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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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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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