contest. 

One thing we notice is that authors who write in genres which require more worldbuilding — historical fiction included — can struggle to condense their narratives and pack a real punch in relatively few words. This is a shame, since historical fiction stories done right are some of my absolute favorites. To encourage more historical fiction writers to try this form, I’m going to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of short stories — as well as a few stellar examples.

1. Do your research 

Different kinds of historical fiction require different kinds of prep work. For a historical romance, the writer needs to know all about societal norms and expectations; for a fictional account of a battle, the tactical decisions and maneuvers matter most. When writing a short story, it’s all about immediately grounding readers in the culture of the time period. You need to know how people thought, how they went about their daily lives, and what stories they might tell about themselves and their world.

If you want your historical fiction story to foreground a real historical figure, you’ll need to do the kind of research a biographer might do. Then use those facts as your source of inspiration. As long as what you write is plausible, you can use your imagination to speculate and fill in the gaps, taking the story where the historian can’t go.

2. Find an interesting way into the time period

One common misconception among historical fiction writers is the notion that an elaborate, multi-POV, multi-act story structure is the only way to tell “the whole truth.” But writers who try to encompass everything they know within the scope of a short story will inevitably spread themselves too thin.

Leave it to the historian to give an unbiased account. What you need to do is get behind your protagonist and tell their story. Figure out what’s meaningful and interesting about their connection to the time period, then try to pinpoint your story's key emotion. Despite the historical backdrop, it’s this key emotion that will move the reader.

One recent submission that did this really well was The Ritual, which takes place in New York during WWII. The author uses what they know of the period — the hysteria, the uncertainty, and the mistreatment of Japanese and Italian immigrants — to tell a moving story about community, family, and the home. When they touch upon historical events, this sentiment still permeates every paragraph. Take a look:

When the FBI agents came for Luigi, he had been cutting through a beam that was part of a new project that Giovanni had been doing on the house. Giovanni had given the old Victorian a face lift; its termite infested wooden exterior was replaced by cream colored stucco and red window boxes.

3. Infuse your story with historical details

Though it’s true that you shouldn’t try to cram everything you know about a time period into a short story, sprinkling in accurate historical details will keep readers interested and make your story much more credible.

To that end, during your research, keep an inventory of small details that will add color to the world of your story. While writing, you can also make note of any details you include that you might want to check for accuracy, or replace with something more emblematic of the times.

Of course, you don’t want to add information just for the sake of it. To hold your audience’s attention, you’ll want to emphasize select details that advance plot or characterization. Here’s a great example from a story called Treading Water, set when Elvis Presley was king:

The ding of an overhead bell signaled my arrival as I pushed open the door. A wave of cool air hit my face and I sighed in relief. On a shelf, a small electric-powered fan blew a soothing breeze straight at me. I was surprised the store even had electricity, but I supposed that since most of Main St did, there was no reason for it not to. A portable radio rested on the front counter, by an ashtray full of cigarette butts, but it wasn’t turned on.

4. Don’t get bogged down in dialogue

One detail that I’ve seen way too many writers get bogged down in: the vocabulary or grammatical structure of their historical era. Yes, speech has shifted dramatically over time, but you won’t shatter any illusions for your reader by failing to replicate historical speech patterns.

In fact, it’s far more noticeable when a writer chooses to write in a specific dialect. Think of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and the narrator’s thick Scottish dialect — it can make for pretty opaque reading, right? The odd word or occasional phrase can work to reinforce your historical setting, but don’t bust a gut trying to stuff them in. Include too many and your story might become tougher to read than it’s worth.

One of the stories submitted to our contest, Adventurin’, did a great job of adding some historical color to the speech of one of its characters. The story is narrated in modern English, but the protagonist’s loud, loquacious friend Jed speaks, well, like this:

They know our story; you know, ‘cause their Paw has sung our story-song to them in front of the fireplace after their Maw has done the Bible readin’. Not too soon after, mind you, because their Paw don’t want to shame the Word of God with our story. That happens, and kids won’t want to listen to Bible readin’ anymore. Famous is fine, but you and me don’t want to come between children and the Almighty.

