Okay, so you want to write a historical novel, but what period of history do you choose? The list is endless, but here are a few options….
Featured novel: The King Must Die by Mary Renault
Ancient Greece 1200BC – 300BC: Greek gods, myths, large scale battles of Hoplites…
PRO’s: The birthplace of democracy, the Olympics, philosophy, and other ideas that shaped the modern world, give you lots of subject matter to base your novel around; whilst the mythology of Ancient Greece allows your novel to be full of gods, goddesses, and all the mysticism that goes with it. If you prefer a little more action, don’t worry – you have the warlike Spartans, their rivalry with the Athenians, or Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia. Disclaimer: I couldn’t resist the last on that list, so I tried my hand at that myself in the first novel I wrote.
CONS: It can be more difficult than you think to research a historical period so far in the past. Although there are a host of non-fictional books to use as research, you may well get stumped on relatively straightforward questions halfway through writing your book. Unless you happen to be a professor of ancient history, or be a leading authority on the subject (and even if you are), you may find yourself asking, ‘Did they have those? If not, what on Earth did they use instead??’ and sometimes all the research in textbooks or on the internet won’t answer your question.
Featured novel: I Claudius by Robert Graves
Ancient Rome 300BC – 450AD: No one shows decadence quite like the Romans…
PRO’s: If you find the ancient Greeks a little bit too noble, you can’t beat a Roman for a bit of vice, corruption, betrayal, and fornication…the odd Gladiatorial swordfight can go down well too! Okay, I’m a little bias because my forthcoming novel is set in the Roman world, but the Romans will always make an intriguing subject matter, not just by what they achieved and gave us, but also by their flaws. Political dramas are just as at home here as more military novels.
CON’s: The Romans were like us in some ways, but in others, definitely not. The Romans believed in slavery, held deep seated prejudices against virtually everyone, enjoyed chopping up people in the arena, and military aggression was something to be celebrated. This might make choosing a leading character with more gentle characteristics tricky. The solution used to be simple: Make the Romans the bad guys, and your leading character a poor persecuted Christian. Unfortunately, that’s no longer going to cut it. Blame it on all those swords and sandal epics of the 1940s – 1960s, but this has been done to death and unless your readers are practicing Christians themselves, will find this subject matter boring. You could choose another subjugated race (there are a lot to choose from!) and although that’s a better idea (think Spartacus) it’s still a bit of a cop out. It’s the Romans that everybody finds interesting, so write your novel about them.
Featured novel: The mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Arthurian legends and the dark ages 450AD – 600AD: Sword in the stone, the round table, the one true king…
PROs: You would have thought that writing any novel based in the dark ages to be difficult, due to the fact that they wrote practically nothing down and only myths and legends really survived this period. However, that can be a strength as much as a hindrance. Because we know so little about this period, you are given a much freer rein on what you write about. No one truly knows whether King Arthur even existed, so you can come up with your own take on this subject, following a great tradition of writers who have done exactly the same.
CONs: Readers pre-conceived ideas about King Arthur. You might write the most ground shaking new novel, find archaeological evidence supporting your new theory on what the leather armour of the period looked like, weave a tale of love, betrayal, and redemption, only for the reader to say: What! No round table!!
This is because it is such a well-known subject, although nothing can be proved one way or another, the readers are likely to have their own preconception of what they think the legend should consist of. To make matters worse, one person’s preconception is likely to be very different from the next. Some will still think that the Knights of the Round Table should have nice shiny armour, others that the sword of power should be called Caliburnus and not Excalibur. Some would have Merlin a wizard, others a druid, or even a priest.
Still, if you like stirring up a new debate, why let that stop you…
Featured novel: The last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
The Vikings – 800AD -1066AD: Let’s go a Viking!
PRO’s: You can’t beat the Vikings for pure adrenaline pumping action. Tales of the sea are always exciting, but when you can add in raids of the British coastline at the end of the journey, plus running home with gold and fair maidens, you’re on to a winner. Add in some Viking mythology, the Halls of Valhalla, and maybe drinking from the skulls of your vanquished foes, you have a true boys own adventure.
CON’s: You might have missed the boat on this one. The popular TV series is fulfilling this niche nicely for most people in need of some Viking action. However, this could also be an opportunity too: undoubtedly the TV series will generate more interest in the era, and if you can come at it from a different angle – maybe a touch more realism, or authentic history, you could make this era your own. Remember, a well written novel will always be able to portray a historical period more easily than a TV series.
Featured novel: Knights of the Black and White by Jack Whyte
Medieval History and The Crusades. 1100 – 1350 AD The Knights Templar.
PRO’s: There are plenty of stories involving knights, castles, sieges, and battles throughout medieval Europe to research and write about. What’s more, unlike the Arthurian period we spoke of earlier, the knights genuinely did wear the shiny armour so beloved of our chivalric imaginings. However, it is the Knights Templar, formed during the crusades to escort pilgrims to the holy land that seems to have captured the attention of the modern reader. Whether that is because of their secretive and cult like mystery, or simply because we are fascinated by the strange notion of warrior priests, I don’t know, but their attraction as subject matter is undeniable.
CON’s: The Knights Templar were a devoutly religious order, who zealously believed in their founding principles, church, order, and mission. As we live in far less devout times, it is sometimes difficult to convey the required level of religious fervour to any characters whilst holding the attention of the modern reader – or at least it would be to me. As an interesting topic though, there is a lot of scope in this period.