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10 November 2020

Five tips: How reading helps you write historical fiction

Caroline Beecham, Author
by Caroline Beecham From Our Students, Writing Tips

Caroline Beecham studied on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2015 and has gone on to write three novels. Caroline is currently working on a fourth novel for publication in 2022, as well as adapting her first novel Maggie’s Kitchen as a drama series.

Here Caroline talks about the power of reading and how it is particularly important when you’re writing historical fiction.

My new novel Finding Eadie is a historical mystery about the power books have to change lives. Its inspired by real events, and set in the publishing world of London and New York during the Second World War. It’s the story of a young woman, Alice Cotton, who shows extraordinary resilience as she manages to cleverly combine her search for her missing child with the challenge of creating much needed books during wartime.

When I was researching my second novel Eleanor’s Secret I discovered that the public read even more in wartime – for distraction, entertainment and information – as did servicemen and women. The thought of how significant reading must have been for them to escape into different worlds really sparked something in me. Alice and Theo’s worlds crystalized when I found the settings in Fitzrovia in London and Fifth Avenue in New York, and an area called Book Row that had seven blocks of books – imagine that!.

Since my new novel is about the power of reading I thought it only right to share my thoughts on how important reading is in the writing of novels too:

Read widely but especially in your genre

You will no doubt have heard this advice before and that’s probably because it’s one of the most significant influences on your work. Not only are you doing your market research by seeing what readers are enjoying and what’s popular, but it can be really stimulating. I know I always write better when I’m immersed in a compelling read; it’s a pleasure while also analysing the book’s appeal and why it’s working so well.

The nuts and bolts of writing

Writing is a craft and we are constantly learning, so by reading other people’s work you can look at the structure, plot and character development, and writing styles. It will expose you to a variety of stylistic devices – some of which you might already use and others you wish you could do better. It will improve your vocabulary, you will hear a number of difference ‘voices’, and it will give you a discipline that you need to be a full-time writer.

Plan your reading

Many readers already have a sense of the Second World War era through books, film and TV, so as a writer you have to work hard to create a unique and believable world. Visiting the locations helped me create the sense of place in my first two novels but since we can’t travel overseas at the moment, the role of books in research is indispensable. But this also means focusing on exactly what books you need so that you don’t spend a lot of time on unnecessary reading and going down rabbit holes.

Be organised with your reading resources

Whether you are an intuitive writer or a plotter, being organized is a really important part of the process. I remember getting tied up in knots with my first novel because I had so much material that it was only by creating spreadsheets half way through that it rescued me. This is really important with historical fiction if your story is based on real events, and because of all the documented accounts that already exist; readers will expect you to get it right and there will be irate emails if you don’t! I’m using scrivener on my fourth novel, which is a great tool as you can keep everything to do with your novel in the one place.

Look beyond local libraries and bookshops                               

Don’t just rely on new books but look at older editions, specialist book web sites  and fossick around secondhand bookshops to find unusual reads that might give a unique insight or little know history that adds a new element. This extends to institutions too; for instance, I discovered that London Zoo not only stayed open during wartime but it thrived. By trawling the archives at London Zoological Society I found wonderful stories about real keepers and animals, such as the boy keepers who took over during wartime that I’ve included in Finding Eadie.

The past year has shown how important books can be as more people have turned to reading during lockdown, so hopefully the opportunities for writers will continue to grow too. Happy reading and writing!

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