Category Archives: Writing

Writing Historical Fiction Part 4

Use the Internet

The Internet can be a great tool for research. You can check out the online catalogs of public and university libraries, find information from museums, and you can look up the online collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute as well as other research-friendly places in the comfort of your home in your jammies with your cat on your knee (or maybe that’s just me).

The Internet is great for finding interesting snippets of information. When I was completing the research for When It Rained at Hembry Castle, set in Victorian England in 1870, I stumbled onto a site that explains the Victorian language of flowers. Even the way a Victorian woman held her fan could send a message to a nearby gentleman. Because of this new-found knowledge I was able to flesh out aspects of the story in a way I wasn’t anticipating.

The Internet is truly wonderful, though, when you’re in the middle of writing a scene and realize you’re missing some important fact in your notes. Surf the web and in a matter of minutes you can find what you need. For example, when I was writing Her Dear & Loving Husband I had the unique task of writing scenes set on a college campus that at that point I had never visited. For you Loving Husband Trilogy fans, you know I’m referring to Salem State College (now University, thank you very much). I did finally visit the campus while writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, but while writing Book One in the series I needed to know where one college building was in relation to another and how far someone might have to walk to get from one place to the other. In a matter of minutes I printed up a map of the campus, and I was able to write my scene in a realistic way. I was thrilled when I visited Salem and found everything where I expected it to be. While that part of the story isn’t particularly historical (it’s a present-day college in the present-day town of Salem), I believe my point still stands since I also used the Internet when I researched the Salem Witch Trials for the same novel.

When using the Internet, however, writers of historical fiction need to be aware that there will be gaps in the research. Internet articles are often on the short side and they may lack the thorough details you’d find in books and journals. And since anyone can put anything on the World Wide Web (hence the fact you’re subjected to reading this now), you need to be sure the information you’re using comes from a reliable source. Wiki is a cute name, but the mistakes in some of the information contained on some wiki sites aren’t so cute. I like to check and double check my information across several different sites. Hey, they can’t all have the same wrong information, can they? I’ve certainly found a lot of accurate information on the web, and there’s no reason to assume all sites are fraudulent, especially not when the information is from a university or a well-respected researcher. Just be aware of where the information is coming from.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 3

Read all about it. 

Track down as many primary sources as you can—sources written or created during the time period you’re studying: journals, diaries, autobiographies, news film footage, interviews, photographs, speeches, books (both fiction and nonfiction), research data, even art. I still remember the afternoon I spent at my local university library looking up old newspaper clippings from the early 20th century when I was researching Victory Garden. It was fascinating to see what had been written between the years 1917-1922, the days when the women’s suffrage movement, World War I, and then Prohibition were happening. I was also fascinated to see how propaganda was used then, which wasn’t so different from the way it was used during World War II. Here’s a funny thing you learn when you’re researching history: the more things change, the more they stay the same. I even enjoyed reading advertisements from the period because it gave me a sense of the culture then. On the surface everything appears so naïve and innocent in the early 20th century, the Coca-Cola ads, the blemish cream ads, the shaving cream ads, especially when compared to today’s commercials, but looks can be deceiving. Reading primary sources gives you a finger on the pulse of the times. What were people thinking and feeling then? As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to find out so we can share it with our readers. These days, you don’t even have to go to the library because you can find a lot of primary sources online. Whether you find the information online or in the library, this type of knowledge about the culture of the era will add a lot of depth to your historical story.

You can also read secondary sources such as books by historians, biographers, and social critics about your time. Read other historical novels set during the time too.  Read it all. Even if most of the information doesn’t end up in your novel (and most of it won’t), it’s knowledge that will act as a backbone for the information you do share in your story. What you know will inform your writing, and the more of an expert you become through your research, the more expertly you will carry your readers into your chosen historical era. As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to paint the scene of days gone by for our readers to visualize and understand. The more of an understanding we have about the era, the more interesting we can make it for our readers.

