Just write!

Some ideas to get your writer’s mind in gear….

Historical places contain a different idea of time. Although the writers are exploring the place in the now, they are plugging into events that occurred in the past. A historical place holds important information and cues for different kinds of thinking. IHUK workshops draw the attention of the young writer to the people, events and elements of the place itself. The workshops are always about writing and everything always comes back to filling notebooks with impressions, observations, snippets of plot and character development, story and scenario ideas. For us a young Historical Fiction writers is a collector and archivist – storing up good ideas and sparks of inspiration for future use.

So. Here is a workshop to get you started. You need paper and a pencil – if that is the way you write. You can also do it on your computer screen – but at least have some sheets of paper close-by and some pencils…

Getting Started – the first 6 stages

The best Historical Fiction takes us into a world full of detail, and keeps us there because of a great sense of drama. When we’ve finished reading it, we feel like our world has expanded a little because of what the writer has made us think about.

Ideas take time to come for some of us – emerging out of the creative mist that surrounds all of us. For other people, their characters are literally asking for their stories to be told. Some writers even hear voices, or suddenly catch sight of their characters doing things. The human imagination is tricksy like that. So, even though things take time, we can help the process along. Firstly, though some easy-to-follow rules of the game:

  • Write your ideas down in notes and snippets – in a special notebook if you have one.
  • Trust your ideas – once they are there they have a right to exist and to be treated with respect.
  • Don’t throw anything away! Keep them and look back at them after a couple of days – you’ll find that your ideas are often better when you read them a second time.
  • This is crucial Trust your intuition – you will know when something is right!
  • Listen to your characters – they sometimes know the story better than YOU do!
  • Before you start your story, have some fun researching…
1. What time is your story set?
  • collect some images that suggest the time – how people dressed, how they got around, the things they ate, what their society looked like… Maybe create a moodboard with pictures, post-it notes with ideas, drawings and anything that seems to be important for your story. Here’s an online pinboard that is safe and really works: www.padlet.com
  • what did the houses of the time look like? – and how did this affect the way they moved? (for example, low ceilings would mean that tall people had to bend down to enter rooms…)
  • do some exploring to find out what kind of music they might listen to – what were their parties like?
  • people in history had the same emotions as us, but they used different kinds of words than we do – do some research to find out how their language was different (don’t stress about it though, it’s one of the hardest things to work out…)
2. When you think about the character(s) …

(write out each of the following questions on clean pages and let your mind wander as your imagination answers them)

  • what do they want to achieve – are some of them more important than others?
  • how do they imagine their future? – people in history don’t KNOW that they are in history – their lives unfold in exactly the same way ours do…
  • what do they need to avoid? what are the stakes they are playing for?
  • what kind of look do they have in their eye right now?
  • what is that they can’t talk about right now – or ever?
  • what kind of journeys do they go on? and why? where have they just come from?
  • what are they holding right now and how they hold them? (reach out – find an object, answer this question for yourself)
  • who are they standing next to, or looking at, and why? History is the story of human relationships…..

So, are you getting an idea of who is in your story, and why?

Maybe even, in your imagination, the story has begun…….
3. SO TRY THIS: if you have a notebook, open the last page/grab a clean piece of paper.

WRITE YOUR LAST LINE…. Give yourself 60 seconds!

Read it without judgement!

NOW WRITE YOUR SECOND LAST LINE….Give yourself 60 seconds

Take a deep breath!

4. Now you have an idea of the WHERE, WHEN and WHO of your story, you can begin to think about the WHAT. Find a clean page to begin on, and now….

WRITE YOUR FIRST LINE

Read it without judgement!

NOW WRITE THE SECOND LINE

Are you smiling? That’s what happens when your writer’s mind sees the path.

5. Your task as is to get from your first lines to the last lines!

So just start writing. Your story is a river that carries you along at its own pace and rhythm.

Top tip: Think “what happens NEXT?”, not “what happens?”. This helps to keep your story moving forward. (In life we never know what is really going to happen – even if we think we do. We are only aware of the next thing to do…)

6. Once you have written your story – read it over and review it! Reviewing your story inevitably turns up new ideas and deeper journeys. It’s the secret to good story-writing. Big tip: when you read it over – read it out loud. Or get somebody else to read it to you. You have created something special, let it have a life of its own!

Here’s what Ide Crawford, winner of a Young Walter Scott Prize in 2019 and a participant on the Times Shifting project earlier this year, writes:

…find some letters or other primary sources from the time you want to write about – it’s amazing what you can find for free on the internet. Internet archive is particularly great resource for this. This helps with the transition from thinking about the things and images of a period of history to understanding the equal difference in the language and thoughts distinctive of the time

When I write I tend to start with an event – either a big historical event, like a battle or a natural disaster, or a characteristic event which we know would have happened often at the time – a sailor being pressed, a young woman faced with an uncongenial arranged marriage – and try to work out the details of how these things would have manifested, minute by minute, in the life of some particular individual. My stories come out the the intersection of the event with the texture of life. 

Good Luck on your journey!

Historical Fiction can involve ideas and techniques from other genres

  • romantic
  • mystery
  • adventure
  • detective and many more

The only rule is that somewhere in your story there have to be some real details about people, places and events that really existed. In between the real details is where Historical Fiction lives and the Historical Fiction writer is most at home.

For a range of excellent writing ideas across genres, visit this site:

Here you can find additional ideas to keep your writer’s mind on the boil.

Good luck with your writing! Enjoy getting lost in your thoughts.

The Imagining History UK team

(Elizabeth Ferretti, Dina Gusejnova, Roxanne Matthews, Alan Caig Wilson)

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