Jed’s voice comes through so clearly, helping us understand the character and the world he’s grown up in, and immersing us in the historical context without making the prose jarring to read.

5. Start with a punch, not exposition

Most writers instinctively understand the need to hook readers as quickly as possible. As you might imagine, the need is even greater when it comes to short fiction, where everything is so compact. As a judge, I’m looking for a hook within the first paragraph — if not the first sentence — to convince me that this story is going to be engaging.

If your story opens with a flowery description of a period costume, an antiquated building, or the events of the year in question, I’m going to check out. I understand the desire to establish the time period early on, and that’s not a bad idea — we even prompted readers to do just that in this contest — but as that prompt asked of our writers, try not to lay it on too thick.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of this brilliant story, The Things You Don’t Say, as an example:

It was the hottest summer of the decade the year we bought our first air conditioner. It was August 1988, the summer before I entered high school, the summer before life got complicated. The six of us (seven if you count Daisy, the basset hound) loaded into the green Chevy station wagon and drove to Sears, Roebuck and Co. (as it was still called back then.) We were the only people on our street to get an air conditioner.

These opening lines instantly let us know we’re being transported back to the 80s. (So much so that I don’t think the author needs to tell us the date — luckily for them, it wasn’t an entry in the aforementioned contest, but another contest without such requirements.)

But beyond that, they also create atmosphere, clearly establish the narrator’s voice, and set the tone for the whole story. It’s hot, times are changing, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked. So if you ever submit a story to our contest at Reedsy, remember to open with something like this. I look forward to reading what you write!

Savannah Cordova

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About the Author

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of historical fiction — when it’s done right. Find out more at https://reedsy.com/ and on Twitter @ReedsyHQ

4 June 2021

Special Guest Post by Alison Morton, Author of the Roma Nova series


INSURRECTIO and RETALIO (ebooks) are currently on offer at between 33% and 50% off the normal price, so instead of £3.99/US$4.99, each one is priced at £1.99/ US$2.99 (Amazon). You can find similar reductions on Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Quick and easy links to your favourite bookshop here:

Is history fixed?

Small and large-scale things happen every day in our own time that could set our lives off on a different course. Each personal decision we make changes the course of our lives from what it might have been. And all of us probably sit down at some stage and wonder "what if I'd done X, or if Y had happened me?"

What if King Harold had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Or if Julius Caesar had taken notice of the warning that assassins wanted to murder him on the Ides of March? Or if Elizabeth I of England had married and had children? If Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776?

My Roma Nova thrillers are set in an alternative timeline where a fragment of the Roman Empire battled its way through to the present. Time diverged in the past. AD 395 to be precise, when a small group of Romans saw their empire crumbling and left Italy to seek shelter in the mountains. Their decision seemed small scale, but the effect was to change their world.

Some readers had told me they enjoy the Roma Nova stories purely as thrillers. Others have enjoyed the 'women running things' aspect or the way that Roman history has gone off in a different direction.

Alternative history fiction has three short rules, or conventions:

• the timeline split at a defined moment which is in the past – the point of divergence (PoD)

• the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.(This is not time travel!)

• stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.

But the story must be strong in itself and not just rely on the 'oo-ah factor' of the different timeline. And I believe the characters should be well-rounded, human and 'normal'. As readers, we must be able to cheer for them when things go well and commiserate with them when it all goes wrong as it often does for Carina and Aurelia in Roma Nova.

Aurelia’s stories in the series – AURELIA, NEXUS, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO – are set between the (alternative) 1960s to early 1980s and see the rivalry between Aurelia Mitela and Caius Tellus intensify and become lethal.

She comes from one of the Twelve Families which helped found Roma Nova at the end of the fourth century, so she has a lot of history supporting her. In her younger career, she was an effective successful Praetorian officer, diplomat and later intelligence agent – a spy. She becomes a senator, businesswoman and advisor to Imperatrix Silvia, Roma Nova’s ruler.