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9 Tips for Submitting to Editors

After I was invited to speak at the Henderson Writers Group, I had to decide what I had to offer that was useful. As the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, an award-winning literary journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, I realized I could offer tips on how to make submissions stand out so they had a better chance of being published.

Most writers write with the intention of being published. Not all writers. A few years ago I taught a creative writing workshop for adults in California and I had a lovely older lady as a student. She was taking my class because she wanted to write her life story for her grandchildren and she wanted to write it well. But most writers want to submit their work to magazines, journals, agents, and book editors so they can be published.

Every day writers give editors many reasons to say no to their submissions. If you can help your submission stand out from the crowd, in a good way, then you can increase your chances of getting a yes and being published. Here are my best tips for submitting to editors.

Don’t…

9. Cc every editor you’re submitting to in one email

Most editors understand that writers are sending simultaneous submissions, meaning that writers are sending their work to several journals at a time. Even so, it’s important for writers to take the few extra minutes to send a separate email to each individual editor. It looks more professional, like the writer cares about presentation. Cc’d submissions look lazy, quite frankly, and other editors I know agree with me. Every time I’m included in a cc list with other editors, inevitably a few of the other editors will email me and ask “Did you see that email?” Then they’ll follow the question with something like “What a jerk!” or some other expletive I won’t include here. I don’t look too closely at cc’d submissions, and neither do other editors I know.

8. Misspell the editor’s name

7. Confuse the editor’s gender

Make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly, and check to see if the editor is a boy or a girl. If I had a dollar for every time I received an email addressed to Mr. Allred I could have bought out Borders and prevented it from going out of business. I’ve seen my name as Allston, Allen, Allan, and every other variant of All— you can think of. On The Copperfield Review The Staff page, my name is there, spelled correctly, and you can see at a glance that my gender pronoun is ‘she.’ It’s the same for other editors or agents—the information is on their websites. Just three weeks ago we received a submission addressed to “Dear Sirs.” There isn’t a single “sir” on the staff of Copperfield. That submission was laughed right into the no-thanks file. Details are important. Really.

6. Resubmit a new version of your work 

Whether your work is accepted or rejected, don’t resend a new version to the same editor. If your work was rejected, it wasn’t right for that editor for various reasons. It isn’t anything about your talent or even that particular story. Different editors have different preferences, that’s all. Keep sending the story out to different editors. But don’t send it back to the same editor, even if you’ve reworked it—that is, unless the editor has specifically said to send it back after you’ve made revisions.

That goes for work that’s been accepted too. It’s happened where we’ve accepted a piece for publication and then the writer says something like, “I’ve reworked my story. Here’s the new version.” If we accepted it, then we thought it was fine. We don’t need a new version. At Copperfield, we stopped accepting new versions because we were doing twice the work—formatting the original we accepted, then formatting the new one. Now on our guidelines it says writers need to send in the version they want to see online since what they send us (if it’s accepted) is what’s going up. Send in your best stuff the first time, and that will make the process easier for you and for the editors.

5. Forget to let editors know your work has been accepted elsewhere

I took a quick poll of a few editor friends of mine. I asked them what their number one pet peeve was concerning submissions, and every one said they’re most annoyed when they choose a work for publication and then find out the work has been accepted elsewhere.

The issue isn’t that the work has been picked up by another journal. Nearly every editor I know is a writer too, and we’re thrilled when other writers are published whether it’s in our journal or someone else’s. The problem occurs when we aren’t told a submission is no longer up for consideration. At Copperfield, we spend a lot of time reading and rereading every submission we receive. If authors don’t tell us their work has been accepted elsewhere and we spend time considering their work, we’ve just wasted hours, and, like many of you, we don’t have hours to waste. A simple e-mail is all it takes. No long explanations required. But it is expected, professional courtesy to let editors know your work is no longer up for grabs.

