Guest Post by Kathryn Heyman
My first historical novel, The Accomplice, was inspired by the 1629 shipwreck of the Dutch merchant ship Batavia and the subsequent massacre on the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Western Australia. The writing of that novel transformed my imagination and my understanding of narrative craft.
That was almost twenty years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve written several other novels – one of them historical – and several dramas for the British Broadcasting Corporation, all of which have focused on history. Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, my next historical novel, was adapted as a BBC radio serial and aired to an audience of over two million.
Writing historical fiction began a passion for combining historical research and deep imagination.
Something else happened in those passing years: I founded a mentoring organisation to help new and emerging writers find their own stories. The Australian Writers Mentoring Program – led the writer Pip Williams to complete, redraft and publish her dazzling novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words which has since sold half a million copies. It led Andrew Mackie, the producer of the movie The King’s Speech, to write his first novel, After the Crown and it led to the Jamaican-Canadian writer Sienna Brown creating her extraordinary novel, Master of My Fate which won the ARA/HNSA Historical Novel Association Novel Award.
What is it that all of these successful novels have in common?
Why is it that these works of historical research found such passionate audiences?
Crucially, what did these writers do that helped them find their story?
After working with historical novelists for well over a decade. I’ve come to understand inside out the unique challenges of this genre. And what I first learned myself and have since taught many others is what I’ve come to think of as my five golden rules of historical fiction.
1. Embrace the unknown.
Writers of historical fiction can get so swamped in the known – in the facts, in the historical record – that they may find themselves lost in time.
But your imagination is yours; the senses of a character, the precise way something feels – these are the tools of fiction and the imaginative aids that show us ways of bringing history alive.
Write about a childhood memory of your character. Consider them at age ten and make use of all the senses. Go beyond sight and sound: what did their world taste like, smell like, feel like? Allow yourself to be surprised.
2. Harness your purpose.
When I began to write the story of the shipwreck of the Batavia, I understood that the historical events had claimed my imagination, but I didn’t understand why. I circled and circled, until I admitted that I longed to understand what it might mean to survive trauma though your companions – your own family – had not. I felt that had to write this because I needed to understand something in my own story.
Begin with the ‘why’. Why do you need to write your particular story? And why do you, of all people, need to write it? Finally, why do you need to write it now? Without a clear sense of your purpose – and therefore your desire – in writing your story, you’ll find it terribly easy to be distracted. And we want to stay focused! Try setting a timer for five minutes and writing without stopping, beginning with the sentence “I desperately want to write this story now because….” – and see where it leads you.
3. Find your centre.
When Sienna Brown decided to write the story of a runaway slave who became a landowner, she found the story spiralling out of control. We worked together on clarifying what had drawn her to this extraordinary story. And once she understood that, she was able to find the story’s spine: a man’s insistence on believing that anything is possible.
Ask yourself: when you think about your own writing what is it that gives you a physical jolt? What was the moment of inspiration? What image do you keep returning to? What is the central problem of the story? What is its central theme?
5. Know your protagonist.
The main character of a story is often called the protagonist. I had heard this word used a lot before I discovered it means ‘the first to struggle’. This is a great reminder that your main character will have some sort of struggle – something to solve, or find, or escape from. That struggle is the key to transformation.
Journal your response to these or similar questions.
- Whose story is this?
- Is there something they are trying to discover? Or escape from? In other words, what is the journey?
- What is it that your protagonist wants? What external things obstruct this? And what internal things get in the way? Does the protagonist realise this?
- What do they do to overcome/avoid/accommodate these obstacles?
- Is there any change in the story –in them, their understanding of the world or of other characters?
6. Claim your story.
This is the most important step: give yourself permission to write. You have the right to do this. And if takes you thirty years, that’s fine. It’s your time. Your high school history teacher, the kids who beat you up, your brother, your old boss – on the page not one of them can stop you. It’s your page.
I run a program called Immersion Flow, which trains writers to dive deeply into their work – whether fiction or memoir. We use daily strategies and prompts to guide both emerging and experienced writers to their deepest instinct and creative inspiration. Every time I run this program, I’m astonished at how effective it is – at how many wonderful stories of profound emotional resonance have lain buried beneath the weight of careful research and the burden of fidelity to the historical record. Fiction is imagination. Take a risk.
It’s your story. Write it.
Hon. Professor Kathryn Heyman’s acclaimed memoir, Fury, appeared in May 2021. Her first novel, The Breaking, was shortlisted for the Stakis Award for the Scottish Writer of the Year and longlisted for the Orange Prize. Her other awards include an Arts Council of England Writers Award, the Wingate and the Southern Arts Awards, and nominations for the Edinburgh Fringe Critics’ Awards, the Kibble Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. Reviewers have compared her work to that of Cormac McCarthy, Kate Grenville, Angela Carter, Peter Carey, William Golding and Joseph Conrad.
Kathryn Heyman received the Wingate award for outstanding historical research (for The Accomplice). Her other historical works include Captain Starlight’s Apprentice (Inspired by the bushranger Jessie Elizabeth Hickman) which was adapted into a ten part radio serial for the BBC, with an audience of over two million. For the BBC she also wrote Moonlite’s Boy, using the letters and journals of the bushranger ‘Captain Moonlite’.