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Historical Fiction, According to The Copperfield Review

By Meredith Allard

What is historical fiction? As the executive editor of a literary journal of historical fiction, I get asked this question a lot. Part of the problem with trying to define historical fiction is that there are as many definitions of historical fiction as there are people who write and read it. That is a good thing because it means that there is no right way to write historical fiction.

However, since The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction, there are a few elements of the genre we look for when we’re considering submissions. If you’re looking to publish your historical fiction or poetry with The Copperfield Review, you might want to take these ideas into consideration before you send off your submission.

  1. First of all, make sure your submission is actually historical in nature. We receive so many submissions from authors who blindly send off submissions without realizing that The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction. If your story is set in the present day or has no recognizable historical period, save yourself the unnecessary rejection letter and send your submission elsewhere.
  2. Be sure that your fiction or poetry submission is clearly set during an historical period. We’ve received many submissions that name a date at the top (1872, for example) but then there are no historical details within the story itself that help us place the story in that year. When we read historical fiction here at The Copperfield Review, we look for historical details that could have only come from that era. Typing an historical year at the top of a submission but not bringing that year to life through vivid details is not a submission that will appeal to us.
  3. Be aware of dialogue. Wordy, unnecessary dialogue is a frequent problem we see in submissions. When we’re writing historical fiction, it isn’t necessary to try to perfectly mimic the way people spoke during whatever era you’re writing about. You want your dialogue to reflect elements of the era but at the same time it needs to be readable to 21st century readers.
  4. Also, beware of writing in dialect. We see this a lot in the Old West or World War II stories sent our way. This is strictly my own taste, but I find having to decipher dialogue written in dialect a pain. My main man, Dickens, wrote a lot of his dialogue in dialect, and I don’t like reading his dialect any more than I like reading it from anyone else. Try to find the rhythm, the cadence of the speech patterns without making the dialect read like a puzzle. If you’re looking for examples of how to write historical dialogue, there are some wonderful historical novelists out there who do it very well. Look around for some examples written about the era in which your story is set.
  5. Again, this is strictly personal taste, but we are not overwhelmed by pieces that claim to be historical fiction but are really present day stories with someone having a memory about the past. We’ve been getting a lot of submissions like this lately. Really, they’re present day stories, but one character, probably someone older, has a memory about something that happened in 1962, and then it goes back to being a present day story. Other journals may love such stories, but here at Copperfield, where we’re looking for historical fiction, this type of memory piece is not likely to work for us.
  6. Keep in mind that we receive many submissions set during World War II, the Old West, and the American Civil War. These are fascinating historical subjects, but because we receive so many submissions set during these eras we’re unable to publish too many of these stories. Sometimes a submission will catch our attention and be published for no other reason than it’s set during a time we haven’t published before. This is where becoming familiar with the journal you want to be published in can come in handy.

Remember that these are just our thoughts at Copperfield. If you go back through our archives, you’re likely to find stories that don’t meet all of the above criteria; however, for the most part these are the criteria we use to determine if a piece is something we’d like to include in our journal of historical fiction. The point is to make sure that the work you send us is clearly historical in nature through events, characters (real or imagined), dress, dialogue, and descriptions. If your submission seems like it could take place anywhere at any time, it’s probably not right for us.

There are literary journals that publish various types of stories, so just because something isn’t for us there’s likely another journal that will love it. Keep on keepin’ on. Continue sending out your work until you find the right home for it.

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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 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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