Writing Historical Fiction: The Pros of Writing About Real People

Wolf Hall. Regeneration. The Other Boleyn Girl. Some of my favourite historical fiction is based on the life of a real person, and I’m not alone in this. Stroll through the shelves of a library and bookshops and there’s countless books about the wives of Henry VIII, the families of the Wars of the Roses, stories about real writers, real artists, real Kings.

And why wouldn’t you? There are so many good reasons to write your historical novel about a real person and luckily for you, I’ve written them all down in a handy list so that you can take on a massive project to slave over for the next few years, ready for me to read when I’ve got through my current TBR.

Pro #1: Your plot and timeline are already sorted

There we go. Job done. All the major action points are there for you, which saves you having to think about that pesky plot. You already know how long it’s going to take for your person to rise to the top of the court because it’s already written down for you! Literally all you have to do is follow the roadmap your character conveniently created for you. And fill in all the blanks and try to explain to your reader why they did that, but shush, that’s for the cons list.

Pro #2: Established characterisation (but not too much)

Your research will already tell you that your character is strong-willed and intelligent, but with a soft spot for the ladies, which can help when filling in the blanks plot spots (WHY did he betray his best friend?) but you also have the space to make the character yours.

The books might tell you that she had a habit of speaking before thinking, but the fact that her nostrils flare when she’s angry or that she finds walking in the garden good for her mind is all your own.

Pro #3: You already have a cast of characters

This is the last point that means you can be lazy, honest. But if you are writing about a real person, you already have the names and knowledge of their friends, their enemies, their lovers, their boss. And that saves you from having to do one of those horrible character questionnaire activities, at the very least.

Pro #4: You can bring unknown people into the spotlight

How many people even knew that Anne Boleyn had a sister before the Other Boleyn Girl? How many people thought about the lives of a royal mistress at court and the impact that they could have?

I love reading books about relatively unknown people, like Mary Boleyn. I’ve noticed more of these kind of books around a lot more, and they’re usually about women. I also think this is a good thing. There are so many men in history that we forget about all the women who must have been behind the scenes.

Pro #5: You can trigger a new interest in a subject

Until I read Burial Rites, I had forgotten that Iceland had a history, or had no idea how female murderers would treated.

Until I read The Secret River, I’d never thought about the lives of those British convicts sent to Australia. Both of these books opened my eyes to real people and new situations that I’d never thought about.

By writing about a real person, it can sometimes feel more grounded in fact, and can set off a sudden desperation to read everything ever written on that person, subject, or event to compare between everything. This is a good thing. I think.

Pro #6: You can change the way people think about someone

As a big nerd and fan of Anne Boleyn, I despised Thomas Cromwell as the architect of her ruin. Then I read Wolf Hall.

Your novel can literally shape the way that somebody thinks about a historical person. It gives you a chance to explore the myths around certain people and either dispel them or add to the story. You can challenge long-held views that they were a whore, or an ambitious serpent, or even that they were a lovely person.

Sometimes it can be as simple as letting the world know that this person existed and that their story matters too.

Pro #7: It places characters back into history

When you just learn the tit-bits of someone’s life, the basic bullet points of what they did and why this means they’re being talked about in the classroom, it can be difficult to understand them. They become a caricature of themselves, throwing chicken bones over their shoulder, or are just too far away from us in time to understand why they would do something like go and watch a beheading for fun.

But when you write about a historical person, you’re putting them back into context. If you do it right, suddenly your reader understands so much more about both your character and the time they’re in. They understand the bloody world that they lived in, the feelings that religion stirred up in people, and why your characters decision to do XYZ was actually so shocking at the time.

So, what are you waiting for?!

Oh, you’re waiting for the cons list to talk you out of taking on a massive novel idea. Don’t worry, they’ll be here in the next post.

If you’re looking for some inspiration about who to write about, why not check out this post too?

Elizabethan Women You’ve Never Heard of

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2 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction: The Pros of Writing About Real People

  1. Love a bit of historical fiction! I actually wrote a short story children’s book that is based in fact, to hopefully get kids to learn something about history as they read, a few years ago. It was really fun – and as you say, I could bring storylines that really happened and weave them into my story.

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