Writing people or writing stuff?

dumpingTalking online with some colleagues about historical and alternative historical writing, the conversation inevitably turned to research and how it was woven in or dripped into the story. We all declaimed against the dreaded info dump when the poor reader gets a JCB bucket size load of history book content poured on them. But how much period or descriptive detail is the right amount?

I’m the minimalist type like many thriller writers. I give the reader enough to form their own picture of where and what, and to see the bare winter trees or sniff the air. Writers must also include some elements of backstory and context or the reader doesn’t feel engaged. But it should relate to the narrative of the story and not be there because the writer has done some wonderful research.

So far, so normal.

Elizabeth I at Tilbury

Elizabeth I at Tilbury facing the Spanish Armada

But there’s another strong factor to consider: what type of tone and style is the story? Is it literary, a learned, almost non-fiction in its meticulous portrayal of a dramatised version of documented history or an adventure, action story where plot is the main driver or a romantic story or saga where the lives of the characters are the focus of the book?  Is the writer seeking to bring in every detail of events of the period  and their effect on history, to describe every hook, lace and braid, or to draw some universal truth, lesson or interpretation about people by playing their story out as it may have happened in a past era, or to engage them in a very personal and emotional story which happens to have a historical setting? Or to describe technological change in detail, or social revolution? Or a mixture of any of these?

P&PcoverWhilst I dislike deliberately ignored or changed important facts such as who won a battle or married a different prince, and am irritated by smaller ones that can be easily checked such as purple fabric dye or potatoes, I’m not a historical fiction snob. Historical-lite is as valuable as historical-serious as long as it’s well done. Stories about great events written in a high style prose appeal to some ‘histfic’ readers; others enjoy personal stories, military tales or Regency fluff.

Historical fiction embraces many types and tastes. Some write about people, some about stuff, some about a mixture of both. And it’s always the reader’s choice what they pick up and read.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, and PERFIDITAS. Third in series, SUCCESSIO, is now out.

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