Caius, on the other hand, has tried to bully Aurelia all her life. Given every privilege by his mother and grandmother, Caius has never to struggle for anything. Strong willed and intelligent, he dominated his circle and charmed older adults with his good looks and broad smiles. He has no idea of anybody else’s interest but his own.

But the chief failing that gnaws away at him is that he could never break Aurelia’s shell, either with charm or by force. He resents that she can see through him. He takes it very personally…

Caius makes a power grab in INSURRECTIO and imposes a tyrannical regime – a traditionally Roman way of acceding to power. Not that it has happened that much in fifteen centuries in this new Rome’s existence! (I used the coming to power and the regime in 1930s Germany as inspiration for much of this.) RETALIO recounts the fierce determination of Aurelia and the loyal Roma Novans to resist and combat the tyranny. (You may see parallels with 1940s resistance in this story.)

Alison Morton

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About the Author

Alison writes award-winning thrillers series featuring tough, but compassionate heroines. She blends her deep love of France with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical, adventure and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history. Now Alison continues to write thrillers and drink wine in France with her husband. Find out more at Alison's website  https://alison-morton.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @alison_morton

3 June 2021

Special Guest Post by Clare Flynn, Author of Sisters at War

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

1940 Liverpool. The pressures of war threaten to tear apart two sisters traumatised by their father’s murder of their mother. With her new husband, Will, a merchant seaman, deployed on dangerous Atlantic convoy missions, Hannah needs her younger sister Judith more than ever. But when Mussolini declares war on Britain, Judith's Italian sweetheart, Paolo is imprisoned as an enemy alien, and Judith's loyalties are divided.

The Inspiration behind Sisters at War

I wrote Sisters at War as a standalone novel, but it continues the story of Hannah and Will Kidd of Storms Gather Between Us. That book ended just as the Second World War was beginning and I wanted to explore the impact of the war on their lives and the lives of those they care about.

The book is mainly set in Liverpool, where I was born. My parents were children when the war began and my dad ended it serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. My mum was evacuated for a while at the beginning of the war before returning to Liverpool. Both of them grew up in Orrell Park where the book is set – as did our relatives.

I knew from my mother’s stories that Liverpool had taken a pounding in the war – indeed I saw the evidence with my own eyes as even long after the war ended, bomb sites marked many street corners. We left the city when I was about six, but I loved going back there for weekends and holidays. Naturally I wanted to delve into the history to discover what my parents’ experiences might have been. Neither are around anymore for me to question – and when I was younger, to my lasting shame, I wasn’t interested.

Will Kidd is a merchant seaman. That also has its roots in my family. My mother’s father was a ship’s captain, her grandfather was an able seaman and she had uncles and cousins in Ireland who were seamen. When I began to research the background for the book, I was shocked by the enormous toll the largely unsung heroes of the merchant navy paid in the war to keep Britain fed and armed. 

The port of Liverpool was pivotal to this as most of the transatlantic traffic came through the Liverpool docks. This was why the city suffered such heavy bombings as Nazi Germany intended to destroy the port and hence bring Britain to its knees. The sailors undertaking those Atlantic crossings had the dice stacked against them as Hitler, with his wolf packs of U-boats and squadrons of German bombers based on the west coast of France, made the voyages a perilous endeavour. By the end of the war 2,232 merchant ships had been lost in the North Atlantic.

My digging and reading unearthed another source of inspiration – the treatment of Italian nationals in Britain after Mussolini entered the war. I was aware that many were interned and knew a. lot of them had been sent to the Isle of Man and incarcerated in hotels and camps. What I didn’t know was what happened to those less fortunate. 

When Winston Churchill issued the order to “collar the lot”, the Home Office took him at his word and every Italian man over sixteen was rounded up. Many found themselves on the Arandora Star, bound for internment in Canada. A former luxury cruise liner, the ship didn’t get very far as it was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland, with great loss of life – mostly Italians. The survivors – and many other “aliens” were then put on another ship, the Dunera, bound for Australia. 

The treatment meted out to the Italian and German POWs by British guards on that ship was utterly shameful. Once I had read about it, I had to include this episode in the book. Incidents such as these are often air-brushed out of history, but the truth is usually far more nuanced.

