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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Writing the Historical Novel

by John H. Manhold

For many years, I had written nothing but textbooks and scientific research papers. It was my job and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. Several years ago, I retired, but remained quite active and in demand as a consultant. In the more recent past, a number of people seeking my help began to wonder how much longer it might be available, and began looking for a new source.

Having been accustomed to a ten to twelve-hour day, the gradual decrease in workload left me with unwanted time on my hands. From a newsletter I receive as an emeritus member of the scientific society, Sigma Xi, I discovered I was not alone in this situation. Fortunately, my wife suggested I write a novel. The thought to me was quite unique and jolted my own thought processes. After more than sixty years of searching for facts and condensing all verbalization to minimal proportions, would it be possible to write a novel? The writing method was totally reversed. Instead of condensing all of the material, there would be a need to expand it. The thought became more intriguing the longer it simmered.

Historical novels always have been favorites of mine since I first was introduced to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and then to works of James Fennimore Cooper, and others. If I were going to write a novel, this appeared to be the best type to attempt. Furthermore, research is what I do and have done for many years.

By definition, a historical novel is one whose story deals with people and events of a period preceding one's own, and more usually by a considerable amount of time. The definition provides a wide latitude in which to operate, and some writers follow only loosely a historical thread.

To me, a novel in this genre must pick its time and follow closely the geography, as well as the mores, of that period. This does not apply to languages, of course. If the time selected is far enough removed from the present, attempts to provide differences not only would be awkward, but usually also would not be well accepted by the reader. The same applies to dealing with a foreign language. Inclusion of too many foreign words or phrases, especially italicized, interferes with the smoothness of word flow in a passage.

With respect to following the mores of a specific period in time, a bit more research may be required than one normally would believe. Mores vary significantly from time to time, culture to culture, and most importantly, from one geographical area to another. And a bit of explanation of the differences easily may be included in the body of your story. I have found that three or four pages of explanatory text often are well received. It may not be totally palatable to a few readers, but overall, most will enjoy learning something new and, if the material can be adequately condensed and included as part of the overall story, as it must be, it often is enjoyed enough to be mentioned favorably in reviews. Similar inclusions are worthwhile if it aids or clarifies a pertinent bit of history.

Geography is the second most important consideration for the historical novelist. One must remember that the world's topography is, and has been, constantly changing. European countries no longer look as they did even a few years ago. I remember living outside of Marbella, Spain some twenty years ago, in a small villa right on the seashore. I returned there five years ago and could find the place only after an intense search. The area is unrecognizable with myriad small houses crowding the once beautiful and spacious expanse.

So, any persons finding themselves in a similar situation, might keep these thoughts in mind, and prepare to embark on the journey of writing a historical novel. Just remember as an additional aside, that writing about something with which you are familiar makes the task much more enjoyable and considerably easier. Don't try to write about the 'Silk Road' in China, unless you at least have been in similar terrain, and have researched the history quite thoroughly.


About the Author: John H. Manhold is a retired professor and scientific journal editor. He is an author of several textbooks, a lexicon in four languages and now novels that often require extensive research. He provides coaching on various types and phases of writing. Please see John Manhold ( for more information, and an address.

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