I write historical romance novels set in Anglo-Saxon England - and routinely use actual historical figures in them. I love basing my plot around actual events and real people as it ensures my plot lines are original.
It actually helps me come with ideas that might not have previously occurred to me!
Doing the research - there's no avoiding this one
Using real historical figures in novels can be a challenge. It's a delicate balance, knowing how much 'history' to include, and how much poetic license to employ. You want to stay true to history, but at the same time you need this character to feel real, not like he or she stepped out of the pages of an academic text book.
The closer your historical figure lived to present day, the more details you will find on them.
And, the more details you find, the harder it is not to drown in details.
Keep focused - remember that it's not your role to faithfully include every snippet you find. You are writing fiction, not a historical biography, so leave room for creativity.
I set my novels in 7th century Britain. This is both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because there are quite a few famous historical figures from this period, mostly rulers of the various kingdoms, who are great fun to write about.
However, it's a curse because there's very little real detail on them. There were no written records during this period. The first accounts were written by monks nearly two centuries later, and then destroyed during the viking raids. This gives me some flexibility with details such as the character's physical appearance, and it also allows me to interpret some historical events without worrying about being contradicted by a history buff!
Details aside, the most important thing is to stay true to the period
Although you may change a few details about the historical figure in question - and even shift his or her timeline around to suit your story - you must keep your character faithful to the period in which he or she lived.
The last thing you want is to dress a modern character in old clothes. Neither do you want to rely upon cliches about the past.
Also, consider your dialogue. Too many uses of words like 'tis, 'twas, and 'thou' actually irritate and distract readers. For example, although many people think 'thou' was a formal way of addressing someone, it was actually the informal word for 'you'!
Scattering your dialogue with archaisms doesn't draw your reader into the past - writing in a way that makes he/she live and breathe the past with you does!
Analyze your character's belief system, morals, habits, and attitude towards death. They need to be true of the period. For example, in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England, Christianity was only just starting to make inroads - as such most people worshiped the old gods such as Woden and Thor, and believed that fate controlled their lives. My novels reflect this.
Meet Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn - the Prince of Powys
Until now I have focused on the kings of the Kingdoms of the East Angles and Mercia. However, the hero of my latest novel (THE BREAKING DAWN - available on Amazon at the end of February), is a famous 7th Century Welsh prince: Cynddylan, son of Cyndrwyn.
Most of what I've found about this charismatic 'battle lord' is in the form of old Welsh poems, and what little historical detail remains about his life is sketchy to say the least. Even so, I have enjoyed bringing 'Dylan' to life in the pages of my novel. My research has allowed me to get a real 'feel' for how this man would have lived.
More on the Prince of Powys in my next post!
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