Posted by: kljolly | February 8, 2014

Writing Historical Fiction

I have been writing chapters on Aldred for about two years and am beginning to reflect on the process as well as how to move forward.

My first stage of writing a new chapter starts from some text that Aldred copied, glossed, or might have read.  I imagine a scene or encounter linked to the text and then start exploring it until I reach some kind of conclusion or point where I seem to stop as the historian.

The second stage involves rethinking the whole thing on the rule of “show, don’t tell.”  This means I rewrite explanatory sections into dialogue or interior monologues, or anything but the teacher voice in me.  I may add characters or drama to bring it to life.

Here is where I usually stop, but feel the need to finish out the second stage by adding more sensory life:  sights, smells, sounds, touch, feelings beyond thoughts.

bedeHowever, I have a stage three in mind that I don’t know how to tackle, yet.  It has to do with language and spiritual depth.

On the language side of this equation, I find my prose dull, trite, uninspiring, not thought-provoking.  I enjoy writers with either a natural style of language that is deceptively simple and yet words well chosen and evocative (Tolkien) or those unusual combinations of words that stop you in your tracks (Pratchett, on the humor side at least).  Not that I want to sound like either of those authors, but I want my authorial voice to have some kind of richness, while staying close to the Old English environment of my characters and story.

For me, this language problem is tied to my goal to have some kind of spiritual depth, a book that makes you ponder life issues and truths (again, Tolkien, but not Harry Potter).  I need to dive deep but have not done so, yet.

I am also wondering if I might benefit from going to an intensive writing workshop or retreat, just to plumb those depths.  Two that came to my attention recently are: the Glen Workshop (the western one includes a favorite poet, Scott Cairns); and the Ecumenical Collegeville Institute at St. John’s College in Minnesota, where I took a sabbatical in 1995.

This summer’s plans are already in the works, including a visit to Aldred’s stomping grounds in England, but maybe next summer?


  1. Hi Karen
    I think the language thing and your stage 3 are the most challenging – finding the authorial ‘voice’ that is also appropriate to the subject/period. I decided some time ago that as both early medieval English and early medieval Welsh literature seem to favour alliteration, I would allow it to creep into the text. In my ‘normal’ writing, I studiously avoid anything of the sort! But when it comes to the spiritual, I suspect that you have a head start on the rest of us, because it is central to your subject matter. I have decided that it is just too hard for me to get into the mind set of anyone early medieval and I certainly avoid any simplistic ‘early Christian’ thought patterns because my ignorance in that area is almost total. Easier for you, though?
    PS interesting that you like Pratchett. So do I, but someone set one of his books for my book group recently and half of the crew thought he was awful! Perhaps it helps to be an historian. There are so many gorgeous resonances.

  2. Thanks for the encouraging words, Sally. I have in fact made use of alliteration as well as tried to use Old English based words.
    As for the spirituality, I have noticed a number of historical fiction books that don’t “get” it. One author who does is Frederick Buechner–Godric and Brendan are both great medieval stories, and On the Road with the Archangel is the Tobit story from the Apocrypha.
    I have never met someone who did not like Pratchett!

  3. I had an plot for a historical novel come to mind set a bit later (more high medieval). As I began conceptualizing it and thinking through scenes set in a monastic cathedral it gave me great insight into just how much I don’t know despite this being my field of study! It’s amazing how asking questions on a basic level of description and narration open us to new perspectives…

  4. If you haven’t already I recommend you read James Goldman’s brilliant novel on King John told through the chronicle entries of Giraldus Cambrensts; “Myself as Witness”.

  5. Thanks, Kevin. It isn’t easy to get a copy but I will keep an eye out for it, perhaps this summer at Powell’s in Portland.

  6. The reason I mentioned Goldman is that you mentioned your difficulty with achieving a style. The novel is terse, sparse, episodic, written in the form of chronicle entries. Forgive me for any presumption but have you thought of such an approach here, perhaps with your narrator compiling his thoughts long after the event? It would allow a contemplation as well as the introduction of other chronicles, prayers, treatises etc and have the great advantage of ‘distance’ and selectivity.

    • Actually, this is exactly what I have been contemplating. I have been taking an episodic approach (using Roland Barthes “biographeme”). For the Brunanburh chapter, I have an elderly Aldred reflecting on the battle and his 19 year old experience, moving back and forth in time while he is reading Boethius. I had not thought of having him compile a memoir overall, though. That would change all of the narrative to first person, rather than the third person omniscient narrator I am currently using.

  7. […] the outward appearance, though as a historian I am compelled to get both right.  As I noted in an earlier post, I see a need to take my writing a step further in terms of language and depth of meaning.  I am […]

  8. I always thought third person omniscient narrators made more sense for prose set in times when manuscript production would only be affordable for lives of kings or saints’ lives. Memoirs or even personal chronicles which would appear in first person just wouldn’t seem viable to me. I think such personal stories of less notable subjects would lend themselves to the style of oral transmission, which would naturally introduce an omniscient perspective. On the other hand, it comes to mind that poems like the Dream of the Rood and quite some Scandinavian poems do use first person narrative when utilizing anthropomorphous inanimate objects as narrators. I am slowly dabbling in my own novel-writing, and may well use this as a tool myself – though as a tool this has its limitations – for example I intend to use it in the context of internal monologue, when the monk, in managing his crisis of faith confronts the cross… But perhaps you may also find a use for this idea? (I am also totally standing on the shoulders of your “Cross and Culture” and making heavy use of “Popular Religion…” in general – big fan).

  9. Yes, your technique is one that I am experimenting with in order to bring in the voice of a non-human actor (God, saints). In one chapter Aldred has a dream-vision reminiscent of the Dream of the Rood (with a touch of Elene and Beowulf!).
    Looking back over this post, I can now add that I did indeed attend a writing workshop that gave me some new directions in writing. I was about to write a new post about recreating tenth century liturgical rituals like infant baptism but am also confronting start of classes today.

  10. Of course! It must be midday in your time-zone (it is half past nine pm here, hence my long-winded posts) I thought as much, naturally at this stage, deeper into the novel, you have more wisdom to share, I eagerly await your further posts. In my getting back to writing historical fiction (with a strong Anglo-Saxon monastic undercurrent) this seems the most appropriate blog for it. But I will wait my turn, of course.

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