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Writing Historical Fiction Part 5

By Meredith Allard

Make friends with a librarian and, while you’re at it, try a university library.

I’ve already professed my love for the instant gratification of finding a necessary piece of information online in a matter of moments. However, nothing replaces library research. The depth of information from library research cannot always be replicated on the Internet with its short articles and occasionally unclear sources. The weekend historian may be intimidated by the sheer amount of resources in the library, but never fear.

I’ve been a university student for a good portion of my adult life. In fact, I’m currently a university student now, and I can tell you in all honesty that I’ve encountered many conscientious librarians who have gone beyond their job descriptions and assisted me by helping me track down an elusive book or an article about a little-known subject. If you’re not sure where to begin your quest for knowledge about your historical period, ask a librarian. And I’m not only talking about university librarians here since most of the public librarians I’ve talked to are more than willing to help however they can. And I’m not just saying that because Sarah Wentworth of the Loving Husband Trilogy is a librarian. I’ve always had a high opinion of librarians (as most book lovers do), and I’ve thought more than once that if I wasn’t a writer and a teacher I’d be a librarian.

The Los Angeles County Public Libraries, the Clark County Libraries, and probably library systems all over, have a wonderful program where, if a local branch doesn’t have a book you want but another branch does, the other branch will ship the book to your neck of the woods so you don’t have to go running all over town. Check with your local library to see if it has a similar program. In the Internet age there’s no more standing over card catalogues and pulling out musty cards that leave you grabbing for your asthma inhaler (or maybe that’s just me). Libraries have online catalogues these days so you can check at home to see if your local library, or any nearby library, has that book you need.

If your local library doesn’t have what you need, then indeed you should try visiting a university library. University libraries are created for research after all. In the old-timey days they had stacks of newspapers, journals, microfiche, and other hard-to-find materials. Some still have primary sources in their collections. These days university libraries have online search engines that allow you access to information you might not otherwise be able to find, and yes, you can access them from your home computer if you’re a member of that library. Many university libraries are open to the public for a yearly fee—from $30 to $100—and it’s a worthwhile investment for historical novelists.

I know I’m stating the obvious when I mention using the library, but the teacher in me feels like I need to remind people that there are these buildings with wall-to-wall books you can borrow for free (that’s the books you can borrow for free, not the buildings). With so many historical novelists using the Internet as their only source of research, I’m afraid they’re passing over other helpful ways of discovering useful, important information. And historical novelists need to use any source they can to discover the facts from the past that will make their stories come to life.

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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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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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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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Ruth Hull Chatlien

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteRuth Hull Chatlien is the author of the historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Here’s her take on writing historical fiction.

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I started my first novel when I was ten years old—so long ago that I don’t remember why I did it beyond a love of stories. That first novel was historical fiction about forbidden romance and patriotic spies during the American Revolution. I finally finished the 120-page manuscript when I was in high school. In college, I majored in literature, and influenced by that experience, I spent the next 30 years writing literary fiction. I managed to get a few poems and short stories published. Finally, a few years ago, I decided to go back to my first love: historical fiction.

M.A.: What inspired you to write The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?

R.H.C.: My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

M.A.: Tell us about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. How would you describe it to potential readers?

R.H.C.: The book combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte was a heroine as beautiful and headstrong as Scarlett O’Hara, but unlike Scarlett, she was a real woman. She led a tumultuous life because of her belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like? What can you tell us about the joys and the challenges of being an author?

R.H.C.: Originally, I sought traditional publication for the novel. I spent about six months shopping it around to agents without success. The original version of the book had two problems; it was longer than what publishers wanted to see from a first-time author, and because I had tried to keep it short, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Then in February 2013, through a mutual friend I met the man who had founded Amika Press in Chicago. He was excited about the concept of my book, so after taking some time to consider whether I was ready to give up on New York publication, I submitted the manuscript. The publisher and editor at Amika both read it, liked it, and agreed to take it on. My editor was fantastic and really helped me make it the book I dreamed it would be. To my surprise, he wanted me to make it even longer by adding the descriptive details I had left out. We went through one major revision and one copy edit, and then the novel came out in December 2013.

