Writing Historical Fiction by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Nov 26, 2012 in Featured Book, Medieval Great Britain | 3 comments

Back in high school, I remember overhearing two girls lamenting how awful their classes were and how they ‘hated’ history.  Since I was hiding in a bathroom stall at the time, I didn’t give voice to my horror at their sentiment, but it has stuck with me in the thirty years since.  How could they ‘hate’ history?

Unfortunately, all too easily if by ‘history’ they meant the memorization of facts and dates that had little or no bearing on their lives.  Why did they care what year the Civil War began?  Or who was the tenth president of the United States?  Or what happened in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (though knowing might clarify our wars in the Middle East today, but that’s a different topic).

That’s not what history is about.  History is about people.  It’s the anthropology of the past.  It’s about finding out why people did what they did; what they cared about; and the nitty gritty of how they lived and died.

I strongly believe with Donna Tartt that:  “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”

But along with entertaining, what I love about historical fiction is that it can bring history to life.

Because I have an academic background, research comes naturally to me.  When I decide on a topic for a new novel, I first spend a few weeks exploring the history, culture, and geography of that time period.  It is very important to me to know as much as I can about the history of the time, even if I end up changing aspects of it to suit my novel.  At the same time, I try to keep events as historically accurate as possible.

When writing about dark age and medieval Wales, however, there is so much we don’t know that sifting through the data to find out what ‘really’ happened is often next to impossible.  Many records were destroyed—deliberately for the most part—in the years after Edward I conquered Wales, but other records were lost to time, thrown away in ignorance, were never written down, or were lost when Henry VIII abolished the monasteries.   There’s a story that one of the twentieth century owners of Aber Garth Celyn (the seat of Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales) found documents stuffed into a wall and burned them because they were in Latin and she couldn’t read them!

For the novelist, while knowing the birth date of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, would be helpful, it does leave enormous scope for fiction.

And that’s what makes historical fiction or historical fantasy so fun to write.  The impetus behind my After Cilmeri series is a dream I had in which I drove my mini-van through a time warp into medieval Wales.  I was fascinated by the idea of what it would be like for a modern person to live there.  Would life in the Middle Ages chew me up and spit me out?  How would I survive without hot showers, antibiotics, and coffee?

In the end, the dream was only the initial kernel of the story, which evolved into a four book series (three of which are now available) and occupied my creative life for much of the last six years.

A shelf (or Kindle)-full of good historical fiction can be entertaining, but also gives us a window to the past and allows us to lose ourselves in other times and lives.  And ensures that we call can say:  I love history!

See Children of Time, the newest book in the After Cilmeri series.

Sarah Woodbury, November 26, 2012


  1. We’ve been bitten by the same bug, Sarah! I’m always sad for people who don’t “get” history, who don’t get a thrill finding out a new factoid about history, like Elizabeth Tudor being wrapped in scarlet cloth to cure her of smallpox. (Yesterday’s research)

  2. A dislike for history can be attributed to incompetent teaching. Every teacher who is able to convey the human interest in history can be sure of success.

  3. I LOVE history, but I do have friends who find it boring. That is why I think historical fiction is a good option for people who have a hard time learning about history- as long as the book is well researched. For instance, I just finished reading a great historical fiction about ancient Egypt called “Shadow of the Sun” by Merrie P. Wycoff. It was very clear that the author researched this story well. I found the book to be very entertaining and it answered questions that I had like what was Queen Nefertiti’s heritage and why did she and her husband, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, want the Egyptian people to worship the sun god, Aten?