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The History Quill Lists Dos And Don’ts For Historical Fiction Authors: Creating Better Books, With Howard Lovy

The History Quill Lists Dos and Don’ts for Historical Fiction Authors: Creating Better Books, with Howard Lovy

On today's podcast, Howard Lovy features Edward Ferrari-Willis, Executive Editor of The History Quill, whose aim is to provide historical fiction writers with expert support at every stage of the writing journey.

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Listen to the Podcast: The History Quill

On the Creating Better Books podcast, @howard_lovy features @ewgw28, executive editor of @TheHistoryQuill, which provides historical fiction writers with support. Click To Tweet

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About the Guest: The History Quill

The History Quill was founded with the aim of providing dedicated support to historical fiction writers at every stage of the writing process. They provide specialist historical fiction editing services, group coaching, and a wealth of resources tailored to the historical fiction genre. They're here because of their deep-rooted passion for history and the stories it inspires, and they have a commitment to excellence in story craft that runs through all of their work.

About the Host

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.comLinkedIn, and X.

Read the Transcripts: The History Quill

Howard Lovy: My guest is Edward Ferrari-Willis, Executive Editor at The History Quill, whose aim is to provide historical fiction writers with expert support at every stage of their writing journey, and I'm sure we'll unpack that and discover what those stages are.

Hi, Edward, welcome to the show.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Hi, Howard, thanks for having me.

Howard Lovy: Great. Before we get into The History Quill, Edward, tell me more about who you are and how you got into this business.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: My journey into fiction editing and the History Quill in particular is one of both passion and luck in that I joined in late 2019, early 2020, joined the History Quill, which was quite soon into the History Quill's existence, actually, it was only set up in 2019.

I joined sort of the tail end of 2019, early 2020, and actually my first contact with them was I wrote a blog. I wrote a blog for them on, {inaudible}, they have a blog that goes out to members on all things research, writing craft, publishing, research, etc. I wrote a blog for them and then was lucky enough to get an email from Andrew Noakes, the founder of the History Quill a couple of weeks later saying, we think you might have some skills that would translate across, and would you be interested in potentially taking an editorial test, and maybe if you pass that, coming on board as a content editor?

I did that, and I suppose the rest is history from that point.

Howard Lovy: Wonderful. You're also an author. Tell us more about what it is you write.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I've been writing, trying to write fiction for a few years’ time. My current work in progress is a novel set in 15th century France. It's set around the French Civil War that's going on concurrent to the Hundred Years War and culminates ultimately in the burning of Joan of Arc.

I'm taking a slightly different approach trying to weave in things like unreliable narration. My narrator is quite an interesting chap by the name of Pierre Couchon, who was a student at the University of Paris and ultimately then the prosecutor of Joan of Arc.

But there's so many interesting themes going on around that period about sort of identification around fake news, ultimately being something very topical over recent years that I think really stood out to me in that period, all the sort of propaganda; he was very involved in that, so it just really stood out to me as an interesting potential topic for a novel.

Howard Lovy: One of the big mantras in the literary or in the writing world is you're supposed to write what you know, but when it comes to historical fiction, you can know the basic events of what happened around the Hundred Years War and Joan of Arc, but there's a lot of guesswork going on too, right?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is one of the real challenges.

For me, in some senses writing that, I was lucky in that parts of the story, the actual trial record of Joan of Arc is probably one of the best-preserved medieval documents actually. In that part of the story there's quite good information and therefore the way that I would treat that would be slightly different to the way that I would treat maybe some of the other areas where there's less documentary evidence, but maybe have a little more room, a little more scope for elaboration and imagination.

I think that's one of the really interesting things generally about historical fiction, isn't it? So much, that all the ethics of it, all the sort of how you approach what's real, how you approach what's possible, what's probable, differentiating between all those.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, do you put yourself in different frames of mind?

Now I'm going off the historical record and okay, now I'm inventing dialogue that may or may not have happened?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, absolutely, I think, as we all have to do all the time writing historical fiction. There are certain things, you want it to be plausible and authentic, I think.

One of the things we often look out for from an editorial point of view is obviously things that are completely anachronistic, things that are totally implausible, where there's a complete factual record contradicting the possibility of that happening.

