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!!!
Victoria Martinez is the author of the Kindle best-selling “An Unusual Journey Through Royal History” and “The Royal W.E.,” both published by Who Dares Wins Publishing.
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!
Fascinating and a good exploration of the pitfalls of writing historical fiction. Lots of things I never even considered like making sure the context is consistent. Thanks for all the great insight, Tori!
Yes, yes, yes, to everything you said. Steven Saylor is great at taking different perspectives and working them into the scenes in his Roma Sub Rosa series. As a writer of historical fiction myself (Getorix: The Eagle and the Bull (2006) & Getorix: Games of the Underworld (2011) set in the Roman Republic, sometimes I have to deal with conflicting accounts of the same event. It worked wonderfully as I had a Roman main character and a Celtic main character, and I just let them argue. Cultural details like which foods were available to what social class and how clothing was constructed are tricky but make such a difference in bringing the reader into the period. (Like an historical novel about Cicero by a BBC commentator who shall remain nameless here, who had Cicero striding along in a toga with his hands clasped behind his back.)
Hello Tori, I read a lot of historical fiction and your post is spot on! The authors I really enjoy use multiple sources for their research and it it shows in a more compelling story line. Nice Job!
Thanks for these excellent reminders, Tori. I’m intrigued by your book about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – I think I’ve read almost everything there is on that subject.
All my fiction is historical, and I have found a great formula is to avoid being overly specific about details of the era, using facts and references sparingly (the ones you KNOW are on target) and then just let the reader fill in the blanks how they please. This offers excellent continuity since I give enough to build on, and the images and facts the reader establishes are necessarily going to be accurate enough in their heads.
I don’t teach history, for goodness sakes, I write love stories. Stick to the story, and don’t try to get overly authoritative about the fringe details. Let them be accessories to the main characters and plot, not the other way around.
Writing historical non-fiction that is highly factual is an undertaking I will never embark upon. To me, it would just be regurgitating what has already been said.
As far as dialect for histroical fiction, I have some specific technique for that as well. It’s tricky, but can be done. (and must be)
I don’t know that I will ever write a modern-day love story, since technology has ruined romance.
Hey Kristen, sorry about your flat tire. That’s a sucky way to start the week.
Tori, thanks for all the great tips on writing historical fiction. It’s one of my favorite genres to read and I’ve always thought someday I would write an historical fiction novel. I’m bookmarking this page so I can reference it again and again. Even with loads of research, your last paragraph says it all, you’ll never please everyone. The best I can do is to be as authentic to the time as I can and tell a darn good story.
Excellent points, Tori. Each new discovery changes the way we see history, so the best any of us can do is to provide our readers with the best we have in hand at the time. Personally, I prefer to cull story from history and it is a rich mine. The nice thing is, as views and discoveries bring new things to light it becomes, for writers, a renewable resource.
I suppose one of the challenges is not turning history into a bland “info dump.” I’ve read some really great historical fictions, and then some not-so-great, so I definitely get what you’re talking about. Action, drama, conflict.. still very important!
Thanks for the info. Right now my WIP is in that stage where I’m fleshing out the atmosphere. It’s a battle to keep the story on point and not get to enamored with what’s going on outside of the story. Your post has been invaluable.
Great post! I don’t write historical fiction myself, but I’ve started reading in that genre. It does drive me crazy when phrases aren’t translated into English. (Luckily, the hubby has offered the use of his English-French dictionary.) 🙂
I love the research I do for my Regency romance. While I don’t like overloading with historical detail if I mention a bird or a butterfly or a particular type of fabric or furniture I make sure I find the evidence that it existed at that time in that place. It’s one of the things I most enjoy about writing historical fiction and there’s always something new to learn.
I admit, I’ve been intimidated by the idea of writing historical fiction, but as soon as I saw the beginning of this post, I had an epiphany of a grand story idea. Thank you for making me feel more intimidated because now I have to write it. 😛
I have a question, though. It makes complete sense not to use 20th or 21st Century verbiage in a 15th Century novel; however, using language of that time is difficult for modern people to read. How is that balance struck?
I’m so glad to hear of your epiphany! It is difficult to strike a balance with dialogue in a historical novel. That is something that takes a bit of finesse and some good judgement. I will talk about that point in more detail in my class, so I hope you will sign up.
As Tori’s editor I can tell you the way she approaches writing historical events, people and other tid-bits is unique. Her writing is filled with wit and wisdom. When she first approached me at the DFW Conference about An Unusual Journey Through Royal History her excitement was contagious and I found myself wanting to know more about a topic that I had not yet been exposed too. I cant’ wait to sit in on her workshop! Kristen, thanks for having the fab Victoria!
Great post, Tori! I’ve spent years (well, okay, figuratively speaking) researching my historical series, from the people who populate pieces of the story to the furniture, art, transportation and dress. I spent several months trying to discover where the ferry crossings over the Ashley River (Charleston, S.C.) in the 1770’s were located–then decided I just couldn’t find that information, if it even still exists. I’ve tried to be historically accurate in the language my characters use. You’re so right about avoiding the info dump. I’m really good at falling into that trap. Thank God I have some good critique partners who point them out every time. I’ve used some of the Gullah patois heard the Carolina Low Country, especially the sea islands. I’ve heard this is a no-no. Still, it was and is heard there.The story hardly seems historically accurate without its presence. Do you have any advice?