Do…

4. Send in your most polished work

I’m a writer too, and I know what it’s like to be eager to be published. It takes discipline to keep reworking a piece until it’s polished and ready to submit, especially since the revising process could take weeks or even months. You don’t need to rush the submitting process. Literary journals, agents, and publishers aren’t going to disappear (maybe publishers will disappear if you believe what you read).

Run your work by a critique group. Take writing classes. Read some great short stories and examine their greatness. Develop an ear for well-written dialogue. Unwieldy or unnecessary dialogue is a common problem in submissions we see at Copperfield. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be. I know we live in the “I want it now” era, but there’s no rush. You’re on no one else’s timetable but your own. Make sure your story is the best it can be before you send it off to editors.

3. Proofread your queries and submissions

It’s important to proofread for typos and other boo-boos. It goes back to showing editors, agents, and anyone else you’re submitting to that you’re serious about writing. You’re not sending in something you wrote off the top of your head, and you took the time to read and reread to check for mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to catch your own mistakes because your eyes see what they expect to see, and they expect to see what you meant to write. Maybe you meant to write ‘she’ instead of ‘the’ but your finger went to the right instead of the left and…you know how it goes. And spellcheck, while a great tool, isn’t perfect.

It’s helpful to have another set of eyes proofread your work for you. Whether it’s a friend with a firm grasp of language and spelling or you hire a professional editor, someone else will often catch those pesky typos before you do, and that will help you create a professional looking draft most editors will be happy to consider.

2. Read previous editions of the journal/publication to see what they publish

Sites like New Pages or the Literary Magazines page from Poets & Writers are great resources for finding journals that publish stories like the ones you’ve written. When I first started writing historical fiction I searched for journals that published that genre, but I couldn’t find any. As a result, I started my own—The Copperfield Review. With so many journals online these days, it’s easy to click through their stories to see what they like to publish, and it helps to whittle down your list of possible submissions.

The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction. You’d be amazed at the countless submissions we’ve received over the years that were not at all historical in nature. Writers waste their time sending their non-historical submissions to us. That’s one more rejection letter they wouldn’t have received if they had checked our website. Even a cursory glance would show that The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction.

If you write science fiction, seek out science fiction journals. If you write mystery, humor, romance, inspirational, literary—whatever it is, there’s a journal out there that publishes it. Send your work to those journals because you’ll have a better chance of being published. And if such a journal doesn’t exist, start your own. It worked for me.

1. Follow the submission guidelines exactly as stated

As a writer myself, I understand that sometimes submission guidelines seem petty, even vindictive—you know, a way to make writers more miserable. What does it matter if it asks for a third person bio? What does it matter if I send in seven poems at a time instead of three? But those guidelines exist for a reason, and editors notice if writers don’t follow them. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

Maybe the problem is the word guidelines, which sounds more like submission suggestions. The guidelines exist because the editors need some semblance of sanity, a method to our madness, to help us weed through hundreds of submissions per edition. For example, we don’t accept file attachments because we caught viruses when we did. We only accept three poems at a time and we have a word limit for fiction and nonfiction because we’re a tiny staff with day jobs, families, and other life obligations. We ask for a third person bio because books, newspapers, and magazines use third person bios. I understand that to authors it might not seem like a big deal whether they send in a bio in first or third person, but it makes a difference to us as we put each new edition together.

For writers who want a one-size-fits-all file that will work as a submission for fifty different journals, I’m afraid that’s not likely. Submissions that follow the guidelines are the ones we look at seriously for publication. Writers careful to follow our specific guidelines at Copperfield are showing us that they take their writing seriously, they care about presentation, and they’re making the process easier by giving us what we’ve asked for. All I can say is a hearty “Thank you!” to those writers.

