The Challenges of Writing Historical Novels

F.M. Deemyad

Guest Author F.M. Deemyad’s debut novel, The Sky Worhipers, will be released on March 2, 2021

Covering the trials and tribulations of the people who lived decades or centuries before our time is both challenging and rewarding. Indeed in history, there are lessons for future generations, and that is the underlying reason why some novelists place their focus on historical characters and events. For a writer who feels a sense of responsibility toward the events in the past and seeks to write the reality of what happened, however, writing a historical novel is a difficult undertaking. Not only a great amount of time has to be devoted to research, but also distinguishing reality from myths becomes increasingly complicated when one tries to write a fact-based tale. This is particularly true when writing about ancient history.

Lack of sophisticated forms of communications in the 13th century, an era that is the focus of my research, made writing about this era quite a challenging task, for there was a lot of inconsistency not only in the writings of ancient historians but modern ones as well. Geography to some extent, can come to the rescue, for nature remains pretty much intact even during historical upheavals. Although even in this area, I faced the challenge of finding the right plants that grew in particular regions of the world hundreds of years ago.

It is said that victors write the history of wars, but it is imperative that the historical novelist give voice to the vanquished, particularly women, who have been among the casualties of almost every conflict or upheaval in history. Minority communities in every nation are also among the most vulnerable during internal and external conflicts.

Although undertaking extensive research in history when one is eager to write their own narrative seems like a tedious and tiresome task, without such meticulous research the story will lack credibility and depth. If the intent of the novelist is to bring history to life, then a period of five to ten years must be considered for the completion of the work. Rushed reading of historical facts is only good when one plans to take a history test in college.

I personally found gradual but systemic absorption of material to be most effective. This way, I would get a sense of what it was like to actually live in the particular era as a baker, a carpenter, a warrior or a craftsman. Indeed systematic writing, reading, and research, even if one engages in writing and reading a paragraph or two a day, is better than trying to absorb or tackle a large volume of information overnight.

Once the author begins to see events beyond barriers of time and era, a great sense of understanding follows. I began to envision the era with great appreciation for the colors and sounds and smells, for the variety of clothing people wore, for their tools of trade and craft, for the intense diversity of their languages and cultures without an internationally known language to ease communication. How cumbersome it must have been to ride a horse-drawn carriage through mud or wear the armor of a knight. How difficult it was to communicate with people in other regions of the world. 

Seeing the world through the eyes of each character is particularly important to writers of historical narratives. Although history, to some extent, writes the main plot to one’s novel, it is the details in the life experiences of those who lived in ancient times that give the story depth and meaning.  

For history to come to life, the author cannot just take a few simple facts out of ancient chronicles and write their own narrative. Instead, careful, prejudice-free investigation of the past is the first step to writing a true account of historical events while using the beauty of the English language to weave in one’s own narrative.

F.M. Deemyad was born in Kermanshah, Iran. She grew up in the capital, Tehran, attending bilingual schools run by Christian and Jewish minorities. Her father, born and raised in India, had come to Iran when he was in his late twenties. Being the son of a linguist who had taught English Literature in India for a number of years, he exposed the author in her preschool years to the English language, and she learned to love classic literature under her father’s instructions. She received a Master’s degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2016. She currently resides with her husband in Maryland.

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