Home » Writing Historical Fiction – The Devil in the Details
Category Archives: Writing Historical Fiction – The Devil in the Details
In 1983 I walked into Wilson Jr. High School and into Mr. Perdy’s World History class. My life has never been the same. He opened up a world of people and places. It was in his class that I watched 1963â€™s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor & Sir Richard Burton.
I was blown away with the costumes, the plot & the culture clash of Romans and Egyptians. (I really didn’t get the whole Ptolemy Hellenistic thing yet.) But what I understood most of all was that this was a story about people. People who loved, hated, got drunk, got jealous and got scared.
To my 12 year old mind, this was a revelation.
I once had a graduate school professor who said that “The past is a foreign country.”
That statement is true.
There are many things we take for granted today as moral and ethical truths. However, when we peer into the lives of our ancestors, we are shocked by what they thought was acceptable. The further back we go, the weirder things get.
Oh sure, human desires haven’t changed. We’re still human, but how we express and fulfill those desires does change over time. How we try to build a life for ourselves, create a legacy, or even navigate our world are – those things are circumstantial
And THAT is where great story begins. What do the characters want? Why can’t they have it? What are they willing to do to go get it? When you right historical fiction, the question of Why can’t they have it, tends to glare at me.
A story about an interracial romance is nothing new. But set it in 1830s Mississippi and you’ve got tension.
A story about brave soldiers and civilians fighting the good fight is old hat. Set that story in 1945 Nagasaki and you have tension galore!
A story about a talented seamstress might make interesting chick lit. Place her in the court of Louis XVI of France and you have a story!
Every Time Period Presents It’s own Problems
Placing a story within a historical context presents both reader and writer with fresh and interesting problems, fixes and themes. Besides, there is a tension in telling a story around the facts of an historical event. Even if your story is completely fiction a to wrap it around the basics of things that already happened can be a challenge a but it’s a challenge I relish. Whether your story is about the life of famous and powerful, like in The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory or you’ve created a cozy world of fictional characters in a historical setting, like in Promised to the Crown by Aimie K. Runyan, your still writing within the parameters of factual events.
Besides, nothing excites me more as a reader than when I discover a new perspective on a piece of history I thought I knew. It lights the imagination and gets me to dream.
For example, everyone knows how Blacks are portrayed in Gone with the Wind. Now compare that with the complex and heartwarming look at Black women in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Different story, different perspective, different representation. A
Historical Fiction is a Great Way to Introduce Under Represented Cultures
Writing a western story about Native Americans fighting it out with cowboys can be dated. Writing about how the cowboys were Black, turns the tale on its head.
Take a story arch-type we’ve all heard before. The plucky band of heroes fighting the good fight. Sounds good, right? OK, maybe a little trite? Well, let’s see if history can spice it up?
You could write about German guerilla’s fighting the Nazis, or Spanish guerilla’s fighting Napoleon. How about a story involving Quantrill’s Raiders.
But with a little research you could find something better.
Like the story of the thousands of Filipino’s who enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight the Japanese in World War II.
Who are these people? Why did they enlist when the Philippines had their own army? What happened to them after the war? All these questions can lead to in depth characters and better story telling. It can also shed light on a period of history not a lot of people know about.
Good story is good story. But when I read a good piece of historical fiction I not only enjoy a story, I also learn.
Welcome to all those who have arrived from Writing from the Peak Website! I want to get into some nitty gritty about re-writes. So, let’s begin!
Let’s Be Honest About these Re-Writes
If you’re adding a romantic subplot, like I did. Or you’re polishing some language so that story or character arcs stand out, or you’re trying to make an impact with dialogue, then go be about your business. But there should be a light at the end of the tunnel. There should be a time when you can abandon this story and move on to the next one. Your job is not to create perfection, but to create art. This is why I push the critique group so much. Everyone needs a separate set of eyes to tell you if what you’re doing is good, or not. Those additional eyes will help make your story great.
What if you need a major overhaul? Ok. We can do that. But first ask yourself why. Is your world building off? Are their historical anachronisms in your story that are essential to the plot? Did you realize you told the story from the wrong point of view? (This happens, believe me!)
