Writing characters for historical novels

I’m often asked how writing differs for me when I’m working on a novel set in the past or one in which the action takes place in the present.

The first real distinction comes at the research stage. In my first piece I offered a few tips about researching historical fiction; but to research modern scenes is often a different beast. In some ways it is actually easier to find out about Newton’s taste in literature or the sort of shoes Cosimo de’ Medici wore than it is to find the colour of the doors into the Rose and Crown pub in Kilburn or the colour of the uniform worn by staff at the Empire State Building. Just as difficult is finding out the price of a peppermint tea at a certain café in Paris or the style of plate used in Devonshire teahouses or the usual fine for illegal parking in the center of Bogota.

Beyond research is the actual process of writing. What are the major differences between writing fiction set in a bygone time and fiction set in 2013?

The first thing to consider is the way people speak. Of course you could do a Baz Luhrmann and put modern speech into the mouths of historical characters. This is fine if that is your style and your readers expect it. But, if you are writing something relatively conventional you have to decide upon the level of old-style speech you will use. This varies enormously from one author to another, but you have to always remember that you are writing for a modern audience. You are never going to duplicate arcane dialogues perfectly, and even if you could say reproduce the language used by 15th century English people, few could follow it today.

The essential thing to remember when you are writing historical fiction or any narrative set in an earlier time is that human beings are human beings.

Certainly language has changed, social mores and the surface level of fashion, technology, scientific understanding, worldliness, etc, have developed, but at their core people today are no different to those living in any age. It is almost certain that the way an Ancient Egyptian slave thought about his family and the dreams he or she may have harboured would, in essence, be not so different to those of a banker in the City of London or a NASA astronaut.

This truth must be portrayed in your work. By all means change the way people speak, dress them in appropriate clothing, arm them with suitable weapons and house them in ancient homes, but you must ensure they will each experience their own lives, loves and wishes in almost identical ways whatever century they live in.