The Magpie’s Guide to Writing Historical Fiction

This year, after 20 years of writing contemporary fiction, I was asked by a publisher if I’d be interested in writing a novel set during the Second World War. I jumped at the opportunity – them promptly fell into a panic . I’d barely read any historical novels before, let alone written one. Cue an acute case of the what ifs…

What if I get some historical facts wrong?

What if I can’t write dialogue from a different era?

What if I’m not as good as other historical novelists?

What if I don’t have what it takes to write a novel set in a different country?

What if I don’t have what it takes to create a world set in a different time period?

Etc, etc.

In a bid to calm my nerves I began researching in earnest – the one ‘what if’ that I felt I had some control over. 

I started by doing a Google search for ‘interesting jobs for women during World War 2’ as I knew I wanted to create a heroine with guts and grit and a storyline that would grip.

And very soon I was awestruck, lost in a world of stories about the incredibly courageous women who risked everything working for the resistance as undercover operatives during the war.

But the more I researched, the more I discovered something fascinating about history – it obviously contains stories we are all familiar with – the bold headline news from the past – but it is also full to the brim with lesser known stories of so-called ‘ordinary’ people, containing vivid authentic detail the bigger picture tends to miss.

As I dived deeper and deeper into my research, ordering out of print books by people who actually lived through the war, and disappearing down internet rabbit holes that contained much more intricate historical detail, I realised that my biggest fear about writing historical fiction could also be my greatest strength. The fact that I had no real knowledge of the genre meant that I could be free to make my own rules.

Instead of writing in detail about historical events we’re already familiar with I would zoom in on the facts and anecdotes and stories I’d discovered that caused me to gasp in shock or delight.

Like a magpie swooping in for shiny treasures to weave into its nest, I felt a passionate desire to share these nuggets with others by weaving them into the plot of my novel. For example…

The female undercover operative who parachuted out of a plane and landed in a tree

The man who escaped from a train bound for Auschwitz using a jumper and urine

The day all of the birds in Paris died

Some of the fascinating details I found and wove into An American in Paris are so obscure you can only find them in out of print books written at the time by the people involved. It gives me such a kick to think of sharing these historical treasures with readers. And in the case of the man who escaped from the train, it feels like such an honour to share a story inspired by his bravery with a new generation of readers.

An American in Paris is available to pre-order now for the bargain price of just 99p / $ 0.99 and is being published by Bookouture on 4th January 2021.

Find out more and pre-order your copy here.

Praise for An American in Paris

“This book has it all – historical information, action and intrigue, friendship and most importantly, love.” Goodreads Review

“What a great story! Love the interplay between the characters. I highly recommend.’ Goodreads Review

“An excellent dual timeline historical novel that kept me entertained throughout.” Goodreads Review

“A more personal World War 2 story. Keep the tissues handy.” Goodreads Review

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