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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?

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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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Using Information Lag in Historical Fiction

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

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.

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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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