In this ‘The Write Advice’ article we speak with one of our judges from 2016 about writing historical fiction. Clifford Beal has not only written and researched some fantastic novels set in times past but has even donned his own suit of armour from time to time and fought upon the battlefields. When it comes to mixing fact with fiction Clifford knows what he’s talking about!
Prior to writing novels what did you do for a living and has it helped your author career in anyway?
I worked as a journalist for around 20 years, writing and editing for aviation and military publications. Apart from teaching one how to string together a few words, the real value of this was learning the craft of editing and more importantly, of being edited. For a writer, finding a good editor is like finding buried treasure and taking good criticism from one pays dividends in the long term.
Tell us about your second novel (a particular favourite of mine), Gideon’s Angel, where did the idea come from and what is the general premise?
I love writing historical fiction and the 17th century is a fascinating period for me. I was always struck by how that century sits on the cusp of the medieval world and the modern one. Science and rationality were making huge strides while at the same time witches were being hanged or burned and people believed in goblins and faeries. It was an age of transition. My original thought was to write a Cromwellian spy thriller but knowing how magic was still surviving in a new age science and discovery I thought, what about making that magic real? So a royalist plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell finds itself trumped by a plot to kill Cromwell by the deluded followers of a prophet guided by very real demons.
Your following novel, The Raven’s Banquet, featured the hero from Gideon’s Angel again, why did you want to delve deeper into Treadwell’s past?
I really fell in love with the character of Richard Treadwell and all is conflicted personal baggage. Gideon’s Angel shows how he has always had a “second sight” so I wanted to explore how that began. The story is set 20 years before the action of Gideon’s Angel and in Germany where he first began his career as a soldier. His high hopes for fame and military fortune are dashed by the reality of the war he finds himself in and the horrible things he bears witness to. The supernatural aspect comes to the fore as he has an unfortunate knack for running into people he has recently killed, among other scares. As a prequel, it is a retelling by Treadwell in his own words and ends directly where Gideon’s Angel begins. For that reason people might want to pick up Raven’s first and ride the roller coaster into Gideon’s. Between the two books the reader discovers a brash and callous youth who grows into a jaded but wiser man for all his fantastical experiences.
Although fictional, there is also a lot of historical truth to the tales, how tough can it be to balance the two and what methods did you employ to assist you?
I consider my Treadwell adventures not to be “alternate history” but rather “secret history”. There is a difference. The events as depicted in the books could have actually happened and been recorded– had people then known about them. Real-life characters such as Cromwell and John Milton essentially keep the “truth” to themselves. In so doing the reader becomes complicit in the intrigue along with Treadwell and just a handful of characters while the rest of London in 1656 is oblivious to the infernal dangers that are bubbling up around them. Real life events inform the plot and the characters but I infuse the fantastical and weave this into the mix. It’s important to get the history correct to add authenticity and indeed some characters doubt while others come to believe. Like many things it’s a question of balance but I strive for a believable suspension of disbelief (if that makes sense!)
There are some legendary characters in the stories, like Cromwell and d’Artagnan, what sort of things do you need to be wary of when writing already well-established characters?
Not to make them cardboard cut-outs from the pages of a history book. I try to instill humanity into the real-life characters by giving them emotions, motives, weaknesses and strengths as they appear alongside the fictional characters. My d’Artagnan is nothing like Dumas’s version. I based him on the real person, Charles de Batz Castelmore, who was a master spy and military commander who worked for Cardinal Mazarin. Dumas placed him in the 1620s when d’Artagnan would have been a teenager at most, and made him an implacable enemy of Cardinal Richelieu instead.
Do you think that writing about locations and people that are real can make the author’s job easier and why?
That all depends on the writer I think. Having written epic fantasy as well as historical fiction and non-fiction, I can say that it helps to be able to borrow a historical framework to hang plot and character on. It can be daunting when one has to encompass world building on top of that too when writing fantasy. But even though you have to make everything up, it is your world and one doesn’t have to worry about getting the real history right, only about being consistent within the world you’ve created.
As a writer of historical fiction do you believe that it’s important to read plenty of the same and why?
It is important to see what’s been done before and how themes and plots have been tackled by authors. This applies to any genre that you’re writing in. If you are going to reinvent the wheel it had better be a far better one than what’s out there. From a purely commercial standpoint, it’s also good to know what has done well and what hasn’t.
How much research is there to do when writing historical fiction, how do you collate and quickly refer to it, and at what point do you say enough is enough and begin writing?
I think many historical novelists live in fear of the great anachronistic cock-up they’ve missed, the one always spotted by an eager reader. I have a notebook for very critical items and I also highlight text in some of my sources for highly relevant things like currency, medicine, social mores, and so forth. One does have to put the time into research and make notes that can be referred to but this should not hold one back from delving into the writing. I find it a constant (and sometimes repetitive) process of researching, digesting, and writing the novel. You can never do enough period research but equally you can’t hold yourself hostage to it either. Don’t ruin your creative flow agonizing over whether nails were square or round in 1622 when you can fact-check once you’re into your second draft.
How tempting is it to start trying to cram bits of that research into your story and why can this be dangerous?
You can kill your prose by trying to show you’re a good historian: “By God,” he said as he watched the blood pour from where the rapier pierced his arm, “I heard Doctor Harvey who lives down the lane has just discovered that blood circulates inside the body. Fetch him to me!” Or maybe not. I try and use what research can be integrated into the storyline to improve it, not just to prove I did my homework. For instance, It’s a fact that stone towers on either side of a narrow harbor mouth were used to prevent attacking ships from entering. A huge iron chain suspended between them along the sea bottom could then be winched up to the surface. I’ve even seen their remains in Fowey down in Cornwall. In The Guns of Ivrea, I used that knowledge for a dramatic fight scene as a ship tries to escape a harbour before the chain can be raised to stop it.
What other historical fiction authors have been an inspiration to you and why?
Patrick O’Brian for his beautiful prose and period empathy. Bernard Cornwell for his compelling plotlines, narrative, and depictions of battle. So many others including Robert Graves but those spring first to mind.
Please give us three top tips for writing historical fiction?
Good plot and characters will always trump period and setting, no matter how imaginatively described. Balance any “authentic” voice and dialogue with an appreciation for readability. Be diligent in your research but not a slave to it.
Finally can you give us an insight into your current WIP or what you have planned for the future?
The Witch of Torinia, the sequel to Guns of Ivrea, is just out by Solaris Books and I’m now working on a novel which is not fantasy but instead straight-up historical fiction. It’s set in 1485 in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth and the death of Richard III. Those familiar with my Treadwell adventures will know I like writing about life’s losers and this new work follows three of Richard’s less noble knights who make common cause as fugitives from the victorious Henry Tudor. Fleeing abroad, each carries a secret that could spell ruin for the Tudors and cost them their lives. But do they even trust one another? On the short story front—and returning to a fantasy vibe—I have one coming out later this year in Weirdbook magazine in the US (issue #37). Weirdbook is the successor to Weird Tales that published Lovecraft, Howard, and Bloch, among others. It’s called “War is Grimm” and reboots a classic tale about a soldier and a tinderbox but is set in early 1946 in the ruins of Germany. Sometimes even I need a break from the Middle Ages!
We’d like to thank Clifford for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his writing experiences and wish him all the best with his new release. If you’d like to connect with him and keep up to date with his work then you can follow him on twitter @clifford_beal or website.