Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Library Writers’ Group: Research

3 Nov

We had yet another lovely meeting of my local library’s writers group. I do enjoy getting together with this group. Our leader is stepping down because she’s gotten a job at another library recently so the format of this group might change soon but for now, we’re continuing on talk about different aspects of writing at each meeting. This time, we talked about research.

As a historical fiction writer, I tend to think of research as taking on the image of pouring over texts and looking up pictures of vintage clothes, but that’s not always the case. Creative non-fiction and memoir also require research, but a different type. Our moderator directed us to a few resources for this

But, as I’m a fiction writer, I wanted to focus this post more on the research needed to write fiction. But we’re all types so I hope someone can find the above links useful!

As much as we’re told to ‘write what we know,’ we don’t always do it. Not everything I write is set in suburban Detroit and not all of us involves a young married couple. When it comes to setting, there is a lot of research you need to do in order to set a novel in a place you might have never visited (or at lease in a time you’ve never visited). We were given a great article by Tricia Goyer about how to place your story in a setting. You do have to research the place and looking at maps and photos is a great start. I’ve had to do this for both of my full manuscripts and it can sometimes help me add new elements to my plot. It helps to meet and interview people who have lived or visited the place you’re talking about. (This can, granted, be hard for historical settings depending on how far back you’re going.)

This article by Kim van Alkemade gave some great tips about researching for historical fiction. My favorites include ‘Study old pictures’ (I started my 1920s board on Pinterest) and ‘Read old books.’ I hadn’t thought about reading books from the 20s, but it would give me a good idea of voice in that time.

This Writers Digest article talks more about research in general. There is great advice on how to find experts in an area you are trying to research.

Another quote we talked about (from an article I’m unable to locate) talked about the nature of research. When I’ve researched, I’ve found myself digging into historical files and then connected articles and then a book that’s slightly related etc. This is when research can become a dangerous time suck. It’s important to ‘go deep but stay narrow.’ We need to go deep into certain topics that are most applicable to our story, but it’s important to choose carefully the topics that will involve the deep knowledge. Choose them carefully and don’t stray too far away.

I hope this has been helpful for my fellow writers. I thought this was a great topic for our group to do and I hope we can touch on it again in the future with more insight.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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One Day Writer’s Retreat for August

14 Sep

Yes, I’ll freely admit this retreat post is a bit late. My apologize, I’ve been finishing so many books I’m falling behind! At the end of August, one of my amazing writer friends hosted a few others at her house to practice our craft, share pieces and generally have a good time. And oh did we ever.

We started with some prompts. I’m not going to share what I wrote, but the prompts are below. They were progressive and built on each other nicely.

  1. Describe an altercation (7 minutes)
  2. Re-write the scene from another point of view (ie switch from 1st to 3rd of vice versa) (7 minutes)
  3. Re-write it from another perspective. Maybe another character or an inanimate object (7)

I really liked doing this exercise because it helped me dive into the characters. I started with a little girl on her first day of Kindergarten reluctant to leave home. By the end, her parents are divorced and her paternal grandmother was sneaking her father into the house to see her and take her shopping. It got intense.

We did some critiquing, which I always love. I shared the second half of a story I’m working on. There was a lot of good feedback which is going to be hard to work in, but will make the story a lot better. It’s the next piece I want to start shopping around and I need to bite the bullet and get down to it!

As always, there were little tidbits of advice that are great to share. The first is for my fellow historical writers out there. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a comprehensive set of slang and English variations across the United States and across time. Yeah. Wow. It’s super expensive but looks awesome. We all started looking for used copies. Another tidbit for any 20s writers, my history-buff friend John shared with me that in that time period, people used last names with each other unless they were very close friends. Coworkers would have addressed each other as Mr. So-and-so and Mr. Whats-his-name instead of Billy and Tommy. Huh.

Some other writerly advice for any genre. When most people draft, they tend to include a lot of backstory. Which is almost (hopefully) immediately edited out. This back story should only exist to inform the characters of what’s happened, not the reader. If your character lives in a world where trees are a main source of food, then he should start chowing down on some bark without explaining it to the reader. If an alien shows up on tree-planet, then it might need to be explained

Most writers have heard the Stephen King quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Try cutting all adverbs from a piece and reading it that way. If it doesn’t make sense, consider picking a stronger verb before you decide if the adverb should go back in.

That’s it for this month. I hope we can find some more gems to share with you all next time we meet.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Historical Fiction: How Accurate Should It Be?

16 Apr

I’ve had this post in my draft folders for ages! As I’m seeing a small drought in reviews and other such things to post about, I thought this would be a good time to brush the dust off and write this article response.

I love historical fiction. I read it a lot and I’m writing a 1920s novel. I love the research and learning that come along with writing this book. I know a lot more about 1920s cars and mixed drinks than most people do and it makes me really happy whenever there’s a 20s reference I can recognize. So reading this article from The Guardian piqued my interest.

How true should historical fiction be? by Stephanie Merritt

I believe there’s a slight license to change the past when writing historical fiction: slight. In my novel, I’ve removed some of the notorious mobsters of the era to replace them with my own characters. I think that’s perfectly fine. Maybe you disagree and want to fight me in the comments. Go for it. There is a line with this that I will not cross, however. I’m not going to introduce space travel or repeal prohibition or anything else that would alter the culture of the time. I’m going to do my research about electricity availability and what a high school boy would take for lunch. The details matter and I know that if I were my own reader, I would appreciate this.

