Writing historical fiction, by Cora Harrison

Cora Harrison, author of Debutantes and I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend, shares her tips for writing historical fiction.

Debutantes by Cora Harrison

Start with pictures. That's the first of my tips for writing historical fiction.

Now these pictures can come from something you read, from a real picture, or best of all, perhaps, from a DVD. I say a DVD because you can watch it again and again. Don't start writing until your mind is full of scenes from the past – scenes of people eating, fighting, dressing, dancing at balls, journeying across the sea, travelling through the countryside. What are they wearing? What does their hair look like? What do they eat? Were forks invented then? What about spoons? How is their food cooked?

Write what you know

The second tip is probably to set your story in a place that you know about, or one that you can imagine vividly. When I was writing my second book about Jane Austen as a teenage girl, Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend, I spent three days in Bath, walking in the streets, visiting the Assembly Rooms - which have been restored to what they looked like in her day - wandering around the costume museum and gazing up at the windows of a house where she visited. I also bought a street map of Bath and as I wrote I had it open beside my computer.

Love what you do

A third tip is: don't write historical fiction unless you love it. I write a lot of it – about 40 books so far – because I have always found it to be my favourite type of book. I had an odd childhood because between the ages of 7 and 14 I was continually ill, continually in and out of hospital, or spending months in bed at home, and these were the years when I read continuously.

I used to love Walter Scott's historical novels and books like Lorna Doone and I used to draw the ladies in those stories (very badly), then cut them out, and make beautiful dresses from paper to attach, with little tabs, to my ladies. And then in the humps and hollows of my bedclothes I used to make ballrooms, or mountains for them to ride over and rescue the hero in deadly danger, or drawing rooms and gardens where they could flirt with young men, or a palace in London where they came to meet the king or queen of the time.

Do your research

So before the story must come a love of the past. Then, I think, has to come the detailed research. I don't think it works – it certainly doesn't work for me – to dream up a story and then add on period details. I think these sorts of books always seem as though the author is trying to feed information to the reader rather than immerse them in a different world. In fact, I do think that you must love history and have a fair knowledge of it before you start to write historical novels.

For my research into the 1920s for my book Debutantes I have shelves of books written at that time – Galsworthy, the Mitford Sisters, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Scott Fitzgerald... but again for lots of people watching the DVD might work out best. In fact, for anyone who wants to write about that time the DVD of The Great Gatsby is wonderful and really does fill your mind with pictures of the clothes, the attitudes, the dancing and the music of the time. Or perhaps the DVDs of The House of Elliott television series.

The twenties were such exciting times when suddenly young people became very important and they went out and had fun and wild parties with noisy jazz and the girls wore their dresses so short that older people were quite shocked. And when they invented treasure hunts doing ridiculous things like chasing all over London collecting objects like a policeman's braces for holding up his trousers, it set the whole country discussing these 'bright young things'.

Keep asking questions

Once you have the background in your mind very clearly, you can then focus on making up the story, but you are not finished with the research. Almost every page you write, questions suddenly come into your mind. Did a 1920s girl fasten her shoe with a lace, or with a strap? What were her stockings made of? What does a dance programme look like? How much room did you have to squeeze in the names on it? Did you write them in pen, or in pencil? How did people travel around the streets of London in that time? Were there buses? What did they look like? Was it ordinary for girls to travel alone on them?

The questions keep coming and probably a huge advantage that modern writers have is that you can quickly Google a lot of them and not interrupt the flow of your writing in order to go to a library, or even search through your bookshelves. But I do think that it is terribly important to have the historical background very clearly in your mind before ever you start, otherwise your characters will be wooden – or like my little dolls, just made from paper. The characters in a historical novel must rise out of their background, not have a background painted behind them.

So, perhaps the best advice of all is: don't write a historical novel unless you know and love the historical period in which your story is set.