Quiet and Contemplative – Essentials for Writing Historical Fiction

Olive Branch

There is a truth which I have forgotten lately. With the day-to-day workings of my modern, connected life, I’ve been missing out on something essential, something that in the past has always helped me to nurture my creativity, and better my historical fiction. What is it?


Yes. That illusive modern-day grail, that has the power to slow us down, to help us think, to regroup and empower ourselves.

Now that I write that, it really does seem obvious, not ground-breaking at all. But it is, and I’ve found that without taking some calm time to contemplate the past, my fiction suffers.

Like many, I suspect, my days are pretty full. All the tasks and to dos that are swirling around me feel more numerous at times than the number of arrows raining down on the Spartans at Thermopylae, blotting out the sun.

Now, I’m sure there are a great many people who have much busier days. We all have our own threshold.

There is a distinct lack of quiet time, and by this, I mean time in which I sit away from a computer or device, not doing any sort of task, and actually think about history and historic places, the things that I love and that fascinate me.

Greece 2006 091

Of course, I think about history throughout the day, but contemplation of the sand seas of Roman North Africa, or the city streets of the Forum Romanum doesn’t come as easily on a crowded subway car when one is trying to ignore some anonymous person’s flatulence. So gross.

Lately, I’ve ‘forced’ myself to set aside all computers and devices when I have some spare moments (even 5 minutes!) in favour of sitting down with one of my favourite, big, coffee table books about ancient Greece and Rome, or the Middle Ages.

I’ll look at anything from architecture to landscapes, artifacts and archaeological sites, to artistic recreations of places and everyday life in the past. It all helps, it all inspires.

If I can sit in a sunny spot with a cup of coffee and some of my favourite soundtrack music on, even better.

I’ve found, or rather, I’ve remembered, that when sit quietly and allow my mind to wander calmly through some part of history, I am more in touch with it. When I do that, I am better able to bring that world to life when I’m writing about it.

For me, historical fiction is highly dependent on setting.

Nemea countryside

You can have the most wonderful three-dimensional characters ever, but if you don’t have the historical setting to transport the reader, or place those characters firmly in the past, then your book could be taking place at any time in history.

I don’t know about you, but when I pick a work of historical fiction, I pick it largely for the period. If I’m not transported to that period in history, I’m disappointed.

I’ve had a lot of readers tell me that they loved my books because they learned a lot about the ancient world, or about the Roman Empire. That makes me very happy, as it has always been my goal to make history interesting and entertaining.

Without having taken the time to be Quiet, and to contemplate the physical world of those distant eras, I know I would not have managed to pull it off.

I’d like to share with you a very special book about the Roman Empire that has given me no end of inspiration. It is Splendours of the Roman World, by Anna Maria Liberati and Mario Bourbon.

Splendours of the Roman World

This book was a gift from my parents who bought it at the Roman Bath museum, in Bath. Ever since I first flipped through it, I was rapt, sucked into the ancient world.

I have many other books that do this for me, but this is one that I continue to go back to again and again.

Are there any books that you like to flip through at a leisurely pace, or that inspire you and fire your view of an historic period?

Or, do have a favourite work of historical fiction that you felt really did a good job of transporting you as a reader?

Share your favourite book titles in the comments below.

While you do that, I’m going to step away from the computer, sit quietly, and immerse myself in the ancient world.

Thanks for reading…


2 thoughts on “Quiet and Contemplative – Essentials for Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I like to re-read Paul Cartledge’s Thermopylae and Bettany Hughes Helen of Troy. I have other great books too and like to flick through those that have overlays of what the sites or buildings looked like.
    As to quiet time, those are rare. Our lives are busier and doesn’t seem to be a break any time soon! To the anonymous farter, get some manners. That is really gross!

    • It does seem the world is only getting busier and busier. We need to hold on to our quiet moments, as rare as they are, especially for the creatives among us!

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