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.
To say I had been having a busy time of it would be an understatement. Suddenly, I was a university student for the first time in 20 years, I was still a full time teacher, and I was working on the first draft of my new historical novel. I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.
The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.
I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.
I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.
How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult colorng books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.
Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. She is the author of the bestselling novels The Loving Husband Trilogy and That You Are Here. You can reach Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.
I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.
My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.
In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author ofWhite Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.
In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”
It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”
I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.
If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.
My forthcoming historical novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is based on the true story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, while he was visiting the United States in 1803. As I was planning the plot, one of the things I had to deal with was something I call information lag. In our current age of instantaneous communication, it can be hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.
In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Betsy’s hometown of Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometime amused themselves during long journeys by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.
Sometimes I had documentary evidence in the form of letters and news articles that told just exactly how long it took for specific pieces of news from Europe to reach the United States and vice versa. At other times, I had to dig around to find out what typical travel times might have been. Another complicating factor was that stormy weather made sailing the Atlantic in winter very difficult. Mail from overseas tended to slow down in the rough-sailing months.
As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel. Once Jerome and Betsy realized they wanted to marry, they had to decide whether to seek the blessing of the Bonapartes before they proceeded. At the time, Napoleon had not yet become emperor, but he was the First Consul, the chief executive of France, and he believed he had the right to direct his sibling’s lives. Betsy’s father wanted the marriage delayed while they waited for Jerome’s aide to travel to France to find out Napoleon’s reaction—or at least, gain the blessing of Jerome’s mother. Jerome vehemently opposed the idea.
Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice?
No, I didn’t think so.
Although I’m sure the information lag was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for it because it added considerable tension to the plot. The delay in learning the Bonaparte reaction to the marriage, the months it took to learn the astonishing news that Napoleon had become emperor, and the lag in communication between the lovers once Jerome returned to naval service—all these played a significant role in my characters’ ability to make good decisions and chart the course of their lives. If Betsy and Jerome had better means of communication, their lives might have turned out quite differently than they did. But then again, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have written my novel.
Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.
She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.