I love historical fiction. History is vast and within that vastness, there’s an endless possibility for stories. Every time period, every civilisation – stories and stories and stories. When I think about my favourite novels, so many of them have a historical element. “Days Without End” (Sebastian Barry), “Homegoing” (Yaa Gyasi), “The Lacuna” (Barbara Kingsolver), “Small Island” (Andrea Levy), “Hamnet” (Maggie O’Farrell), “Burnt Shadows” (Kamila Shamsie), “White Teeth” (Zadie Smith), “The Book Thief” (Marcus Zusak) – I could go on. Novels are well suited to the historical. The advantage of a novel over shorter form prose is that you have plenty of space. You can quite happily spend a couple of pages describing the sights and smells of fifteenth century London, or evoking the endless monotony of routine in a nineteenth century factory. But when you’re operating within the tighter constraints of short fiction, the challenge of conjuring time and place is much trickier.
Another thing to bear in mind with historical fiction is the need to go away and carry out research. What type of clothes did they wear in the sixteenth century? What did they eat for breakfast? Where did they buy their Shredded Wheat? This can be a bit of a rabbit hole. We can start off with one question and end up with twenty-three pages worth of notes. In a novel, this doesn’t represent much of a problem. The more research we do, the more accurate our representation of that historical moment will hopefully become. We have space to weave in all sorts of interesting details to make our story rich and layered. But a short fiction would become bogged down if we tried to cram in every single thing we’d learnt about basket weaving or the correct application of leeches, and our stories would lose their beating heart.
So, how do we avoid this? What do we need to include and what can we leave up to a reader’s imagination? How do we make space for those world-building details without sacrificing story, character, and emotional journey? With so much to consider, why bother writing historical fiction when there are plenty of present-day stories left to tell? And if we do travel down that road, where can we look for inspiration?
Why write the historical?
Some people will be reading this article and shrugging. They like present-day stories. Their life is in the present day and they want the stories that they write to represent that. What we choose to write, what we choose to read is our own business and no one else’s, but I’d suggest that exploring the historical (as well as the opposite – exploring our possible futures) is relevant to our present-day lives.
For example, in Agnes (Jan Carson | Splonk), we see a direct comparison between past and present. There is a reference to a sibling who “died young of something you could cure with antibiotics now” and this asks a reader to compare their experience of living in the present day with that of Agnes, how she walked “a dark mile” (wonderful use of a transferred epithet!) to work every morning and walked it back again at night, how she started work “aged thirteen” and finished in her first factory at the same age the “you” character has reached in the present day. We don’t know what age this is and there isn’t much about the “you” character, but there doesn’t need to be. We, as readers, can understand how our working conditions are much better than what Agnes and all these other women endured. We know that childhood in the Western world is generally a much happier affair than it was in the past.
Sometimes, the past can become a surrogate for the present. Recently in the UK our political environment has been interesting (to understate things significantly). In 2022, we’ve had three prime ministers, four chancellors, and five education secretaries, and it feels as though “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is going to have a whole different vibe this year. Writing a story that references this situation directly might be a bit too on-the-nose, it might be too tricky to condense it into a 500-word flash, but how about a piece that explores the three monarchs (Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I) who held the English throne in July 1553? Is there an adjacent story to be found that holds a mirror to our modern world? In a similar vein, I wrote Wittgenstein Sits at the Piano after the Long Cacophony of the War (Matt Kendrick | Reflex Fiction) as a way of exploring my own sadness at the physical deterioration of my body due to health problems – I’ve found a historical substitute and layered my emotions on top.
The simplest reason for writing the historical, of course, is the point I made right at the start. There are so many stories waiting to be told. As writers, we are often searching for the unique angle. Most narrative arcs and emotional journeys have been explored thousands of times already, but in the historical, there are plenty of chances to find a new way of bringing those journeys to life.
Paths into the historical
As mentioned above, writing historical fiction requires research and we can often get lost in the vastness of it all. The key, for me, is to find the individual struggle rather than the history lesson – and a wonderful example of this is The Partitioning of Dreams (Susmita Bhattacharya | FlashBack Fiction). I love how the title does so much heavy lifting. It suggests the precise time period – that word “partitioning” carries so much historical weight – and it also weaves in the personal ordeal of this girl who later becomes an old woman; this scene of walking away from her home, her dead brother, which plays continuously in her dreams. Note how the epistrophe (repeating last word) of “walking” builds a sense of emotional resonance at the start. The piece is filled with sensory details that not only paint the scene, but also help connect us with this character and her emotions. As with “Agnes” above, this is a story that balances two time periods in such a tiny space, showing how the past continues to affect the present.