It isn’t so hard to send in a strong submission. It boils down to being professional, sending in your best work, and following the guidelines. If you can do those things, the sky is the limit for your writing career.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Join Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 2


2.  Be as specific as you can when researching.

When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), then it’s time to narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome. When I was researching my American Civil War story I kept my focus on one regiment during the last year of the war. That is still a sizable topic because a lot happened during the last year of the war, but the fact that I was concentrating on a single regiment helped me from falling too far off the track. It was easier to search specifically for the information I needed to tell my story since I knew exactly what I was looking for.

Sometimes, however, it’s hard to narrow your topic if you’re not really sure what years or which events your story is going to cover. That happened to me when I was researching Victory Garden, a story set around World War I and the woman suffrage movement. As with the Loving Husband Trilogy, which is centered around the Salem Witch Trials, I knew very little about the World War I era. I have this odd habit of coming up with story ideas set during times I know little about, but for me that’s part of the fun of writing historical fiction—learning about the history.

For the suffrage story all I had to begin with was a vague idea that I wanted to explore the difficult fight for women’s right to vote. To begin, I did some general research to get some sense of the era. As I learned about the time, I was able to get a clearer sense of how the events would fit into the fictional story I was weaving about a woman involved in the suffrage movement. After I did enough general research I was then able to focus my attention on the specific aspects of woman suffrage that intrigued me. With a lot of reading and even more notetaking, I discovered that I wanted my story to take place between the years 1918, when WWI ended, and 1920, when women finally received the vote. Through more research, I learned that Prohibition was an important factor in American society around the same time, too, and that gave me another angle to work with. Soon (as in a few weeks into my research) I was able to see my fictional character Rose Scofield moving around these true-life events between the years 1918 and 1920, participating in the suffrage movement, watching friends come home from the war, going to Prohibition meetings (though she may not have been happy about what she heard). I wish Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey had been around then. These TV shows could have helped me get into the spirit of the times as I was writing.

Even when you are interested in the era you are researching, the task of digging through piles of information can seem overwhelming, not to mention tedious. But if you are genuinely intrigued in the era and do some preliminary research, you can narrow your topic to a workable size. Once you have your topic whittled to a workable size, then you are making your research time purposeful and even enjoyable. Yes, I said enjoyable. Or am I the only one who loves to read about history and take notes. Anyone? Anyone?______________________________________________________________

Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Join Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 1

As the editor of The Copperfield Review and the author of seven historical novels, I’ve been asked to teach classes about how to write historical fiction. I’m often asked to share my best tips for writing in that genre. Here they are, starting today with Part 1.

1.  Write about an era that fascinates you. 

This is similar to one of my tips for writing a first draft: write what you must write. An historical novel is a project that could require months or even years of research, so you need to write about a period that can hold your interest for that long.  Most writers of historical fiction choose their historical period based on a long-time interest in the period and that is a good way to start.  Writers who are fascinated by Victoria’s England feel compelled to write about ladies in corsets and men in waistcoats and find great joy in describing those details to others.

It’s usually best not to pick a time period for your novel out of a passing fancy. If you’re writing a novel set around the French Revolution but don’t find the details or the people of the French Revolution particularly interesting, then your project is in trouble because you’re going to avoid the research with every Excuse you can name. No one wants to spend their time reading about something that bores them. But if you’re fascinated by the French Revolution and the events of that time, then you’ll look forward to digging through the archives, flipping through the index, and skimming for important details as you search for the next big clue that will help you fit the pieces of your story puzzle together.

On the other hand, it might happen that you develop an interest in the era you have chosen to write about. I came up with an idea for a story set during the Salem Witch Trials, which oddly enough happened to be a time I knew little about. Though I had never had much interest in that era prior to my crazy story idea (my only experience with the 17th century witch hunts was reading The Crucible in college and watching the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis about ten years ago), I did become fascinated by the frightening happenings of the time through my research.

Whether you’ve chosen your era from a life-long interest, or you develop a fascination out of your research, you need to enjoy the time spent in your chosen era. You’re going to be there awhile.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at meredithallard.com.

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