Sunday, 10 February 2008

The All-Purpose Rules for Writing Historical Fiction/Ripping Yarns

A few years ago, The Official Rules for Writing Historical Fiction series appeared in Solander, the magazine of The Historical Novel Society. It was inspired by HNS member Alan Fisk’s posting on the HNS online discussion list and ran for several issues, having caught the imagination of certain HNS members who enthusiastically contributed their own sets of Rules. These Rules covered various historical fiction genres, including Arthurian, Medieval, Viking, Prehistoric, Victorian, English Civil War, American Civil War and Regencies. With permission from the various authors, I posted them on my original blog a couple of years ago. They proved popular, inspiring sundry bloggers to post yet more Rules for yet more genres on their own blogs. I'll see if I can still link to those.

In the hope that they may prove entertaining and instructive to aspiring historical novelists who didn't catch them the first time round, I'm reposting the original Rules here at regular intervals, beginning with Alan's initial contribution:

Here are the official rules for historical novels, as observed by me in many years of reading them:


by Alan Fisk

1. For novels set in the English Civil War, the Royalists must be the goodies and the Parliamentarians must be the baddies.

2. For novels set in the American Civil War, both sides are the goodies.

3. Christian characters must always be represented as unpleasant fanatics. Representing Muslim characters in this way is optional. You must not represent Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist characters as being anything but perfect.

4. No matter what the time or place of your novel, your hero/heroine must have the views of a right-on politically-correct person in a Western country circa 2000 A.D.

5. Money must never be an important factor in the lives of your characters.

6. You are welcome to write a novel about the British Celts heroically resisting the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but you must not write a novel about how the Beaker People felt about being invaded by the Celts some centuries earlier.

7. If your heroine becomes pregnant, she must always be astonished, in spite of everything that has happened in the last six chapters.

8. Your hero/heroine must never develop
a disgusting and disfiguring disease even if everyone else in the town has it.

9. Writing a historical novel set in any part of Africa south of the Sahara but north of South Africa is forbidden.

10. Nobody in your novel must ever play any kind of sports involving cruelty to animals or people, even if everyone else in that time and place practises them.

11. The first wife of your Napoleonic Wars naval hero always dies, usually in a coach accident, although smallpox has been used as an alternative. Your hero is now free to marry the woman with whom he has been carrying out a beautiful, but apparently doomed, adulterous relationship. (Her elderly husband is always killed by a convenient cannonball.) If the first wife has been engaging in an adulterous relationship of her own, this is entirely wicked and she will be punished for it by the aforementioned fatal coach crash.

12. Your hero must have a miraculous ability to survive fifty lashes from a cat-o’ -nine-tails without dying, or suffering permanent disability.

13. All housekeepers are wicked, and cr
uelly mistreat your mill-girl heroine, but the housekeeper always ends up being dismissed without references by the new master of the house, who also marries the mill-girl.

14. As the male author of a naval or military adventure series begins to age, instances of the hero successfully cuckolding an old fool become less frequent, and eventually cease.


by Alan Fisk

Alan writes: I admit that most of these rules were parodied in the Flashman books and in Carry On up the Khyber.

1. No native Indian ruler is to be trusted.

2. The hero pines for England/Scotland (never Wales or Ireland), but never goes there.

3. The hero always has an influential relative with the ear of the Viceroy.

4. The hero always comes up against a sneering Russian aristocrat.

5. The baddies always forget to cut the telegraph wires that carry news to HQ/Calcutta/London.

6. Even the most experienced soldiers always set out with insufficient water for the march.

7. Muslims and Hindus never show any inclination to fight each other.

8. There are no Lieutenants; every officer is at least a Captain.

9. All hairy naked wandering holy men are in fact English public school types in disguise.

10. Railway lines are curiously absent from the India of Ripping Yarns.

All of us who joined in this discussion had great fun satirising these cliches, but as with all satire, there is a serious, morally-improving lesson here: we should all avoid unconsciously repeating these tired old plots and characterisations yet again. For an instructive parody, John Barth’s novel The SotWeed Factor, set in seventeenth-century Maryland, sends up almost every tired old story element: amazing coincidences, vital diary extracts that can only be obtained after strenuous adventures, and which always break off at the most tantalising moment, etc., etc. I’ve only been able to find an American edition still in print, from Anchor Literary Library, August 1987 ISBN 0-385-24088-0, price $18.95.

Alan Fisk lives in London. Because of reading too many Roman historical novels, he is fat, bald, sleazy, decadent, and grasping (see the Rules for Writing Classical-Set Fiction, upcoming) and is the author of The Strange Things of the World (1988), The Summer Stars (1992 and 2000), Forty Testoons (1999), Lord of Silver (2000) and Cupid and the Silent Goddess (2003). His homepage, where you can find details of the latest editions of his books, and sample chapters thereof, is at

Next: The Rules for Writing Fiction set in Greek and Roman Times.


Kirsten Campbell said...

6. You are welcome to write a novel about the British Celts heroically resisting the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but you must not write a novel about how the Beaker People felt about being invaded by the Celts some centuries earlier.

Oh, dear. I remember once having a vague idea for a story along those lines. I'm a bad person.

I love the Rules. It doesn't matter how many times I've read them, or how long ago, I still love them. Thanks for posting them up again!

Carla said...

Good to see the Rules back in circulation!

Gabriele C. said...

6a) If you write about the Roman occupation of parts of Britain, you must present the Romans as the bad guys who suppress those nice, tree hugging Celts. You also have to make it clear that Celtic women were equal to the men; bonus for some sword wielding females. Inclusion of mysterious Celtic rites is encouraged. If you have late Romans, they will be Christians and extra evil. :)

Alan Fisk said...

Strangely, I'm one-fifth of the way through writing a novel set in southern Britain in the first century A.D. which is highly pro-Roman, anti-Druid, and anti-Boudicca, although I haven't got to her yet. The hero is the British king Togidubnus.