How to Get the History Right in your Historical Fiction: a Workshop for Authors

Getting to know other times and other places well enough to describe them convincingly is one of the great pleasures of writing historical fiction, but also one of its greatest challenges. Anyone can achieve a basic feel for an age by reading published histories, but to go beyond this, to enter the mental and physical world of the inhabitants of another age, to see through their eyes, to touch the objects that they knew and to speak with their voices, requires detailed knowledge and the understanding that can come only from autonomous research. Above all, it helps to know and understand contemporary source materials, but to find and use these requires specialised skills.

This one-day workshop aims to encourage writers to develop their abilities as historical researchers, introducing the tools and techniques employed by academic historians, and showing how to get the most from libraries, archives, museums, art galleries and, of course, the internet. Teaching will take place in an informal format with participants actively encouraged to discuss the problems they encounter and to share their own experiences.

Contributing to the workshop will be: Elizabeth Chadwick, author of The Time of Singing, To Defy a King and many others; Eleanor John, Head of Collections and Exhibitions at the Geffrye Museum of the Home; Dr Simon Trafford, Research Training Officer at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

It will take place between 10.30 and 17.00 on Thursday 26th April 2012 at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, located in Senate House. As numbers are strictly limited early application is advised.

For full details and instructions on how to apply please click here.

Novel Approaches: from academic history to historical fiction


Welcome to the Novel Approaches site.  Here you will find podcasted lectures from the Novel Approaches conference; book reviews and articles by historians and historical novelists; opinion pieces; bibliographies and lists of online resources.  Please feel free to join the discussion and enjoy the site!  For more information about this site click here.

Although the virtual confernece has ended this site will remain up indefinately and we would love it if it is continued to be used as a place for discussion and viewing.

Novel Approaches Newsletters:    

Novel Approaches newsletter issue 1 (November 2011)   

Novel Approaches newsletter issue 2 (Dec 2011)


September 2012 – Historical Novel Society’s 2012 conference:



The end?

All good novels have an end; indeed the ending can make or break a reader’s enjoyment of an entire work. Academic histories however tend to avoid an ending; they see themselves as one point in a long line of books focused on that topic of research. I guess a virtual conference is somewhat similar to the historian’s task, at least more so than the novelist’s.

This tale (we hope) will continue. Although this is the end as far as our part of the story is concerned it is only the beginning of what we hope will become a valuable resource to novelists, historians and scholars of various interests. The Novel Approaches site will remain online for as long as wordpress (our domain host) will provide for it, as will the oppotunity to continue the discussion around these resources.

Those same resources will also appear on our other websites: the book reviews can also be found on Reviews in History; the lectures on History SPOT.  In addition we hope to bring some video highlights from the conference to you in the near future. So stay tuned!

All there remains for us to do then is to say a very big thank you to all of you who have participated in our virtual conference. The IHR Digital team, publications and event management very much hope that you enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy) your time here.

If you have enjoyed our conference then it might be worth noting that there is a Historical Novel Society Conference in the works for 2012.  The conference will take place at the University of Westminster (Regent Street site) on the 29th and 30th September.  As well as booksellers, agents and editors / publishers they are expecting the following authors (among others) – Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Chadwick, Sarah Dunant, Barbara Erskine, C.J. Sansom and Sarah Waters – plus the Napoleonic Association in full uniform!

Further details will appear on the Society’s website as the programme is finalized –

In the meantime if you would like to make a suggestion for future events (or to let us know what you thought about our virtual conference) please do so in the Suggestions section of this site or on our end of conference survey. We’d love to hear from you. Also don’t forget to let us know if you like the idea of a workshop on how to use historical research for writing fiction.

Best wishes


Day 5: Novel approaches

When we began to sketch out this conference we at first struggled to come up with a name. We worked under the simple (but not very descriptive) title Historical Fiction conference. Coming from an academic history background such a title explained to us that this was a conference that investigated historical fiction from an academic history perspective, but we were the first to admit that outside these walls the title meant very little.

I think the variety of lectures, book reviews, articles and opinion pieces that have appeared over the last five days testifies that we chose the right name in the end: Novel Approaches. It says it all really. This was a conference that investigated approaches to historical fiction and to the academic study of history itself. It seems one has rarely existed without the other but like squabbling siblings both have rarely seen eye to eye and both hold certain prejudices and jealousies against the other. Ultimately, though, neither wants to survive without the other.