Another path into the historical is to consider (or reconsider) the story of a well-known figure just as we see in Something That Can Never Be Held (Cathy Ulrich | FlashBack Fiction). This story is about Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), but it isn’t the story we might expect. Rather than the highly stylised, glamorous gangster lifestyle, we are shown a much grittier world where “you are tugging your stockings that always sag.” Again, I love the use of sensory details to evoke the atmosphere while also connecting a reader to the character’s emotions. And that connection is enhanced still further through the clever use of second-person narration, inviting the reader to imagine themselves as Parker, living this life, “feeling the wind against [their] fingertips”, “counting the towns [they] pass.”
Perhaps rather than a well-known figure, you might find a side character from history? I mentioned above about the three English monarchs in July 1553 – who might narrate this story? Perhaps a servant whose life is equally hard whether it is a boy or a woman, a protestant or catholic, a child or a lettuce sitting on the throne?
A final idea is to explore your own history. Gelsenkirchen: 10/10ths cloud, 30 aircraft lost (Sharon Telfer | Splonk) starts with a dedication to Doug Telfer, and I find so much power in realising that this is a real story; that age of death “19 years” hangs over the piece like a shadow.
Rooting the historical
With any piece of flash fiction, effectively rooting your reader in time and place without taking up too much of the word count is a real skill. Often, it is about finding those clever shortcuts, those ways of saying a lot in very few words. Perhaps you might go with the technique used in Air so Thick (Myna Chang | Flash Flood) where a subtitle efficiently tells us the precise location in time and place. The story itself builds on this initial rooting with all its pinpoint specifics and sensory details, the human narrative at the heart of the much bigger event. I’d also suggest that the subtitle pushes the story into a future beyond what we can see on the page. Anyone who is familiar with Black Sunday (or anyone who takes the time to look the date up on Wikipedia) will be able to imagine how this child’s life and the landscape of their world evolves from this point forwards in light of the devastation implied by that subtitle.
All of the pieces I’ve shared in this article are full of sensory elements that fully bring the historical to life. For me, this is an important thing to remember in any piece of writing, but its importance to historical fiction is even greater. Another trick for rooting a reader in time / place is in conjuring a specific tone of voice as we saw in “Agnes” with the use of words like “god-fearing” and “weans” along with the general lilt of the writing. In my Glorious Words course, I look at Midsummer’s Eve (Ros Collins | Reflex Fiction) where the use of “haar” and “bairn” have a regional (and also slightly temporal) slant. The story is in first person, and it feels important that our narrator’s voice matches what we might expect from the time period.
Like “Air so Thick”, “Midsummer’s Eve” is full of rich specific details. Along with the sensory and the tone of voice, it is often in the objects a writer picks out that the historical starts to form in a reader’s mind. What are the things (clothes, tools, furniture, machines) that would have been different then to now, either in terms of importance to the characters or in terms of importance to the wider world? Maybe these objects might become a central element to the story like that dolly in “The Partitioning of Dreams” or the keys in 54.7754° N, 31.7890° E, April of 1940 (Slawka G. Scarso | FlashBack Fiction) – this is another title that does a lot of heavy lifting; another piece that makes use of repetition and sensory elements to wonderful effect.
Experimenting within the historical
One of the things I love about “Gelsenkirchen: 10/10ths cloud, 30 aircraft lost” is how the form enhances the story, the contrast between the three very long sentences and the three sentence fragments that bookmark the piece, the way that “Mother” and “Mum” are pushed across the page and stacked on top of each other to replicate the dizzying descent that is taking place. There is experimentation here and, for me, taking a historical piece and doing something experimental with it creates a sort of layering. How about a crossword-puzzle hermit crab that shows Henry VIII’s six wives in a new light? How about a backwards telling of Joan of Arc?
Any approach that can be used for fiction set in the present day can equally be used for fiction set in the past, so we might have a one-sentence story like the exquisitely breathless Kaala Paani (Mandira Pattnaik | FlashBack Fiction). We might have a fractured story, or a story that uses anaphora (repetition of first word) like “Something That Can Never Be Held.” We might have a story that presents itself as a list or an instruction manual or a recipe. Sometimes, the form itself can be part of what roots us in the historical like the letter form of A Long Way Away (Diane Simmons | FlashBack Fiction).
We can also experiment with tone of voice, delving into the way language itself has evolved through history. We can experiment with different moods – a historical piece can be beautifully lyrical but it can also be gritty or purposefully stripped back. There is a lot of sadness and anger to explore in things that happened in the past but there is also joy and laughter, so what about historical pieces that lean into the humorous like Wheel of Fortune (Nick Black | FlashBack Fiction)?
That note of joy seems like a good place to leave things. I hope some of you will be insired to have a go at a historical piece of flash. I’d love to see more historical short fiction out in the world. And for those of you who like a target, why not send a historical entry into The Welkin Writing Prize which has an award specifically for historical fiction?
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