HMT Dunera in 1940 (Wikimedia Commons)

The other area I wanted to focus on is the way war impacted civilians: the ever-present fear of air raids, the need for frugality and rationing, the desire to help others by volunteering. It is hard to imagine how it must have felt, night after night, hearing the wail of sirens and having to take shelter in a damp tin-roofed hole in the back garden, under the kitchen table or under the stairs. 

The sheer gut-wrenching fear of those aeroplanes roaring overhead, the deafening explosions and the horror of emerging to find your house now a pile of rubble. More than four thousand people were killed in the Merseyside bombing raids. Ten thousand homes were completely destroyed, a further 16,400 seriously damaged and 45,500 sustaining some form of damage. Amidst this destruction, there were countless acts of heroism and an indomitable spirit that ensured that throughout the war, the port of Liverpool never stopped functioning.

Liverpool centre in Blitz
(Ministry of Information Photo Division official photographer, 
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks for inviting me to give you some background on what inspired me to write Sisters at War. I hope the book will bring some awareness about the often-forgotten true history behind my story.

Clare Flynn

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About the Author

Clare Flynn is the author of thirteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer.  Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveler, her books are often set in exotic locations. Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, ALLi, and the Romantic Novelists Association. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano.  Find out more at Clare's website https://clareflynn.co.uk/ and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @clarefly

1 June 2021

Special Guest Post by Kate Abley, Author of Hausa Blue

 Available at Amazon UK and Amazon US

From the contaminated capital to moth-eaten Bengal, a multi-racial British Empire is getting round to revolution. Will the Queen’s imposter be released from the Tower of London? Who can she be now?

Thank you so much for inviting to your guest post today, it is wonderful that you provide this platform for authors and resource for readers. I have enjoyed having to work out why I wrote Hausa Blue. I usually ponder a few ideas until a story forms vaguely in my mind. Then, I start writing and only stop when it takes me to a place where I need to do a bit more research. So, writing about my motivation has been a challenge. Here goes.

I love historical novels but I also wanted to write something that reflects the cultural makeup of the UK now. To do that I had to invent a slightly different British history. The story in Hausa Blue may appear quite unusual, but the research behind it is traditionally of the same sort as any historical fiction. I spent a great deal of time reading and taking notes about the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, Africa and India, as well as long hours in the British Museum examining artifacts.

The research is the environment for a story. The characters and their actions lead the drama. Dipa, the young dress-makers daughter, paces up and down her cell in the Tower of London as former queens are wont to do. She doesn’t know why the charge of treason has been dropped, why the guards are not beating her any more, or why they have changed their uniforms. All she knows is that there is a New Management in the British Empire that she ruled over before she was found out.

If she is going to be released, she must reveal how a good girl like her washed her face and hands before she went to meet the woman who would embroil her in a life of lies and very well-dressed debauchery.

As Dipa confesses of the extravagance and decadence of the Aristoi class she was so willing to join, we learn about the Lady Aditi Egremont-Cooch-Bahar, rich, beautiful and from one of the most influential families in the Empire who is undisputed queen of the Yangans, the ‘it-girls’ of this world.

Aditi is clever too, but has played one too many japes She has escaped to the other side of the world and the land of some of her forefathers. Brewing in her mind is a sort of plan to turn the tide back in her favour, all she needs is the right equipment.

I was motivated because a subject that has interested me since my teens, British Colonial history, began to become part of the news. The distortions that this topic has suffered from, both past and present, are a source of great frustration.

I am a Londoner, born and bred, and was brought up in Notting Hill Gate, where many of the first and second generations of black people from the Caribbean were my friends and neighbours. I was lucky enough to be one of the first generations that considers migration and immigration to be not just normal, but beneficial to the capital and our United Kingdom.

