Wake Up! It's Time For a History Lesson
Today, I am really blessed and honored to have one of my fellow Who Dares Wins Publishing authors, Victoria Martinez, grace my blog with her awesomeness. I know many of you might have pondered writing a historical novel, but where do you start? How can you get the details correct without getting overwhelmed? Maybe you have wanted to write a NF about a time period that is of particular fascination to you. But, again, where do you start? How can you make sense of it all? What details are important? How can we portray a time in history accurately without overwhelming the reader or losing the core of the story?
So today, my fellow WDW author is here to demystify history in writing.
Take it away, Tori…
Reading about history – whether fiction or nonfiction – shouldn’t be an effort. As an avid reader of history myself, I have read far too many books where I find myself struggling to stay interested as the author expounds every point in a professorial tone, which invariably causes flashbacks of boring history lessons in school.
On the other hand, if I’m not falling asleep or searching for the meaning to indecipherable words or translations, then I’m furiously correcting details in the margins and debating dubious points of history to myself or anyone who will listen. Worse case scenario: I’m having a one-sided argument with the author while I drift to sleep with the book in one hand and a French dictionary in the other! (I’m not kidding, this has happened!)
So how does an historical author avoid the pitfalls that plague historical research and writing and keep even the most scrupulous readers happy?
The first challenge of writing about history is that it’s a notoriously tricky subject. Full as it is of vague information and uncertain details, not to mention missing pieces and constant new discoveries, it’s important to realize that some mistakes may not be the author’s fault. You can only work with the information that is available to you at the time, and if you want to wait for the “final word” on the subject then you’ll never write a book on history.
The most important thing to remember in this regard is to follow leads carefully and insure that the information you are using is the latest and best available. If you discover new information, great, but make sure you validate it with more than one source. Never rely on just one primary source of information, especially in nonfiction. As always, you have a little more creative freedom in fiction, but you still run a risk – especially if the information pertains to your primary storyline.
Where information is vague or uncertain, use it in a way that won’t damage your main point or story. In other words, if you don’t know enough about something, use it sparingly and carefully, if at all, to avoid a major pitfall. Better yet, use that uncertainty to your advantage. In nonfiction, uncertainties bring about questions and intrigue that can make your book more interesting, while in fiction they can provide suspense or drama to your storyline. For instance, the uncertainty of who was Jack the Ripper has made many books – both fiction and nonfiction – more interesting and creative.
Lastly, remember that missing pieces and new discoveries are out of your control. If something is discovered after your book is published, there’s not much you can do about it. You can, however, make sure your reader knows that YOU know you are not the last word on the subject. Especially where nonfiction is concerned, never claim your work is the definitive “last word” on the subject. It is not and never will be.
The second problem of writing about history is a bit easier – relatively speaking – to address: the writing itself. Often, authors simply get too “authorial” and scholarly. The solution to this is just don’t write like that! Unless you’re writing a history textbook or a scholarly paper, very few people are going to truly enjoy your book if you write like a professor (with all due respect to professors). Make your writing engaging and entertaining so the difficult parts of the history don’t seem challenging or incomprehensible.
After all, history really isn’t that hard to understand if it’s presented in the right way. And the right way means not filling your book with a litany of dates and events without plenty of enjoyable details and engaging dialogue, action or description. Also, PLEASE provide translations to words or phrases in foreign languages. Not everyone speaks French, Italian, etc., and therefore won’t know what that lovely little phrase you added in actually means. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when the author expects the reader to do the translation work themselves. It makes the reader frustrated and the author seem imperious and presumptuous.
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of many historical writers by getting so wrapped up in the main story or subject that you fail to pay attention to detail or context, which always results in a confusing and frustrating read. For instance, if you’re writing a fiction novel about the 18th century, don’t have your characters use words or phrases that originated in the 20th century. The same applies to nonfiction: if you want to describe a place, choose to use descriptions contemporary to that time rather than modern impressions of that time. It may take extra time and effort on your part, but the result is a better and more enjoyable read. Plus, you won’t have readers cursing at you from a distance.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you’ll never please everyone. Even if you’re an expert on a subject, it’s likely someone will find fault with what you write. This, of course, is true for any kind of writing. Fortunately, excellent research combined with engaging writing can produce works of history that not only keep your readers happy, but also stand the test of time, even if the facts change (and they most likely will).
THANK YOU TORI!!!!
Want more tips and information on how to start writing about or improve your writing on historical subjects? Victoria is teaching an online class, “Historical Research and Writing,” through Who Dares Wins Publishing Write it Forward Workshops. There first class runs through February and the second through April, and the cost is only $20. That is a super small price to pay for techniques that will take your works to a higher level than you thought possible, so sign up today!!!
Okay, so I hope you guys will leave lovely comments and ask questions. Today, everyone who comments will get double entries in my critique give-away. This is to inspire you guys to reach out despite your shyness and give Tori some Comments Love.
That and, frankly, I admit is. I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: Had a flat tire this morning, so didn’t get to pick last week’s winner. Will announce that on Wednesday’s post.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!