Why you need to remember the present in order to write the past – Fiona Ford

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By Fiona Ford

I’m excited. Very soon my favourite show, The Crown, will return for a third season on Netflix and I can’t wait. I love all that drama, the nail-biting tension as we delve into the fictional workings of the royal inner circle, but most of all I love the sense of history.  However, make no mistake. The Crown may be set in the past but its storytelling is every bit as modern as say an episode of BBC One’s recent hit, The Bodyguard and that’s something I try to remember as a saga writer.♥

My latest novel, Christmas At Liberty’s, is set in 1941, around the time of Pearl Harbour and technically falls into the saga bracket. This means many will be quick to dismiss it as a ‘cloak and clogs’ book, full of wailing women where not much else happens as they wait for their man to return home.

It’s a common misconception as these days sagas are so much more than that. There’s heroism, intrigue, crime and yes there’s usually love, but not until our gal has jumped through a fair few hoops, risked her own life, provided for her family against the odds oh, and possibly solved a crime along the way.

To some people that may come as a surprise, but most of us saga readers know that modern readers don’t want all that hand-wringing and wailing. They want to read novels just as captivating as these TV dramas that have us binge watching every episode. So although we writers may have set our novels in the past, our story telling is thoroughly modern. Here are my top tips for any historical writer wanting to keep today’s reader hooked while staying true to the past.

  1. Stay with the action: Just because you’re writing about the past doesn’t mean you have to give us every historical fact. You’re telling a story not writing a documentary – leave all that to Mary Beard and give the reader just enough to know where the story is set and stick to the drama.
  2. Watch your language: You may want to keep the story modern, but that doesn’t mean your characters can start saying, ‘yeah, yeah, that’s wicked though mate,’ when your story is set in 1914. It also doesn’t mean you have to have them speaking in RP either. A nod to the times is all that’s required.
  3. Don’t be sentimental: Remember life wasn’t all brilliant ‘back in the day’. People have sworn, drunk too much, stolen, killed and generally behaved badly for centuries. Just because your story is set in the past doesn’t mean your characters won’t have flaws – show them.
  4. You can be chaste and modern: Nobody likes watching a sex scene with their parents – it’s a universal fact. Sagas are a bit like that, readers don’t really want all that sex in their faces. But just because you need to keep things a bit PG with the romance that doesn’t mean you can’t make it steamy. There’s a lot to be said for a longing look shown in the right way.
  5. Write what they see: This is the most simple and perhaps the most important. Put yourself in your character’s shoes and think about how they would feel and what they would do in your chosen situation. Chances are if the bombs are dropping he or she is running like hell for safety no matter what the time period – show their fear, their vulnerability and keep the emotion real without dragging it out.

Fiona Ford worked as a freelance journalist across the national press for several years before turning her hand to writing fiction. She has published two previous sagas in her own name and written two other works of fiction under the name Fiona Harrison. Originally from Bath, Fiona now lives in Berkshire and is married with two cats. When she is not writing or researching World War II, Fiona can be found running along the Thames Path, training for a half marathon of some kind and wishing she was sat on the sofa eating chocolate instead. Christmas at Liberty’s is out now.


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