I was also fortunate that my parents, both Londoners themselves, took the time to take me, my brother and sister on a myriad of trips and visits. We explored the well-known destinations like the Tower of London, and less well-known parts of London, including the slippery cobbles of Covent Garden when it was a vegetable market, the East End Docks looming in all their grimy dereliction, the bustle of Fleet Street when it was alive with newspaper and magazine employees and bagel shops in Whitechapel as well as many other places that are now entirely different. Through these journeys, I learned that London has had ties with the rest of the world for centuries, some good and some bad, through trade, commerce, culture and banking. I wanted my story to reflect this; the good and bad in our past.

When I grew up I became a nursery and reception teacher and worked for many years in the East End of London. By that time the Bangla Town we know and love had come into being and again I learned. This time it was about the rich and majestic history of Bengal, arguably the true birth place of the British Empire, which became both a part of India and also what is now Bangladesh.

It was these experiences, that led me to want to question the current idea of Cultural Appropriation. The idea that people of one race, particularly the white ones, should not take narratives, visual or musical tropes from other, mainly black and brown, cultures. White writers have been criticised for writing black characters, celebrities have been admonished for ‘appropriating’ black hair styles and many people who have shown appreciation for a culture into which they were not born are told to ‘stay in their lane’.

But I had grown up with an understanding that all the cultures should belong to everyone. I believe it is not a crime, but a duty to learn and love as many diverse ways of seeing and being as one can.

I will never inhabit a black skin, I have never been to Bengal nor 1814 for that matter. I have never made a dress, fought in a war or pretended to be a member of the Royal Family. Luckily, I am a human being and can imagine these things, and, hopefully, use words to enable the reader to do the same thing.

I understand that that accusations of Cultural Appropriation come from the entirely justifiable anger and grief caused by the actual appropriation, by mainly white people, of the land, the resources and worst of all the people, who are black or brown, not just in history but into the present. But when I take an idea, which after all can be owned by as many minds as hold it, from someone, we are both richer.

If we do not share culture we are all the poorer for it. In addition, there is an argument that says it is when two cultures come up to each other that both are renewed and develop. Anyone who has enjoyed Hamlet and his entourage sharing the Wakanda salute, as I did in an RSC production with a mainly black cast a few years ago, will agree with me.

It was these experiences and ideas that led me to create an alternative, multi-racial, British Empire.

So how could such a thing plausibly come into being? In my opinion, the late 17th and early 18th centuries were probably the only times where such an eventuality could have occurred. These were times of immense social and economic change, the first when more than the odd exceptional individual of low birth could achieve great wealth and power, and the first when the ideas of equality and justice for all were widespread. Thus, I invented ‘The Discord of 1814’, where a Hanoverian king George overcame prejudices of various kinds to make an African princess his queen. This means that the royal family in my story, as well as most upper-class families are multi-racial.

You might recognise the cover image on the cover of Hausa Blue. I am fascinated with the woman who this 17th pectoral mask represents.

The beauty and craftsmanship are gorgeous but I think knowing a little about who the mask represents adds to its wonder. She is thought to be Queen Idia of the kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria. She was a great warrior who is said to have led many battles against the enemies her son the Ibo, or king.

The mask forms part of the collection known as the Benin Bronzes, which were ‘appropriated’ in 1896 and many of which now reside in the British Museum.

Next time you’re in London, you might enjoy a trip to see the exquisite metal, wood and ivory work of the Benin Bronzes, which date from the 1600s. I go to the British Museum quite often, to look at the beautiful Queen Idia, as well as many other favourites. So you never know, we may bump into each other.

Kate Abley

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About the author

Kate Abley was accidentally born and now intentionally lives in London, England, where, amongst other things she has been an awful front woman in a psychobilly band, good dish-washer, bad shop assistant, officially outstanding Early Years teacher, nice charitable fund-giver and failed political activist. Last century, she wrote the non-fiction book, ‘Swings and Roundabouts: The Dangers of Outdoor Play Safety’ (1999). Nowadays, she is a respectable and happily married woman with two children who have grown-up pretty well and she has turned her hand to killing plants and writing stories. She published her first novel, Changing the Subject, in 2019.  Find out more at Kate Abley‘s website: kateabley.com and follow her on  Facebook and Twitter @AbleyKate