Is any part of your W.I.P. salvageable? Perhaps Act 1, or the last part of act 3? Maybe the midpoint, or the romantic subplot? Whatever can be salvaged should be kept and put into separate file folders. Then start your re-writes. As you do this, think about the plot beats. Think about the protagonist’s motivation and character arc. How can you put these on a pedestal and polish them so they shine in your story?
Remember, writing a novel takes grit. If you’ve come this far, you’ve got what it takes. I know how disheartening it can feel realizing you have to write another 80,000 words before your novel is done. I have been there. My first draft of The Gallowglass was 117,000 words. It took a year to write. It was also very bad. Oh, so very bad. When I re-wrote the novel, I couldn’t even save one paragraph. But I got through it. I now have a much better story. If I can do it, I know you can too.
The Nine Questions
Ask these questions about your work before, during and after you’ve written your first draft. The answers should change as your story progresses and you polish certain scenes.
1.) Is the protagonist’s motivation painfully obvious?
2.) Is the protagonist likeable? Do you want them to be?
3.) Do you have a theme? If so, is the theme obvious to your readers?
4.) Does your protagonist have a story arc? Is it clear and obvious?
5.) Do any of your supporting characters have a story arc? Are their arcs clear and obvious?
6.) Is your protagonist the cause of at least some of his own troubles? If not, why? If so, can he fix them?
7.) Is your protagonist able to reflect upon their decisions at the midpoint? If so, is she beginning to question her decisions?
8.) Is there a whiff of death in the second half of Act 2?
9.) Is there at least a partially satisfying conclusion for your reader? Do the good guys win? If not, is there something satisfying for your reader to grab ahold of at the end of your W.I.P.?
The Story Arc
In every film, opera, play and novel there are actually two stories going on. One is motivated by the plot. The overarching story that the protagonist and her friends are reacting too. The other story is about the protagonist’s inner journey. This is this is the character arc. Questions 1, 4, 6, 7, & 8 are about your protagonist’s character arc.
In the past, genre fiction like sci-fi or paranormal romance was heavy on plot, but light on character development. That time is quickly dying. All writers need to up their game and work on the character arc for their novel, regardless of the genre. It is very important that your readers see the protagonist grow, learn and change as the story progresses. And, you get bonus points for making your character arc and plot arc intersect! All the best novels have a character arc that intersects with the story arc.
There are times in the story, like in the beginning, when we learn what the hero really wants, and at the midpoint, when we see the hero realize maybe this isn’t what they want, that intersect with the story arc. If done well, they can be seamless and poignant. The character arc should be the focus of your re-writes. Look to make your protagonist’s personality stand out in the midst’s of the story arc.
I could go on about this, but local Colorado author Stant Litore wrote a book about this called Writing Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget: a Toolbox for Emerging Writers, on Amazon now for under $10. I highly recommend it.
Next month will talk about paths to publishing, getting an agent & if you want one, and the power of self-publishing.
Like my FB author page at Jason Henry Evans
Follow me on Twitter @evans_writer
Writing can be a solitary action. You can go to conferences (Pike’s Peak’s Conference is coming up!), join a critique group, get invited to book release parties. They are all fun. However, your job as a writer is to plant your butt in a seat and put words on the screen. For a lot of people, this can be very hard.
Today’s blog on historical fiction won’t have a lot of suggestions on how to put words on your screen. There is no secret to writing. If you say you are a writer, then you’re going to have to sit down and write.
There is a fallacy that writing requires inspiration at every turn.
There is a fallacy that writing requires lots and lots of talent.
There is a fallacy that writing requires an unburdened mind so you can concentrate.
None of these things are true.
All you need to write a book is a kernel of an idea and the intestinal fortitude to write it. Everything else you can learn along the way.
Is it going to be hard? Yes.
Will you get frustrated? Absolutely.
Will you discover knew deficiencies in your writing that you’ll have to correct? Count on it.
Will you probably poor blood, sweat and tears into a story you realize isn’t very good? Uh huh.
But that’s the process isn’t it? You have to go through this journey yourself in order to find the story that’s inside you. The only way to do it is to do it.
Enough badgering. Here is what helps me.
Because I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline, I plot out every scene I’m going to write for a novel. Those outlines show an emotional high, an emotional low, and a conflict. (Remember, every scene you write must have some sort of conflict in it.) Because I have these tools, (or crutches, depending on your point of view,) I can write out a scene. Then I can write another one. And another one. Eventually I have a book because I’ve outlined all my scenes.
