Book Review: Historical Fiction Writing: a practical guide and tool-kit by Myfanwy Cook

Historical Fiction Writing: a practical guide and tool-kit by Myfanwy Cook
Paperback: 452 pages
Publisher: ActiveSprite Press (1 Mar 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0956765406

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Reviewed by Alex Neville

There are a few ‘how-to’ books on Historical Fiction that tell the would-be historical novelist how to research their novel, how to organize all the information and typical historical fiction writing problems. But what if you are a new writer and really don’t have a clue of how to approach the actual writing of your novel? Cook’s new book can help, with practical exercises, not only in how limber up for the serious business of writing, but also to consider your market and choose your topic.

Early on Cook tries to define what Historical Fiction is. Hence her themes of ‘Chronology’ and ‘Band.’ Cook’s Chronology starts with Prehistory, Ancient Egypt, through individual centuries AD, then it comes to Multi-period, Timeslip and Historical Fantasy and Alternative History. These last four could surely be genres. Then at the end of Chronology comes Children and Young Adults, which could also be classed as genre. Maybe those categories should be listed under Band, which does seem to equate with genre – it mentions Adventure, Romance and Crime. All this just goes to show that it is a minefield trying to categorize historical fiction.

All of the big questions in Historical Fiction writing are covered in separate chapters – such as setting, creating a sense of place, creating a sense of period through dialogue, and historical accuracy, but they are not discussed in depth.  There tend to be heated debates within the historical fiction world about how to write authentic sounding dialogue, how much detail should be included and authenticity. However this book concentrates on the functional aspects of writing Historical Fiction, rather than these debatable issues.

There are sections on the usual writing processes, such as theme and viewpoint. Of course there is a section on research, but it is relatively small compared to the rest of the book. Many tasks throughout the book involve researching such things as historical characters or sites anyway.

Each chapter concludes with activities for would-be novelists. These consist of various tasks often including going out somewhere to ask people their opinions (friends, book-sellers, library staff) as well as short writing tasks designed to make the writer think about various historical aspects, such as identifying the difference between the past and the present.

If you are intending to write a Historical Mystery, you are in luck, as this book has a whole section devoted to the genre.  Interspersed throughout the book are tips and quotes from historical novelists. If you are a member of the Historical Novel Society, you will recognize most – if not all – of the usual suspects. There is also a chapter devoted to Top Tips from historical novelists saying what they think are the most important points to remember. So there’s plenty of input from a wide range successful historical novelists, writing in various sub-genres.

The last section is devoted to the tasks of beginning to write and finishing touches. The book includes a glossary of words, defining the meaning of alliteration, farce and so on. There is also a list of useful books and websites, including those mentioned in the text. However, there is no index, and nor do the Contents Pages list actual page numbers. So getting around, and finding particular information can be difficult. However the book is arranged into six sections, with chapters and sub headings. At over three hundred pages of text, some illustrations could have brightened the publication up, but that is a minor point.

Because of its coverage of writing as a whole, not just the aspects particular to historical fiction, it is well worth having a copy to dip into to provide encouragement and inspiration. It does what it says on the cover: it is a practical guide and tool-kit for Historical Fiction Writing.

Alex Neville is an archaeologist turned librarian and reads lots of historical fiction.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Historical Fiction Writing: a practical guide and tool-kit by Myfanwy Cook”

  1. I first bought this book in its Kindle version. It looked good; hands-on, bursting with practical exercises, excellent tips and guidance and supported by quotations and further ‘bons mots’ from published authors. A good eight pounds’ worth, I thought. And what I could read was excellent. But the production of the Kindle version was so poor I returned it.

    I got in contact with Myfanwy Cook and obtained a printed version. It’s everything it promised to be; jam-packed with information, experience, practical advice and exercises, clearly set out in seven sections. The tone is approachable, yet loses nothing of its authority.

    I think an index would have improved it as well as page numbering, but these are niggles as the content is so good. Recommended.


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