Wednesday, November 23, 2022

On Writing Historical Fiction by Victoria Chatham



I was recently asked why I  chose to write historical novels, and I needed to think about the answer. The truth is, I was not too fond of history when I was in school. Other than the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, dates meant nothing to me. I don’t think I once correctly listed the succession of kings starting with Edward 1. Nor could I tell you the dates of the Wars of the Roses or the Great Fire of London. As for the English Civil War, without resorting to Google, I can only tell you that the combatants were the Parliamentarians, or Roundheads, led by Oliver Cromwell, on one side and the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who supported Charles 1, on the other.

The first historical novel I remember reading was The Sun in Splendour by Jean Plaidy, and, for
once, history came alive. After that, I started looking more closely at historical fiction and found that history was not just about dates. It was about people who had lived in different eras, whether they were rich, privileged people at the top of the tree, or the lowly commoner. Catherine Cookson set most of her novels in Northeast England. Georgette Heyer’s characters populated London and wherever their country seats might be, while several had adventures in France or Spain. I enjoyed C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, who served in His Majesty’s Royal Navy and then the adventures of Bernard Cornwall’s British soldier, Sharpe.  

In writing my historical novels, I have envied colleagues who still have family papers, whether letters or diaries. In my family, very little of our history survives. Thanks to dedicated cousins on my mother’s and father’s sides of my family, I know something of it now. As much as I enjoy research, building family trees was never something I wanted to get into, possibly because of all those dates of births, marriages, and deaths, or hatches, matches and despatches, as my maternal grandmother used to say.

History may seem like a thing of the past, but the truth is we live in history all the time, and what we know today may make dusty reading for some teenagers in the future. While we hark back to the Regency or Victorian eras, more recent histories set during WWII are still popular. I won’t apologize for referencing English history because that is what I know best, but history happens everywhere. Ancient Egypt was the setting for several novels by Pauline Gedge and Wilbur Smith, the latter giving a vivid depiction of South Africa in many more of his novels.

History can be fascinating whether you enjoy it in fiction or non-fiction, movies or television series. Wherever you find it, I hope you enjoy it too.

Victoria Chatham






  1. So very glad you found history. I enjoy your books.

    1. Thank you, Janet. It was a surprise to me, I can tell you!

  2. I love it when authors of historical novels do their research well and get the facts and dates accurately. But I agree that what makes history come alive is the characters' struggles in a particular time period. As a child, I was reading Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and fell in love with stories of the past.

    1. For me it was R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. I think my favourite depiction of Heathcliff was by the actor Ian McShane.

  3. I remember Jean Pilady very well and read all I could find in the little lending library in Bridgetown, W.I. My favorite-favorites, though were Margaret Campbell Barnes, & Margaret Irwin. ;)

    1. Thank you for the reminder, Juliet. I read Campbell Barnes' My Lady of Cleves and The Passionate Brood years ago, but the only book of Irwin's I read was Young Bess. I should revisit them.


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