I may decide to change something while I’m writing it, or I can go back and re-write. (more on that later) But at least I have something on the page.
Here’s another hint. Writing is a muscle, so use it every day.
If you can’t do this, I understand. You’ve got a life. Maybe you’re a full time student. Maybe you run a business. Maybe you’re fighting a disease like Cancer. I get it. But let me say this.
The world needs your story. Make your story a priority in your life. Carve out time, if only twenty minutes a day, and write.
Over a month, a season, or a year, you will write your novel. All you have to do is create a habit of writing. If you do that, over time, eventually you’ll have a completed manuscript. (Which is more than most writers have!)
So how do you do that?
It’s like brushing your teeth. You set a time of day and write. You make a writing place where you are in the habit of writing. The time is up to you. 4:30 in the morning or 10:00 at night. Whatever helps you. As for the place, it can be your kitchen table. It can be in your moved out kids converted bedroom. It can be in the tool shed. I once knew a college professor who had to write a book, so he would go to a set number of coffee shops and rotate. The time and place are up to you, it’s the habit that’s important.
Another hint: Flex your muscles by upping your daily word count.
When I first started writing I could barely write 1,000 words a day. It was exhausting. This was in 2013, the first time I participate in NaNoWriMo. That first week was killer! I knew I had to get to 1667 words a day, but I was exhausted! Things changed week 2.
By the end of the second week I was writing about 1700 words a day.
By the end of the third week I was averaging 2100 words a day.
By the end of the fourth week I was averaging 2300 words a day.
Now when I write, I get mental fatigue at about 3000 words, on average. So my advice to you is push yourself. Where ever you’re at when it comes to word volume. Tell yourself you will write 250 more words today than you usually write. If you average 500 words, try to write 750. If you write 2300, write 2550. Average that out for the week. Then, next week try to write 250 more words. I promise you that your daily word totals will go up.
Final hint: Write what you wanna write first.
Fellow writer and author James Vincett gets a scene in his mind. It’s like an itch he can’t reach. So he’ll put that scene down on paper. Then, he’ll get another scene in his head and write that one down, too. He’s written the fun stuff, first.
Once that is written, he’ll outline and write all the stuff that comes in between. For James, it’s an intellectual exercise in trying to connect two scenes together in a coherent and cogent way. It works for him.
As for me, like I wrote above, I outline all my scenes before I write. There are some I dread writing and others I really look forward to. I make myself write the mundane stuff first. I then reward myself by writing the cool stuff I wanted to write all along! Try it. Maybe it will work for you.
I am sorry I wasn’t more helpful. I’m sorry that all I could do is come up with some suggestions to help you stay motivated. However, this is where your metal is tested. Are you really a writer? If so, then write. Write every day, if you can. Get some progress under your belt. Even if you only write a page a day, that is better than no pages at all. Remember, the worst page written is better than the perfect book in your head.
Follow Jason on Twitter @evans_writer
Like his Facebook Author Page at Jason Henry
Welcome to my website & blog! If you’ve come over from the Pikes Peak Blog, we’ll get to the topic of research in just a minute. Either way, I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. If you like what you find here, make sure to share on your own social media platforms.
Over at Pikes Peak I wrote that you should do your research before you write your book. I want to pars this out, if I may. Research is really important, now. In the past, genre’s like historical fiction, science fiction and political thrillers had to get the details right, or else lose the readers. However, times have changed. Thanks to authors like George R R Martin, even fantasy have to get the basics of their world correct or else it just won’t make sense.
However, you can go too far.
I have heard stories in the dark recesses of the internet, about amateur writers who spend every waking moment doing research. If they right science fiction, they order that large, high school Periodic Table poster made out of vellum, so they can look up atomic weights at their leisure.
If they write, Historical Romance, they find and save hundreds of pictures of horses and horse tack so their description is spot on in that one scene.
Don’t be either of these people.
What I mean by doing your research, is have a general familiarity with the time period, the social conventions, and the political landscape of your story. I want you to do this so you don’t find out that your book is implausible because of a basic historical fact. (While it’s real cool to write a story about British SAS troops fighting in World War I, it will probably never get published. The SAS weren’t formed until World War II.)
Once you’ve done that research, then write your book. Do whatever you want to do in that story. When you are done, then go back and research the minutia.
