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A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.  (Robert Bach)

We can all learn how to do what we do, better – writers included. I spent last Saturday at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London’s Bedford Square. Bloomsbury Publishing, in concert with the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook people, offer a range of helpful workshops – How to Write Historical Fiction and Get Published being one of them. Over fifty committed writers split into workshops covering ancient, medieval and modern periods, taken by published authors in each field: Louisa Young (My Dear I Wanted To Tell you), Antony Riches, who writes the Empire series, Wounds of Honour, set in ancient Rome, and S D Sykes (about whom more below).

In the afternoon, there was a keynote talk by Suzanne Dunn (The Sixth Wife and The Lady of Misrule) with a subsequent open discussion with her agent, Antony Topping. Last, but far from least, was a talk by Heather Holden-Brown of hbb Agency about what agents are looking for. She may live to regret her enthusiasm – she’s now top of my agent stalking list!

My own two workshops were led by S D Sykes, who has published Plague Land (a murder mystery set in 14th century plague-ravaged England) and The Butcher Bird, which continues the story of young Oswald, who finds himself plucked from a monastery to become lord of his family estate when the heir dies unexpectedly.

There was practical advice alongside hands-on exercises (ninevoices members know how I usually feel about those!). The speakers talked frankly of their personal experiences and journey to publication, but with special focus on the aspects essential to writing historical fiction – authenticity and research, finding the balance between fact and fiction, dialogue, setting, etc.

In no particular order, here are a very few of the things Sarah Sykes mentioned (I have pages of notes, but just how long have we got?):

  • It’s vital to avoid a slow start – save the atmospheric description for later. (For a powerful start, wanting to dig up your recently buried wife’s coffin might work – but, damn, she’s already snaffled that idea…)
  • You could, however, use a forceful prologue instead, to be re-visited later
  • Villains must have some sympathetic characteristics
  • Use progressive jeopardy. Big red line under that in my notebook.
  • Ends must have meaning. Leave the coincidences to Shakespeare
  • Beware tying chapters up too neatly – leave a question mark to encourage your reader to want to read on
  • Make the book a journey rather than a series of episodes

Although my own period – the 17th century – wasn’t specifically covered, I considered the day excellent value for money. I met engaging and committed fellow writers (what a nice bunch of people we are!), listened to a number of authors who’ve succeeded, and to two agents who assured us that they really do welcome approaches from new authors. It was also fun – and the white wine wasn’t bad either. This won’t be my last trip to Bedford Square.