M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

R.H.C.: I researched the novel by reading several biographies of Betsy as well as books about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early excursion to Niagara Falls. I also took a research trip to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Even after gathering all those facts, I still had to deal with areas where details have been lost to the historical record. One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” I think of the known factual events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. As a novelist, I had to make up scenes and bits of dialogue to connect those known events—like draping material to connect the brackets.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

R.H.C.: I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I very much admire historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish historical fiction?

R.H.C.: Tell a good story, but don’t neglect the history. I recently read a historical novel set in the same period as mine and dealing with some of the same people. The plot was fast-paced, and the characterization of the heroine was well conceived, but the book was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. I had a very hard time remaining in the world of the book because the mistakes kept jarring me out of the story.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

R.H.C.: I love hearing from readers. People can contact me at the following sites:

Blog 

Facebook 

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Seven Tips to Create Memorable Historical Fiction Characters

By Michael Murphy

In historical fiction, creating realistic and memorable characters can present challenges not faced in other genres. Characters, like real people, are shaped by many factors, culture, heritage, religion, physical characteristics, birth order and life events. Memorable characters rebel at some of these influences. A classic example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her rebellion from southern culture, Irish heritage and what is expected from a proper southern belle makes her one of the most memorable historical fiction characters ever.

I often turn to other writers for help and guidance. Therefore, with two historical mysteries that will be released by Random House Alibi later this year, I’ve come up with seven tips to create realistic and memorable characters.

  1. Character study. Get to know your characters before you begin your manuscript. Drafting a detailed character study is a valuable tool in any genre. Write one for each primary and key secondary character, addressing the character’s culture, family, physical characteristics and what has led to that character rebelling against them. Another important area to address is the change your character will go through during the story.
  2. Conflict. Enhance your character through physical, personal and professional obstacles to overcome. Let the era you’re writing about provide the conflict.
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Authors often hesitate to give their favorite characters flaws, or despicable characters redeeming traits. No one is one hundred percent good or bad. If your protagonist is ninety percent heroic, it’s the ten percent that will give him or her depth and leave lasting impressions with your readers.
  4. Historical figures. Historical fiction provides opportunities lacking in other genres. Consider ways for your characters to interact with readily identifiable historical figures. Their interaction with those larger than life characters will enhance your story and their characterization. In my historical mystery set in 1933 New York, my characters encounter Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Cole Porter, Babe Ruth, Joseph Kennedy and more.
  5. Attention to detail. Historical fiction writers are excellent at creating vivid settings with attention to detail. Make sure your characters benefit from the same detailed research that make your scenes so clear to the reader. And avoid clichés. How do your characters feel and react to the choking smoke of a locomotive, or the salty spray of an ocean voyage? What do your characters wear and more importantly, why do they wear them?
  6. Behavioral traits. As you would in writing any genre, give your characters memorable, if not quirky behavior and traits.  Show them displaying mannerisms that make them unique. One might chew tobacco, or comb their hair at inopportune times. Give your characters identifiable quirks and mannerisms, just like real people.
  7. Humor. Historical fiction devoid of humor can result in a novel appearing dull and listless. Life is full of humor, embrace it and utilize your sense of humor in your characters. If you’re not experienced at writing humor remember, like drama, humor is driven by conflict. Drama or humor often comes from a character’s reaction to a scene’s conflict. A suspected haunted house, for example can be chilling or hysterical depending on your character’s reaction.

We write and read historical fiction for the opportunity to join vivid characters in past cultures and historical events. I hope these seven tips help make your journey easier and your characters more memorable.

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Michael Murphy is a full time writer in Arizona. He’s been writing novels for the past fifteen years. His most recent novel, Goodbye Emily, journeyed back to Woodstock. In August, Random House Alibi will release the historical mystery, The Yankee Club, Murphy’s ninth published novel. Coming next January is the second in the series, All That Glitters.

Murphy’s website www.mjmurphy.com

Goodbye Emily www.goodbyeemily.com

Murphy’s Mystery and History blog: http://blog.mjmurphy.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mmurfy68

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mmurfy86

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and the Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my particular interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so running unexpectedly across her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun(Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article, the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.

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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.

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