Research the appropriate colors manufactured in clothes. Research the kinds of handles and cross guards used in swords. Research the way food was prepared, or how women put on corsets. Research, research, research.
But if you try and do all the research upfront, there is a very good chance you will never finish your book. I know from experience that a flawed book draft in my hand can be fixed faster than a book that was never written. Don’t be that guy who never writes their book.
Author Susan Spann has a great system for research. She writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, set in 16th century Japan. When she’s writing her draft and needs the name of a place, or object, she doesn’t stop writing and go research for an afternoon. She leaves it blank and places a note in her digital copy reminding her to look this stuff up later. When she’s done with the draft, Susan goes back and researches the specifics and puts them in her book. Her system is efficient and effective.
Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. Remember kids, before you start writing, get the basics down. Then when you’re done writing your draft, go back, at some point in the editing process, and find all of the minutia we readers of Historical Fiction love to nitpick about!
Now let’s talk more about research. Real research.
On the Pikes Peak blog I wrote that Wikipedia is a good way to get some general information about a time period if you’re a little sketchy. I still believe that. But what other sources can you use once you’ve exhausted Wikipedia?
1.) Your local professor and college. If you live in a major metropolitan center there is usually a college of some sort in your area. It doesn’t have to be a major research institution like Stanford or Yale. It can be a community college. Whatever it is, visit the colleges website. Find the history department webpage and browse. They should have a list of their faculty and their expertise. If they don’t, then call the department and ask. Part of the department secretary’s job is to help answer questions like this. Once you’ve got a hold of the right person, email or call them. Be honest and tell them you’re writing a book and want to ask them a few questions.
I know this can be awkward, but remember these people have dedicated their lived to the study of History. They would probably love to make an appointment to talk about something they love. (Don’t we all?)
If you can’t find what you need in the history department, check out the ethnic studies department, gender studies, English, or even the psychology department. Some universities also have thriving drama departments where people practice choreographed sword fights, make costumes for plays, and set design. These people could be great resources for your book.
2.) Historical Reenactors. I put this here because I used to be a reenactor for ten years during my misspent youth. Many of these people have the same dedication and work ethic of the professors above, but are much easier to approach.
They’ve also got an experience with history that the professional historian may not have. The reenactor has also worn the clothes, fired the weapons, made the tools . . . you get the idea. Their perspective will be unique. They are also very colorful people. You can find reenactors everywhere. From Chicano kids who wear 1940s pachuco fashions and swing dance, to guys who make and wear Roman legionnaire costumes.
I will have to caution you though. These are not professional historians. Sometimes they have their own agendas, like all of us, and will push a perspective on history you may disagree with. It doesn’t happen often, but you should be aware. (I once had a fellow reenactor tell me that Ireland was an independent nation during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. Yeah, read a book dude.)
3.) Documentaries. If reading through dry Wikipedia entries aren’t your thang, then try to find a documentary. There are some lovely ones out there right now. Clearly, we are living in an information renaissance. Amazon Prime has some, as does HULU. However, for my money you can’t be Netflix and PBS. Both make great independent documentaries. They also show documentaries produced by National Geographic and the BBC. The added benefit is that you get the visuals. You see the way the fabric moves, or the cloud of gunpowder. You also get to listen to professional historians, archeologists, anthropologists and many other experts get right to the point.
4.) Youtube. I LOVE Youtube. I have spent entire days just watching Youtube. Youtube you to be about cat videos and funny vines. Now it’s about everything. I watched a guy install a medicine cabinet in his bathroom on Youtube. He gave me the courage to try in mine. I learned a dozen food recipes on Youtube and found them all delicious. I even watched a video on how to change your car’s lightbulb on youtube and then changed my own.
Whatever questions you have about history can probably be answered by a Youtube search. I have found pages that go into weapon metallurgy, discuss sword based martial arts, 18th century American cooking, and more.
The benefit of Youtube is that the creators of these videos usually make more, in depth, videos. It’s like a documentary that has new segments every time you return.
Now there can also be misinformation on Youtube. People with agendas. But it is a resource for your research.
I truly hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, leave a comment below. Or, sign up for my email list. Like and share, too!
Next month, we talk about actually writing your book!
Have a GREAT February!