I’ve read novels that took things a bit too far. When I read The Tilted World, I knew some of the 20s facts were a bit too stretched. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if there had been an author’s note. I think these make all the difference because it’s a writer’s way to saying, “Yes, I know this is wrong but for the sake of story, I changed it.” Then  you know the author did his or her research even though those who are historically savvy can point out holes in the setting.

So, a bit of a short post for you all today, but I’m curious to see what you think. Does inaccurate historical fiction bother you? Does an author’s note make it all better? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Who Influences You?

13 Feb

My husband suggested I talk about influences and I think that’s a great conversation to start. I hope you’ll join me in it. I’d never thought much about my influences until I started writing seriously, about a year ago. Before then, writing was  something I did when I had nothing else to do and an itch in my brain to put words on a page. Now that it’s one of my biggest hobbies, I think about it a lot.

I think we have influences in different aspects of our writing. For example, S.E. Hinton is an influence of mine because her books made me think that I could write. She was so young when she wrote The Outsiders, and it made me thing that I could write when I’m young and that I could write something worth reading. I also love how she is able to portray male characters that men can relate to. It shows that you can write another gender and do it well.

Sonia said to me that she sees Hinton’s characters in my book and I was incredibly honored. I assure you the resemblance between Ponyboy and Johnny isn’t too strong (my character is a 1920s gangster instead of a Tulsa greaser), but that she was able to see the same strong male persona in my character was really heartwarming.

While Hinton inspired me to start writing and encouraged me to know I can write about men and boys, I don’t strive to emulate her style. Let me explain other ways I’ve been influenced

J.K. Rowling is another big influence of mine. I’m not just saying this because I’m a Potterhead, mind you (though I am). Rowling’s popularity showed me that the whole world can care about Young Adult literature and that it’s sphere of influence can extend well beyond the 12-19 age group. I know I’m unlikely to write something as universally appealing as Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but knowing how seriously YA lit is taken today makes me feel more confident in saying I want to be a YA author.

Philippa Gregory inspired me to write Historical Fiction. I love her books about Tudor England and am awed by the way she is able to transport the reader to the time period so effortlessly, without explaining the way things are and letting them be. I always feel like I’m learning while I read her books and it made me want to read more and more and more historical pieces to learn and enjoy at the same time. So when I started writing historical pieces, I wanted to make my setting and characters seem as effortless. I want my readers to learn about the 1920s and fall in love with them as much as I have while researching my book.

I thank these women for making me want to write. It’s a coincidence that they are all woman, something I didn’t even notice until editing this piece. When I see their books on my shelf, I’m filled with confidence.

Who inspires and influences you? In what ways have you been influenced by other writers? Please leave me a comment and let me know.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.

When Are You Reading Challenge?

20 Jan

BlogImageBigI’ve been inspired by the Where Are You Reading Challenge hosted by Sheila on Book Journey. I love the idea of expanding one’s writing horizons and I want to do something similar. So I decided to host my own challenge. I created a page here where you can read about it but I’ll give you all a snippet right now in hopes that you’ll join me.

The challenge is to read 13 books that are all set in different ears of world history (there’s even a future category). There’s no prize if you win but my lovely husband (who designed the image) will create a winner image, too.

The challenge goes from Jan 1, 2014 to Dec 31, 2014 so you can count books finished since the beginning of the year. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, this challenge is perfect for you! If you’re not… there was never a better time to try it.

As it’s a holiday here in America and the motor company is very patriotic, this is it for my post today. No work, no post- that’s my motto! I’ll use the day off to get ahead on posts, though, because I’ve got a bunch of ideas coming up.

Again, please consider joining me. I’d love to see what historical fiction books you find and you’ll get to make a super cool timeline like mine (see it here). You can also follow my progress here.

Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

25 Nov

Before NaNoWriMo began, Nicole recommended this article to me, knowing that I couldn’t help but blog about it.

Author Susanna Calkins was a historian before she was an author. When she began writing, she quickly realized that 100% historical accuracy was not plausible in her novel set in 17th Century England. She shares some guidelines for other historical fiction writers. I’ll summarize and give my opinions below.

  1. Understand the period and everyday life in it.
    I think this is rule #1 and I discussed in a post about my own research process how I did this. It’s a good background and first step.
  2. Show history through character interaction.
    Calkins relates this to the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. A character marveling over the new electric streetlamps is more ‘showing’ than explaining that electric power is new in some cities and that many were still amazed by the new technology (telling).
  3. Have your characters question their place in society.
    I don’t know if I agree that this is a steadfast rule, but I definitely used this technique in WIP1, my YA Historical Fiction. It’s a good way to talk about societal change that will come and to ‘show’ why the society is the way it is during the given time period.
  4. The Internet can be good
    Agree here. Need to know what the interior of a 1927 Lincoln looks like? Need to see demographic information from the 1939 Census? The Internet is your friend. But be warned, this goes along with our next fact…
  5. The Internet can be bad.
    Want to know if Al Capone had a secret lover? Are you thinking that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a conspiracy? These are topics best discussed in books where fact checking is required and hearsay on the Internet isn’t published. Go to the library.
  6. Don’t get caught up in the details.There will be times that the details seem so important that the story gets lost. Don’t let this happen to you! When you feel overwhelmed by details, stop your researching and write! Get that first draft out and then go back and research if Cokes were served in bottles or cups at pharmacies. It’s not essential to your plot.
  7. Admit that you are going to mess up.
    There are trolls out there who like nothing better than to find an error in your well researched book. Did you mention electricity when it’s not likely it would have existed? Do the ages of your characters imply their father came home early from fighting in Europe? Your readers will catch it so don’t worry.  Just say thank you and move on.

Do any of you write Historical Fiction? What have you found are some good tips for writing in another time period? Please share in the comments section.

Until next time, write on.