On the final day of this virtual conference we offer you a podcast from the end of conference roundtable. Our speakers who have appeared here over the last five days will now offer us further insights into their thoughts and feelings about the contrast and relationship between historical fiction and accademic history. As usual, we will also provide several book reviews.

We also have an additional article and book review not listed on the conference programme which came to us late in the day.  Both offer perspectives that have already been brought up this week.

As this is the end of the conference we will also be asking you if you mind spending a moment to fill in a short survey. We’d love to hear your thoughts. At the end of the day we will also announce the winners of our competition – so stay tuned!

Day 5: Programme

9.30am          Book review: Moscow as City and Metaphor (Alexander Martin)

10.30am        Lecture: Roundtable with our speakers

11am             Virtual Conference survey will be launched

Article: A Quick Round-up of class opinion (Lucinda Byatt)

11.30am       Book review: Debating the Cultural Revolution in China (Julia Lovell)

12pm             Book review: Restoration: fact and fiction in the stores of history (Alan                                 Marshall)

1pm              Competition winners announced

2pm              Book review: Nun’s (not) on the run

3pm              The End? Our final post

Day 4 Best bits

Today our lectures tackled the difficult question of whether the success of historical fiction benefits or threatens academic history.  Jackie Eales, Cora Kaplan, Paul Lay, and Stella Tillyard all tackled this question in their own unique ways.  Throughout the conference it has been stated and questioned as to whether historical authenticity and accuracy matters – does it really make a good historical novel.  Tillyard argues that what makes a good novel is the novelist not its authenticity.  This is a point definitely worthy of more discussion. 

Paul Lay answers the question by looking at the role of empathy and myth.  Cora Kaplan brings up a suggestion of a politics of the novel and Jackie Eales looks at how historians use and control their sources – worryingly perhaps for the historian she concludes that historians treatment of source material does not necessarily differ that much from a novelist. 

In addition we’ve received book reviews starting from the Romans with Robert Harris’ Pompeii, through to the reformation in the sixteenth century with a book about John Bale.  Tracey S. Rosenberg also treats us to a behind the scenes look at how she wrote her book The Girl in the Bunker (thus bringing our historical coverage up to the twentieth century).   

Don’t forget our competition.  So far entries are rather light so the prizes are all to play for.  Remember you could win £25 in Amazon vouchers or a year’s subscription to the Historical Research journal. 

Today we also announced our intention to run a workshop about using historical research for writing novels.  There are plenty of creative writing courses available but we feel we can offer something different – skills training that will enable you to carry out the research which this conference has highlighted time and time again can make or break an historical novel.  Please let us know if you are interested by commenting on that item.

Tomorrow we end the active phase of this conference (at least from our end) with audio from the roundtable of speakers, various book reviews and articles and the announcement of our competition winners.

So stay tuned and please do keep on commenting and discussing!

Day 4: Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history?

It can fairly be said that historians are often wary of fiction or at least to the suggestion of it. History is claimed as a science and an account of true things about the past. Fiction is the polar opposite. However, as this conference has already begun to show, the rise of academic history as we know it today went hand-in-hand with the rise of historical fiction and indeed both forms of writing are influenced by the other whether we like it or not. Not long ago the challenge of postmodernism sought to overturn the historian’s craft and still to this day there is a degree of uncertainty as to where history ends and fiction begins.

What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the predominance of historians who can only be described as frustrated novelists in disguise. How many are there out there who sheepishly dream of unburdening themselves from facts and evidence so that they can spring their imaginations free with historical fiction?

Historical fiction currently enjoys an unprecedented rate of success and popularity both with the public at a large and those that make history their life’s study. Yet, there are still many critics out there. So does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history? That is today’s topic of investigation. Throughout the day we will hear lectures by accademics Jackie Eales and Cora Kaplan, as well as History Today editor Paul Lay and author/historian Stella Tillyard. We will also have the usual mix of book reviews, articles and opinion pieces.

