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Rewriting History: How Historical Fiction Works

From Brooklyn to Wolf Hall, historical fiction is enjoying a boom moment. But how do you go about writing an historical novel?

From Brooklyn to Wolf Hall, historical fiction is enjoying a boom moment. But how do you go about writing an historical novel? How 'true' to the past should a novelist be? And what can historical novels tell us about the world we are living in today? Last month we were given the insider’s guide to all this and more by two of City short courses’ star alumni: Anna Mazzola, author of The Unseeing, out with Tinder Press next month and Melissa Bailey, author of The Medici Mirror and Beyond The Sea, Arrow Press.

Both authors clearly shared a passion for research and saw it as one of the most absorbing parts of the historical novel writing. Both were also clear that the story had to take precedence. It didn’t matter how much research had been done, or how historically accurate the depiction of period might be, if the story wasn’t working the novelist had to go back to the drawing board.

There was also broad agreement on other characteristics of writing historical fiction. Anna spoke of the importance of giving voice to the voiceless and of uncovering voices from the past that hadn’t been heard before. Melissa highlighted the enjoyable difficulty in trying to imagine what her characters were thinking and feeling, and then imagining what was different about the way those characters might have perceived things at that time.

Well attended and with positive feedback after the event, this writing short course event gave us all food for thought. As novelist Andrew Miller put it, “at its best, historical fiction is never a turning away from the now but one of the ways in which our experience of the contemporary is revived.” Thank you to Anna and Melissa for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. For more info on our short courses, go to our website or follow us on twitter @writingmatters1. For more on the authors and their books visit: Anna Mazzola and Melissa Bailey.

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.