But obviously, at the same time, there are lots of moments where we weren't in the room where that was happening. Nobody was in the room when it was happening who's gone on to record exactly what happened, and how it happened, and the decisions that were taken, and the dialogue, and thought processes that led to that. So, by definition, we have to imagine, have to try and put ourselves, with as much empathy as possible for different characters, into their shoes and come up with something plausible, interesting, and ultimately engaging to read.

Howard Lovy: What bothers me most are anachronisms, like you say, in dialogue. Sometimes modern phrases are used, unless it's done in kind of a wink and nod to the readers, like a character might use a millennial or Gen-X phrase or something like that.

What are some common pitfalls and mistakes among historical fiction authors?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I think there are probably a few mistakes, and some of those would be things that relate to general fiction. If your plot is not engaging enough, is not driven enough by conflict, by mystery/suspense. If there's not that sort of burning, really interesting question that keeps the reader going. If there's not the tension between the internal and the external, but that would apply to all sorts of fiction. So too with things like if your plot gets It's too episodic and not holistic enough.

But then there are, I think, also the things that would be unique to historical fiction about how you conjure the setting, how you create something that feels both real and immersive enough and interesting enough that you can place yourself there as a reader, but also you want it to feel, I think, quite different, quite foreign; the past is a foreign country.

I think that difference we look at a lot when we're editing, is trying to find a kind of historical neutrality, particularly for things like dialogue that avoids those really modern, dis-immersing terms and phrases and greetings and things, but also that is approachable and accessible enough that not every line is completely impossible to understand for the reader. I think that would definitely be one.

Another thing that I often look out for from an editorial point of view, particularly, is variety, and that would be variety in almost every way. So, variety in how you're conjuring the setting, how you're using different sensory description, using sound and smell and taste and touch. Writers are probably least likely to forget the visual imagery, but they might more often forget to ground that out with different types of imagery.

But then also variety in everything from your sentence lengths that sort of creates a real propulsive rhythm. You can mix up your short, your longs and your mediums nicely, and right through to the sort of devices that you use, whether that's plot devices, whether that's literary devices.

I think generally variety is something that I look for a lot.

Howard Lovy: Just curious, this just came to me. How far back do you need to go for it to be considered historical fiction? I have a book coming out next year that goes back and forth between present day and the 1980s. Is the 1980s historical fiction?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I think people have slightly different definitions, don't they?

You often see 30 years, that's probably the closest definition that you get, is about 30 years ago. Some people prefer sort of 50 years.

But I would say, 1980, it's one of those that feels like it was yesterday, doesn't it? But actually, we're talking 43 years, but certainly dual timeline, where you've got one part of a story happening in the past and one in the present, that would certainly fall under the auspices of historical fiction.

Howard Lovy: Now, historical fiction, I think, is really hot right now in movies and in streaming shows like The Gilded Age or the movie Napoleon. Is that a positive trend when it comes to historical fiction books? Does it increase interest in books?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I think so. I think anything that encourages people to think about the past and place themselves in the past, and ultimately to ask questions about the past.

You gave the example of Napoleon. That's a film that's actually created a huge amount of talk recently about whether the historical liberties that it's taken are acceptable, whether actually they've enhanced or undermined the plot, but it's got people talking.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, I guess I'm thinking about when Napoleon's army shot the lid off of one of the pyramids.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I haven't actually seen the film, but I have heard of that part. I think I read somewhere, the director, Ridley Scott's, answer to that was quite disparaging of historians. I'm not sure I necessarily want to repeat it on air, but I think his answer about it was something along the lines of, nobody was there, so nobody knows.

That's not quite how history works, it's not quite how historical fiction works.

Howard Lovy: That's an answer that you would not necessarily accept from an author who might write that into a piece of historical fiction.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Exactly. I think he's doing that. I think the justification was in the sense that he wanted a quick, succinct way of showing that Napoleon took Egypt, and that is something that authors have to balance as well. Something that's maybe not the key plot point, they might need a shortcut at times to show or tell that a character has done X action or is feeling one emotion. In that sense, it is something that probably authors do have to think about as well, maybe not in exactly the same way, we do have to make sacrifices to do with timing and with ultimately remembering we're telling a story rather than writing a piece as objective as possible.

We could talk about whether history can ever be objective, I'm sure, but there's a big difference between the subjectivity you're aiming for in historical fiction versus the objectivity you're aiming for in history.

