Saturday, 22 October 2011

Historical short stories - guest post by Joanna Barnden

I'm a fan of historical fiction - just as well as that's what I'm writing! I like to read historical short stories too. So when Joanna Barnden, womag writer and historical novelist, offered a guest post for this blog I asked her to do something on writing historical short stories for the women's magazines. Here's the result - many thanks, Joanna!

Please do go and visit her website. She's sold about 150 short stories, and runs writing courses and offers critiques at a very reasonable rate. Her novel is currently with an agent.

Writing historical fiction

Magazine editors are always asking for that terrible conundrum – stories that are both recognisable AND original. Providing such a tale is the great challenge for the womag writer and given the scarcity of original plots, one of the best ways of livening up a story is with its setting.

This is usually thought of as a matter of geography and, indeed, I always urge anyone who has visited (or better still lived in) an unusual place to use it in their fiction, but of course there are myriad places to visit if we consider the idea of setting historically.

Historical fiction is very popular at the moment and whilst it’s a genre that does lend itself to novels, there is room for short stories too. ‘Oh but the research!’ I hear you cry and yes, that is a concern, but in a well written short story centred around an exciting character, a few facts coupled with a decent imagination can go a very long way. With the wonders of the web at our fingertips it’s never been easier to find out about Victorian England or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scotland, or even penal Australia – so what are you waiting for?!

Here are a few benefits and pitfalls of historical fiction:


- Readers love learning about new places and, to some extent, facts so use that to give them a world they know little about.
- Social and legal differences in past times can give you a whole new set of tensions to play with. People love historical romance because there are so many more social obstacles in a couple’s way. Equally, historical crime can be fascinating because of differences in the justice system and, perhaps more crucially, in forensic knowledge. A very simple thing like setting a story in a world without phones can make a huge difference to its dynamic.
- Going back in time can also give you a whole new set of personal problems for your
characters to deal with. Going to war is the obvious one, but there are many more – such as going into service, or into the workhouse or being present at a key historical event.


- It is very easy to get carried away with your setting, especially if it fascinates you. Do NOT let your setting dominate and do NOT fill your story with facts. You must present the world as your character sees it, and much of what is intriguing to you as the writer (and to your readers) will be totally normal to them, so present it subtly.
- A strong, engaging character is crucial, as is a decent plot arc. A clever setting is not enough – you still need a vibrant STORY.

So who takes historical fiction?

You’d be surprised! People’s Friend is the only magazine that openly invites historical submissions, both for short stories and serials (though they are a little overloaded with the latter at the moment), but plenty of others will consider it if well done.

People’s Friend like all historical fiction as long as it’s set in a socially recognisable world, so after about 1700.

Women’s Weekly are always on the hunt for originality and are quite happy to consider stories set in any period as long as they are ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ – a good maxim for any story but especially pertinent for historical fiction which must be vivid and not just a dry description of a different time.

Yours like stories set in previous eras but more ‘nostalgia’ than ‘history’ (though who’s to say where the former becomes the latter!) As a rule of thumb they’d be unlikely to take anything pre-

My Weekly will consider historical stories, though they are still only accepting work from writers previously published with them.

The Weekly News tends to prefer modern fiction, though anything in the last century would probably be fine.

Take a Break are pretty resolutely modern day, though they do welcome a good ghost, so perhaps that offers a historical angle for the clever writer?

So, if you fancy trying out a new era, I’d urge you to give it a go, but do remember that your period, however fascinating it may seem to you, is ultimately little more than a background for your vital story ingredient: your character and their personal, emotional journey.

Great article, Joanna - lots to think about there! I sold a partly historical story to My Weekly once - it was set partly in 1850s Ireland and partly in the modern day. I also sold a ghost story with a historical (WW2) angle to Take A Break's Fiction Feast, so I think you are right suggesting that's the way to go to get history into TAB!


Old Kitty said...

"Setting a story in a world without phones" - now that sounds like my idea of bliss!

Thanks for these very handy tips on writing short story historical fiction. I guess so long as you get the period detail basically correct, the core of the story should be timeless.

Take care
Take care

Kath said...

Thank you, Joanna. Like Womagwriter, I've attempted a story set partly in the past (though, alas, I haven't found a buyer yet) and found it a lot of fun to write. Research has never been easier as there's not only with Wikipedia but special interest websites too - my story involved coach travel and I was able to look up actual timetables for the 1830s!

Debs Carr said...

Thanks for this informative post. I love writing historical fiction, but haven't written a historical short story before and this will be very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joanne, for the informative post.

i suspect stories from the few hundred years are only acceptable, though - i wrote a novel set in Ancient Egypt recently, so i know LOADS about that era, but i can't imagine any of the womags being interested in a story from that far back, unless it was possibly a ghostly one.


Anonymous said...

or rather, 'last' few hundred years.

womagwriter said...

Ooh, Sam, an Egyptian ghost story sounds like a great idea! You can have ancient curses and buried treasure and all sorts of things, all while a couple are on honeymoon at the Pyramids...

Anonymous said...

Ooh, Kath, you've got me going now! *off to think...*:)


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for that interesting post, Joanna. I've written a couple of historical short stories and it's helpful to know which magazines to target if I write any more!

Pat Posner said...

Really interesting post, Joanna, thank you (and to Kath for inviting you to guest here)!

Prue said...

Thanks for a really useful article! Just what I was looking for. I haven't written any short historical fiction...but I do enjoy doing the research. And yes, no phones, no Twitter, no Facebook. Bliss :D

Suzanne Jones said...

Thank you Womagwriter and Joanna for this terrific post.


HelenMHunt said...

I've sold a couple of historicals to My Weekly - although they weren't very far back. One was set at Bletchley Park during the war and one was 1950s. They are great fun to write and I find the Robert Opie books a good way to research different eras.

Anonymous said...

woman's weekly fiction specials have included a couple of very funny edwardian/victorian diary type short stories this year - I think they might have been written by Marian Latham, but I'm not sure of that. I believe there was a victorian murder, too.

Alice said...

Excellent post-thank you.

Diane said...

Is there a limit on the words neeeded for the story?

I am writing historical short stories for 8 - 12 ages about England, Ireland, and America in the 1700s...

Thank you, for your valuable information.

marianh said...

Sorry, anon, I wish I could say the woman's weekly historical stories were by Marian Latham and I would know because it's me! I've only ever sold one historical, a lot of years ago, about a lovelorn minstrel. I have to say of all the stories I've written and sold, that was my favourite.

Anonymous said...

sorry Marian!
my word is vizess. It should be in the dictionary. 'I need some vizess'

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