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- author Jackie French

Thursday 21 November 2019

Guest Post: Nikki McWatters on Ten Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

Author Nikki McWatters knows a thing or two about historical fiction. This November, the final novel in her historical young adult series will be released. The series crosses many eras and historical events – all of which needed meticulous research to ensure they were factual but appealing to a younger readership. Read on for her top tips.

1. Don’t let research intimidate you. You are unearthing treasure and that’s exciting.
Think Indiana Jones! Think pirate treasure! I love researching for my books because when I find a gem of a fact that fits so perfectly, I shout eureka at the top of my voice and freak my entire family out. 

Listen to this true story! I was writing about a girl who was a nanny to Charles Dickens who told him scary stories and I called her Mercy (a name I’ve always loved) and later while I was researching Dickens’ early childhood I stumbled upon an essay where he spoke of a nanny he had at about the age of three who told him terrifying tales and he only remembered her first name....Mercy! Eureka!

2. Research as you go and as you need it.
Let the story and characters unravel on the page and just research as you need it rather than doing it all before hand. That way you won’t waste time doing superfluous research.

3. Historical information must be the soundtrack.
Always, always, always make the story driven by plot and character and let the historical detail of setting and time and place be the background, whispering soundtrack otherwise it will drown out the story and become a history lesson. 

4. Human nature doesn’t change but attitudes do.
When fleshing out historical characters always remember that a person in 1000 A.D or 1812 or 2019 will feel love, fear, anger and most human emotion almost exactly the same. But the lens through which they analyse their emotions may be coloured by the attitudes and social and cultural beliefs of the day. For example, falling in love these days is a straightforward and positive thing. You fall in love, date and possibly plan and look forward to a life together but in medieval France falling in love might have been thrilling but it was also dangerous because no-one married for love then. Marriages were organised by the captain of the town, taking into account class, status and how the alliance would benefit the community, so falling in love could mean that you knew from the start that it would end in bitter disappointment. 

5. Small details over big facts.
Readers don’t need the facts and figures, dates of battles, exact number of soldiers. A tiny detail like: King Louis’ shoes were pink with fancy bows and had very high heels is much more interesting. In general steer away from big, bold, overarching facts and steep the story in the smells and flavours of the time. The little things lend authenticity.

6. Don’t betray the reader’s trust.
You have to present history accurately. Of course you may not get every last detail right but for significant things, if you can’t find out the facts, leave it out. Don’t just make things up no matter how tempting. If you have glaring historical continuity flaws your readers won’t trust you or the characters.

7. Don’t lard your language with odd historicisms.
Don’t fill the book with obtuse and archaic language. Words like ‘forsooth’  and ‘egad’ should remain dead and buried. Stodgy language will just annoy the reader. On the other hand don’t use modern language in a historical setting. Mary Shelley for example would never say ‘that’s totally lit!’

8. Don’t present facts, play with them.
Historical details should be woven like a fine thread through the narrative not presented like a fact chart.  

9. Metaphors and similes should never time travel.
Don’t ever write that a Victorian era character had eyes that glistened in the dark like a laptop screen or that the stallion in the Irish Rebellion was as fast as a Ferrari! 

10. Leave the pantry door shut.
Too much accurate historical detail is just showing off. You can say the kitchen had a pantry without listing everything in it!

Nikki McWatters was shortlisted in the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary
Award Emerging Writer category. She has published two memoirs: One Way or
Another (2012) and Madness, Mayhem and Motherhood (2018); and four young
adult novels: Sandy Feet (2014), Hexenhaus (2016) , Liberty (2018) and Saga (2019). She won the Irish Moth Award (2016) and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, HuffingtonPost UK and The Big Issue. She is currently the spokesperson for the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout. Nikki also has a law degree in her bottom drawer somewhere.


Keep an eye out for our revealing 12 Curly Questions to unearth even more about Nikki. Coming soon!