Howard Lovy: That's different from sticking to what really happened, but also drawing parallels to current day.

You mentioned in your own work, reference to fake news. So, I think knowledge of history is incredibly important if you want to understand what's in the news today, but how much should these books educate as well as entertain?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: It's a really interesting question. I think when you're writing historical fiction, as opposed to history, that the prime goal always has to be to entertain.

I think often you can educate at the same time, but I think there's a danger sometimes when people go into writing a novel thinking that one of their main aims is to educate, that actually that's one of the points at which it's easy to let too much research fall into the novel. It's easy to wear that research, maybe a little more heavily than you might like.

I think when we talk about research in a novel, often it's so easy. You do loads of research at the start, but then also as you're going along, you find these really fascinating little tangents, little silos, little new chunks of knowledge that you want to include, but actually, if you indulge yourself too much down that line, sometimes the story, the characterization, are the things that you lose and you might end up introducing those things in ways that feel inorganic.

If you have, for example, two characters who are perfectly aware of whatever, of a particular action or a particular tradition, end up talking about that to each other in a way that's not authentic and is there more for the reader's benefit than the character's benefit, I think that's where you start to get problems.

We often talk about how probably 5-10% percent of your research is going to end up in the novel.

Howard Lovy: You mentioned on your website, accuracy and authenticity, and I think I know what accuracy means, but when you say authenticity, you mean, just what you were talking about, how it's all woven together.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, exactly. It's the ways you introduce it, but also what details you want to introduce, but really keeping things particularly, and I think it probably relates to perspective, in terms of piece of craft as well, in how the perspective you choose to tell your story from is so important.

That's going to be the lens through which the reader sees your world, and that's going to impact how you bring in the information, what type of information you bring in, when you bring it in, who they're interacting with, how you see them. It's going to affect everything, but the absolute key is, as you say, that it feels real for the character to tell you this, at the time that they're telling it, in the way that they're telling it, and for the reasons that they're telling it.

Howard Lovy: Let's talk a little more about the History Quill. I understand you launched a membership program earlier this year. Can you tell me more about that?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: We did, yeah. The membership is something we're really proud of, actually.

One of the things we're really keen to make sure we do is provide a sense of community for writers, because, as I'm sure some of your listeners know, it can be quite an isolating, lonely process writing fiction in general, but also probably even more so writing historical fiction, if maybe your friends and family don't know a huge amount about the times and places and characters that you're writing about.

It can be hard to find physical in person groups, so our membership is really designed to create both that sense of community, but also give people access to tools that they can use to enhance their own writing.

So, we have exclusive blogs touching on everything from research, to publishing, to marketing, to writing craft, that go out exclusively to our members. We have masterclasses, many of which are available exclusively to our members. So, we're trying to give them tools specific to them that maybe they can go and use to enhance their writing, as well as having that sense of connectivity with other historical fiction writers as well.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, that's important at ALLi. We emphasize that too, people like to commiserate or share their successes.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, exactly, and it's certainly one of the things that's really important to us as we engage with our community as the History Quill. We try and keep an eye on what's being said, is it that people are staying positive, for example?

When we have our group coaching programs where we have peer critiques of writer's work, as well as expert tutor critiques, they can submit 5,000 words per month as part of that. Slightly separate from the membership, but similar sort of ethos. We're trying to make sure that there is constructive criticism. We don't want anybody to sugar-coat what's wrong and tell everyone it's great, but equally it has to be done in a way that makes sure that it is constructive and positive, because this is something difficult to do and it's something brave to do, and actually it's something that's really important to acknowledge.

Certainly, that flows through all our editing services, I think actually. We like to make sure that we tell people what they're good at and maybe what they could do more of, bring in more often to their novels because it's really engaging, as well as giving them frank feedback on where there are clear areas for enhancement.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, in my other work, I'm also a book editor and I tell my clients that I'm never mean, but I'm always honest.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, absolutely. You can't shy away from things, but there are certain ways that are nicer and ultimately more fruitful to tell somebody something than otherwise.

Howard Lovy: Is there a difference between editing historical fiction and editing any other kind of fiction in terms of what you're looking for? What specifically are you looking for?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I think there's probably a difference in terms of, a bit like we talked about earlier, actually, that you're trying to conjure somewhere that is particularly unknown to the reader. I think in some ways that would have similarities with different genres.