Day 4: Programme

9.30am          Lecture: Jackie Eales

10.30am        Book review: Telling Ghost Stories (Judith Harris)

11am             Article: Tracey Rosenberg on Researching the Nazis: the Girl in the Bunker

12pm            Lecture: Cora Kaplan

2pm              Lecture: Paul Lay

3pm              Lecture: Stella Tillyard

4pm              Book review:The many lives of John Bale (Matt Phillpott)

5pm              Day 4 Best bits

Day 3: Best bits

Another busy day at the conference, with in-depth discussion of the differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history, featuring lively contributions from Maria Margaronis, Ian Mortimer (and his alter ego James Forrester), Rebecca Stott and Beverley Southgate.

We also had two more comparative book reviews. Matthew Grant tackled The Flyer by Martin Francis and Day by A. L. Kennedy, and found both books gave him not only a deeper awareness of the war, but also a renewed excitement about the possibilities of both genres of writing to convey the emotional and subjective experiences of the past.

Meanwhile Tracey Loughran, one of our speakers from yesterday, reviewed two classics: Pat Barker’s Regeneration and Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War.

There was also a very interesting piece on why it’s good for historians to write fiction – also by Ian Mortimer. Several of our attendees seemed to agree with Ian Mortimer’s take on this issue – but what do the rest of you think?

Finally, don’t forget to take part in our competition – just tell us about your favourite piece of historical fiction and what impact it has made on you.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Jackie Eales, Cora Kaplan, Paul Lay, and Stella Tillyard.  We’ll also have the usual mix of book reviews, articles, opinions, and announcements. See you anon…

Day 3: The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history

Ever since Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) put pen to paper in his Waverley novel and popularised (or as some would claim created) the genre of historical fiction, historians and novelists alike have struggled with what such a combination of real and fictive elements means to both forms of writing. It is interesting that from the very beginning of the genre many historians were also novelists.

Take Ian Mortimer for instance, a well-regarded historian of the middle-ages who also writes historical novels under the pseudonym James Forrester. We will hear from him on this very subject at 11am today via his short article on Why Historians Should Write Fiction and by audio podcast at 12pm

The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history will also be discussed by author/historian Rebecca Stott; magazine columnist for The Nation, Maria Margaronis; and historian of ideas, Beverley Southgate. In addition we present more book reviews, opinion pieces and various other pieces of content for your enjoyment and interest.

Day Three: Programme

The conference programme can be found via a link on the left-hand column. However, each day we will also update you with the day’s proceedings. It should be noted that all times are British GMT.

9.30am          Lecture Maria Margaronis

10.30am        Book review: Flyers and their Traumas: the RAF in the Second World War

                      (Matthew Grant)

11am             Article: Ian Mortimer on Why Historians Should Write Fiction

12pm             Lecture: Ian Mortimer

2pm               Lecture: Beverley Southgate

3pm               Lecture: Rebecca Stott

4pm               Book review: Shell-shocked: trauma, the Emotions and WWI (Tracey


5pm               Day 3 Best Bits

Day 2: Best bits

There’s been a lot going on today.  Starting with Elizabeth Chadwick’s research into why readers of historical fiction enjoy the genre conversation moved onto questions of why academic history is perceived to not be able to recreate the human condition adequately.  We then heard from Justin Champion, Tracey Loughran and Peter Straus.  In these papers, amongst much else, the issue of e-book readers came up and in other conversations the rise of the internet was discussed as revolutionising the communication and interaction between author and reader.   

It seems that historical fiction is regarded as a popular form of writing and reading about the past, leaving academic history failing somewhat in its targets for impact!  However, the inter-relationship of the two are time and again shown to be strong – one could not survive without the other.  I suspect we’ll return to that topic tomorrow as we look at the differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history.

Elsewhere, Jenny Benham’s book review focused on Swedish historical fiction is a gentle and much welcome reminder that in this conference so far we have largely talked about British and perhaps a little American historical fiction.  What about elsewhere?  It would be great to see if anyone else has any views on non-English historical fiction!

We also presented our first short article today – a study on the technique of Penelope Fitzgerald by the IHR’s Jonathan Blaney.  Has anyone got any thoughts about what Jonathan has to say?  We’d love to hear them.

Finally, don’t forget to take part in our competition – just tell us about your favourite piece of historical fiction and what impact it has made on you. 

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Maria Margaronis, Ian Mortimer, Beverley Southgate, and Rebecca Stott.  We’ll also have the usual mix of book reviews, articles, opinions, and announcements.