Thanks for the tips on writing history. I am in the middle of writing my grandmother’s story, set in Czarist Russia. While I have her wonderful anecdotes, I need to weave in historical details to make that time come alive. This post has been very helpful.
Thank you, Kristen, for allowing me to guest post on your wonderful blog. And thank you to all of those who have commented! Your enthusiasm is infectious! 🙂
Right up my alley, Tori! I’m a former academic constantly trying to make my historical writing engaging. It’s extremely hard to balance fact and entertainment. Thanks for the tip about choosing descriptions contemporary to the time.
The difficult part about writing historical fiction is selectivity, I believe–knowing what parts of all that research to leave out and focus on telling a story rather than over-informing readers.
I also write historical fiction. I have found myself, during my first draft, wanting to stick in words in my characters’ mouths like ‘okay’ or ‘yeah’ my first time through. I keep them in there because it helps to express the way the character is feeling. But I highlight any word that I think may be anachronistic. Then I go back through with my on-line thesaurus and find substitutes. It helps so much so I don’t get bogged down in one conversation, researching the proper way to say “Alright.” without saying it. And when I can’t get the word exactly right, I am often pushed to use body language in a shrug, a hand gesture or facial expression. Those have been the universal language for centuries.
I have found some wonderful words that were around in the 14/15th century that we just don’t use anymore and even more that we still do.
As a historical mystery writer, I loved what advice you gave, Victoria! Since I’m too late to start the winter class, I’ll have to look for it in the summer. I find my biggest challenge is when I create characters of different classes in society – they don’t all talk the same, but it’s hard to discover how the less-literate did speak, since I don’t have writings to go by to develop a vocab/phrase list (the way I do with the mainstream speakers). Any advice?
Thanks to both you and Kristen for this post!
About authentic language. I’m writing in the Roman Republic, so, of course, my characters aren’t speaking English. One problem I have, however, is that English translations of things they DID say often sound too “modern.” Then to, I’m also writing books suitable for young people, and some of the Romans’ common expressions would never make it in that genre. However, I do vet my expressions in an unabridged dictionary to make sure my Romans are using words with Latin roots, and my Celtic characters French or German (since the Celts really hadn’t made it into Britain in the first century BCE.) I agree with Amelia that first drafts aren’t the time for editing yourself in that way, but after a while it becomes more natural.
Such an insightful post, loaded with practical tips. I particularly like the “you can’t please everyone” bit… I remind myself of this frequently while reading and writing. Thank goodness there’s an audience for (most) every style and topic!
Sorry about your flat tire kristen, but I’m thrilled your guest had such great information!
This is a book mark page for sure.
Thank you Kristen and Tori for your wisdom.
Have a fantastic evening,
Reblogged this on Haley is Soldiering through the Writing World .
Thank you, Tori, for your interesting comments on history. I write historical novels and find research and more research is imperative. I think it especially useful to read letters written at the time period, it adds authenticity into a story. However, the further back one goes the more incomprehensible even English becomes, i.e. Chaucer’s time. I think in those instances one must use dialogue that readers can at least understand–agreed?
Thanks for a great & interesting post. I write history NF myself and am currently working up a historical fiction (around my contracted NF deadlines). The techniques are quite different in that the priorities needed for non-fiction – to explain broad-brush, to discover meaning – are not those of fiction, where the little details must be authentic. The smell of pre-factory age hard cheese with its mites, the ‘bite’ of those mites when you eat it, and so on. That data isn’t to be found in the usual standby sources of academic historians.
For me the big issue is keeping true to period in other ways – thinking, mind-set, character expectations. That’s hard. One of the best examples of historical fiction I’ve ever seen is George McDonald Fraser’s “Flashman”, in which he precisely emulated the words, mind-set and environment of a late-Regency period rake. So much so that when the first book in the series came out, apparently one reviewer took it for a real “found diary”. Highlighting the other point that Trap #1 for historical fiction is trying to make it fit today’s values. It won’t – the past is a foreign country, and pretty offensive in many ways. Which begs questions about saleability. Fraser got away with that in 1970, but whether that’s true in today’s more commercially demanding environment is another matter.
Thanks again, Tori – and thanks too, Kristen, for inviting such a fab guest blogger!
I find learning about history so much more engaging and memorable when done so through a well written and comprehensively researched book whether it is fiction or non-fiction. One of my favourites was Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, which brought that era alive for me. She credits years of research and a passion for the lady; her excellent writing plays an important role for sure.
Thank you for the insights, they are appreciated.
I purchased both your books today, and am having a blast reading them. Thank you for these treasure troves of advice!
Great blog. I’m currently reading about the Berlin Airlift and find it all fascinating. And I also find contradictions among some of the sources, more in terms of the angle they take on them, rather than the facts. Sometimes we’re sure WHAT happened, but we’re not sure WHY it happened.
I would love the picture at the beginning of this entry! I need my son to transition from Star Wars to actual history…
Another great post! I also have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. http://tinyurl.com/7epypnl