Posted by: Sarah | February 10, 2006

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

And from the man who started it all, Alan Fisk:

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 cruelly 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/Ca1cutta/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) 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 is at



  1. Hi,
    You might be interested in my own take on ‘The Rules’:
    Cheers, Alianore.

  2. “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.”

    So true – this made me just sit and giggle. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction and the one thing that always drives me nuts (to throwing books at the wall – gently of course – can’t be too mean to a book) is their 20th century ideals. Someone in the South in the Civil War believed in slavery…but you’d never know it from historical fiction!

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