Writing History: Thriller or Chiller?

Robert Hutchinson, author of widely-praised lives of Henry V111, Francis Walsingham and Thomas Crowwell, gives his rules for writing readable and authoritative history.

Writing books on history for the mass market is reminiscent of travelling in one of those Victorian “pea-souper” fogs in Victorian London. You know your destination – a compelling, entertaining read – but the huge volume of letters and documents thrown up by your research contains material that can all too easily divert you from your chosen route and you end up in a number of cul-de-sacs. The result is a confused, complex story with no logical narrative thread and reduced impact. So discipline in research is crucial to success. If you want your book published – and much more importantly – read, there are some writing techniques that are worth considering before you sit down in front of your PC. History is a big market in the
UK and unsurprisingly, a crowded one. You must produce a book that captures and holds the attention of the reader – that elusive page-turner that wins rave reviews and gets your work talked about. History books in the past were often dry as dusty old bones and redolent to the browser of long boring days in the classroom in the past. Today, you should write your book with all the tricks of marketing in the forefront of your mind. From the very first sentence, the prose should be selling your concept and content. Put yourself into the mind of the reader, your customer: there they are in a bookshop, in the history section. They pick up your book and turn to the first page of text. You have now one chance to convince them to buy. There are probably no more than ten seconds to make the sale. Those first few words are your key to success. Intrigue them. Awake their curiosity. Make them want to read on. Dare them to put the book back on the shelf. Always remember the dear reader in everything you write. Your narrative should be a kind of social contract with them. You are promising to inform and entertain them. Your prose should therefore be clear and easily assimilated: totally understandable at the first read. No questions should be left in the reader’s mind after reading each phrase or sentence, except: “What’s going to happen next”. Carefully plan your narrative. Think of it as a banquet, each course complimenting both the previous and following dishes, building to the bombe surprise as a climax. The text should flow seamlessly, gathering pace as you approach the end of the book. It should be easily digestible and leave the reader wanting more, but well-satisfied by your literary feast. I always write the last chapter first and then next, move back to the introduction. These are the vital sections of the title: the former reinforces the overall impression of your work; the latter locks the reader into the book. While writing, think of your work as more a novel based on historic events and characters than a history book. Your research should be full and accurate, but do not be afraid to exploit fully the drama of events. The actors in your plot were real people: paint them vividly in their true colours – all their motivations, vices, defects, attributes, emotions should be explored. Encourage your readers to identify with them: to love or hate them. Many writers in the past have described the consequences of the actions of historical characters: the effect on international relations, the impact on governance. Today, I believe readers are far more interested in what they were like; what indeed life was like, in say, Tudor times. So detail counts. So does description. I think of my narratives like a crime novel, or a theatrical production. By the end of the book, make sure the reader knows what happened to all the major characters you have introduced to them. An epilogue is a neat way of achieving this.Avoid, like the plague, huge blocks of text, which visually present a daunting block of print to the eye. Limit the number of sentences to each paragraph. One paragraph equals one topic. Pace the delivery of your information – don’t pack lots of detail into one sentence that meanders across the page. If you can’t read it out aloud without asphyxiating yourself through lack of breath, it’s far too long and erects an intimidating obstacle to the reader’s enjoyment of your prose.Remember the rhythm of your writing. If it is a dramatic episode in the story, use short, punchy sentences to increase the speed of reading in line with the fast-moving events. Don’t hesitate to use a three or four word sentence to stop the reader dead in their tracks at the climax of the narrative to increase the dramatic impact. This is an extract from Elizabeth’s Spymaster, which describes the execution of Mary Queen of Scots:

It was now around eleven o’clock. A breathless silence fell in the hall. Shrewsbury signalled to the executioner.The moment of Mary’s death had finally come.Bull lifted his axe high above his head for the fatal strike and brought down the weapon with the full force of his considerable weight behind it.His blow was misaimed.The blade hit the knot of the blindfold and, glancing off, cut deeply into the back of Mary’s skull. The Scottish Queen made “a very little noise” but did not move.Bull’s second blow severed her head from her neck “apart from a very little gristle.” Crouching over her, he hastily shortened his grip on the heavy axe to finally slash through the last remaining sinews, using it like a butcher’s cleaver to finish his grisly task.

At the end of each of your chapters, consider inserting a short sentence as a “cliff hanger” - a question or a phrase that forces the reader to turn to the next page.Here is an example from Last Days of Henry VIII, describing the scene after the king’s death:Above the coffin, as a reminder of the glories of the reign now ended, was the huge Whitehall Mural, painted ten years before, showing the magnificent, imposing figure of Henry at the height of his powers. He stands proudly before the figures of his parents, Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth of York; the demure Jane Seymour – mother of the king’s lawful successor – to his right. It was and is a powerful propaganda image. Many watching in that hushed room must have wondered what the future held for England and the uncertain Tudor dynasty. Some conspirators already knew.

The answer to that implied question comes at the end of the book. By this technique, like the crime novel, you are encouraging the reader to stay with you, to discover the solution to the riddle. So now we have Hutchinson’s four rules for successful history writing:· Discipline in research· Drama in writing· Detail·DescriptionThat only leaves us with the most important decision of all: the title of your book. Spend more time over this than almost working out the narrative plan. It is the one factor that attracts the wholesalers, retailers, and above all the reader. Your may well think this is merely presentation rather than substance. You would be right. But the perfect title will not only appeal to a hard-pressed, overworked editor in reading your manuscript, but also to the potential reader, both overwhelmed by choice. Make the title evocative, punchy, and telling. Make it easily remembered for those who want to order your book in a shop or online, but may (sadly) forget the author’s name. Make sure it doesn’t sound like someone else’s title, or you may hand over a sale to them!

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Robert Hutchinson

Robert Hutchinson, author and broadcaster started his working life as a reporter on regional newspapers before joining The Press Association, (the news agency for UK and Irish media) as a night sub-editor. He returned to reporting, later becoming Defence Correspondent. In late 1983 he joined Jane...More about Robert Hutchinson