Jason Henry Evans
Like my Author Facebook Page. Jason Henry Evans
Follow me on Twitter @evans_writer
Signup for my email list
If you’ve moseyed on over from the Pikespeakwriters.blogspot.com, welcome to my website. If you’ve stumbled upon my site, welcome too! Today we’re going to talk about those crazy ideas you have for your historical fiction. We’ll also touch upon the logline again, to be clear why it’s so important.
So, where do your ideas come from? Are you inspired by a book you read? Or, maybe a comic book/graphic novel? How about a film you saw, or a television show you watched? All of these are legitimate inspiration for your book. But before you crank up your word processor and begin writing, let me say this first.
Inspiration is not enough.
You have to do the hard work of forming and shaping this idea into a story.
Stories have several components. There is character, plot, setting, conflict and theme. Usually, when I get excited about an idea, it’s because one of these story elements have danced in my head over and over again. Which is it for you?
Do you have a major or minor character that you keep fantasizing about? A plucky immigrant with guts? Or maybe a girl blossoming into womanhood who must now act as a spy when she should be playing with make-up?
Or, do you have a plot in mind? A twist that sticks out in your head? (It wasn’t the butler, it was the masseuse!)
Or, do you have an idealized setting taking up all your time? Maybe it’s the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars? Perhaps you are fascinated by the culture of 4th century Persia?
Perhaps you see a conflict? Maybe a political movement that splits families, like abolition did in the U.S., or Suffrage did in Britain? Maybe you envision a particular war as the conflict in your story? Keep it. Use it.
Finally, there is theme. The argument you are trying to make in your story. The actions of your characters can all represent this theme. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the theme revolves around the myth of the protective slave owner. That slavery is bad because the owner will always put his or her self-interest above that of the slave, regardless how kind they are.
In The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, the theme is that you can’t trust capitalists with the best interests of the people. They will poison your food, fire you, and take advantage of you.
Whatever your starting point, you need to tease the story out. You need to develop this idea you have and make sure it connects with the others.
If your starting point is with a character, ask that character some questions. Find out what makes that character unique. What are his or her strengths? What makes them likable? What are their weaknesses? (Weaknesses are particularly important because the best stories are sometimes about characters discovering their weaknesses and overcoming them.)
Let me tell you about my first manuscript, The Gallowglass.
First of all, Gallowglass are a hereditary mercenary class of soldiers that existed in Ireland up through the middle of the 17th century. My story takes place in Ireland, towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1597. It just so happened that a MAJOR rebellion against English rule was occurring at the same time. That is the setting of my story. So how did I get here?
I was watching The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis. There was that one battle, towards the middle of the film? The Massacre at Ft. William Henry? Yeah. That battle scene was EPIC! I was 21 when that film came out and it haunted me.
A couple of years later I read a book called The Twilight Lords, by Richard Berleth. It described the rebellion against English rule in the 1590s. The stories in that book captivated me. The story of Anglo-Irish lords trying to carve out some independence from England. The futile attempts at converting the Irish to Protestantism. The fear of Spain getting seriously involved in Ireland. Why hadn’t anybody turned this into a film?
In the book Berleth writes about the greatest defeat of the English under a Tudor monarch. It happened in the county of Ulster and is called The Battle of the Yellow Ford. I read Berleth’s account and it reminded me a lot of The Massacre at Ft. William Henry. So much so I started writing a screenplay in 1995. Then a book, in 1998. None of it came to any fruition. I finally got serious about it in 2015. I wrote a first draft – which was awful. It had all the mistakes you shouldn’t make in a book; head hopping, bad grammar, no central character and no action.
So in January of 2016 I decided I would settle in on one POV character. I would focus in on action and tension. I then added a love interest.
For me, a setting or conflict wasn’t enough. I had to figure out whose story I was telling and why I was telling it. I had to do the work of crafting a story.
This is why a logline is so important to your book. It will focus your attention on what your story is about. It will bring you back to the heart of your story. So let’s review the logline formula again.
An adjective to describe the protagonist
An adjective to describe the antagonist
A compelling goal we identify with as human beings
It should offer the most conflict in the situation
Show the protagonist has the longest way to go emotionally.
I hope this has been helpful. Next week I’ll have a book review for you. Next month at PikesPeakWriters.blogspot.com, I’ll talk about organizing your story before you write.
Have a great day!