If you're writing fantasy, for example, you might also be trying to conjure somewhere brand new. I think one of the interesting things with historical fiction is that you're dealing with somewhere that people may not know overly well, but equally, some readers may think they have a really good sense of a particular era, a particular place and time in history, and actually sometimes you almost have to correct their sort of imperfect understanding of places.

So, I think from an editing point, certainly the way you establish that setting, making sure that you do that while not losing the focus on what's driving the readability of your story, which is plot and characterization, above all, is one of the things that's quite unique to historical fiction.

Howard Lovy: Now, one thing I'm noticing on your website is you have more than 50 online resources for historical fiction writers.

Time was, you would bury yourself in a special collection at a library for hours and days and come up knowing all about a certain time in history. Is everything available online now, or do you still need to go to the library and bury your nose into books?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: That's a really interesting question. I think you can certainly get more than you've ever been able to online now, everything from access to facts and records, and critical theory and feedback, but also everything from kind of old maps, brilliant resources for old maps, that can give good guidelines while you're creating that setting.

One of the things we often find ourselves talking about, one of the things I often really recommend for writing historical fiction is that actually, one of the best ways to get yourself into the mindset and the feel of a place is to make sure you're reading primary sources as well as secondary sources.

So, if you're trying to write something set in the Middle Ages, for example, trying to read some of perhaps the chroniclers as well as modern historians take on events will give you a much better balance than if you're just reading the secondary material.

Sometimes it can be really nice to go and sit yourself down in an archive with a book that's brought to you in cotton gloves or comes attached to a chain, that can actually help you immerse yourself in the setting. Ultimately, the more you feel connected to something, the more that's going to probably come through in your writing.

Howard Lovy: Now, I guess I have to ask the requisite question these days on the role AI is or is not playing in historical fiction.

You can ask ChatGPT, I suppose, to set the scene of 15th century France, and it'll do its best to do whatever it magically does and do it. Is this something that you've faced or have some kind of policy on?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: It's not something that I've ever used in that way at all, and it's not something that really, I think we've seen coming through, either in scale or in the depth of ways that it could be used yet. It's certainly something that I'm sure we will get more people asking about appropriate uses of AI, whether that's from weeding out anachronisms to trying to do something a little more kind of creative with AI.

Certainly, from what I've seen, I think there is still a measurable difference between something created by a human author with a story to tell and a reason for telling that story, than an AI bot that's just trying to piece together different strands of sentences it thinks are acceptable one after the other and that work grammatically and have been used before.

I think that sense of passion and immersion and feel does come through still.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, ChatGPT is a lousy writer, I found, but it can be a useful tool in terms of historical events and things like that. Although, even then, it's not always accurate.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Yeah, exactly, and I'm sure it will start to be used more other ways, maybe cover design type things, rather than ChatGPT, people have started turning to Midjourney and other tools like that.

It's definitely something that's going to become more and more of a question at every stage of the writing process, the editing process, and the publishing.

Howard Lovy: Is there anything else about the History Quill that I failed to ask, that you want to mention?

Edward Ferrari-Willis: I think we've talked about a good breadth of our things. A couple of the other services that might be worth mentioning to your readers, we have a virtual convention coming up in February. Some of them may have gone to previous iterations of those, but if you haven't, or if you have, do check it out. It's well worth checking out. It's on the weekend of the 3rd and 4th of February.

It's our third annual convention and it's over two days. Day one is all about the craft of writing historical fiction and day two is all about the business side of it; publication, marketing, running an author business, all those things. That would definitely be worth checking out.

Equally our podcast is coming up for season two. We have a new season of that coming out in the new year. So, that's, again, like our materials and at the convention, we're trying to cover all sorts of areas from across the writing to publication journey, and we have wonderful hosts, Theo Bruin and Julia Kelly, with some very exciting guests. So, that would be worth people checking out as well.

All the details of both of those things they can find on our website, which is www.thehistoryquill.com

Howard Lovy: Wonderful.

Thank you, Edward, for your insights into historical fiction, and writing and research, and into The History Quill, which, once again, is at thehistoryquill.com. Thank you very much.

Edward Ferrari-Willis: Thank you, Howard. Really enjoyed that, thank you.

Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an independent author, developmental editor, and journalist who specializes in Jewish issues. He is also the news and podcast producer for the Alliance of Independent Authors.

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