Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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MYC: Research – Make Your Story Believable

Photo by Pexels

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with a post on voice. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on research.

Research can mean different things depending on the type of book you’re writing. Rebecca writes science fiction based in contemporary settings. Gita writes historical fantasy. You can probably guess which of us spends more time doing research. Since we are critique partners with extremely different approaches to research, we thought a conversation might be fun. Here we go!

Rebecca: I love sci fi and action-adventure stories both in books and movies, and this drives what I write, but I can’t help thinking that my lack of excitement about research also drives my choice of genre. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll never write a manuscript without doing research. I’m all about filling in the gaps in my knowledge that will allow my stories to come to life, but I start with a story and let that drive the research agenda. I can’t imagine studying a time or place for the fun of it and then following the story that bubbles up.

I might dive into questions like:

  • How could I plausibly explain technology that teleports my character across the planet?
  • How could my protagonist disarm a gunman with nothing more than her bare hands?
  • Or, what relevance might Frankenstein have to my theme of a revolutionary technology that is turned against its designer?

Gita: I’ve always been that person who, while visiting an old French palace or a Viking grave site, turns to you and whispers: don’t you think this place is haunted? To me, the past is strange and mysterious, full of fascinating stories that might want telling. That said, while I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, I don’t consume many history books for fun; I’ll get the spark of an idea—what about something to do with the French Revolution?—and then start digging.

My research questions go something like this:

  • What did Paris look like—all the way down to the streets and bridges—in 1789?
  • Which factors contributed to the French Revolution? (HUGE topic.)
  • Why did people powder their hair—and how did women get theirs to be three feet tall?

Rebecca: Gita is much more serious about her research than I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not organized. If I’ve used a source, I want to remember what it was so I can refer to it in revision. Much of my research is from the Internet and is organized there too. I use Pinterest to save pictures of people that have inspired my characters, locations I’ve used in settings, and objects that find their way into my stories. I use YouTube to save “How to” videos. I also save websites links and articles right into my project on Scrivener.

Gita: When I begin researching, I start with secondary sources, such as histories of the French Revolution or a cultural history of fashion at the end of the 18th century. In order to write these second-hand accounts, their authors rely in part on primary documents: letters, clothing, books, paintings, magazines, maps, newspapers, diaries, and more. This stuff is gold, because it was created by people who lived during the period—people just like my characters. With some detective work (try starting with the bibliography at the back of a secondary source) and the help of a librarian, I can gain access to many of these primary documents. But how much should one research? I want to be responsible, but at the same time I don’t want to squeeze the life out of my story for the sake of historical accuracy. I recognize that the Paris of 1789 I depict in my novel will be my Paris of 1789, not anyone else’s. Well researched historical novels, films, or series (I’m currently obsessed with “Harlots”) can also help provide texture and inspiration. I’m a hyper-visual person and maintain several Pinterest boards where I collect images of places, clothes, and objects that play a role in my current project. I’ll use my boards to double-check a detail on a dress or for inspiration.

Rebecca: Research, for me, is the stuff that makes story credible, taking it from creative to plausible. It’s the work that allows you to drop bits into description, action, dialogue and characters’ thoughts that breathes believability into an imaginary world. For the reader to trust a writer and feel a story, even a story set in a world very close to the one they live in, research is a must.

Gita: As a reader, I’m always looking for that incredible feeling of stepping through a door into another world. As a writer of historical fiction, I can’t bring a reader into that world unless I figure out for myself what it might have been like to live at that time—and in order to do that, I research. Then I try to dream myself back there. The truth is, I never really know what I’m going to find. That’s part of the fun.

Next week, Gita will be back to talk in more detail about her approach to research for historical fiction.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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Creative Cross-Pollination

Cross-pollination: the transfer of pollen from one type of plant to another type of plant of the same species, often by insects or wind.

When you’re working really hard on a writing project, tunnel vision can creep in. It makes sense. Your life is busy, the publishing industry is slow, and you need to finish your book yesterday. So if you have time to do anything, you focus on books written in the genre and age-group that you’re writing for. You follow writers, editors, and agents in that specific field. And while some of that intense, single-minded focus is absolutely necessary, I’m going to encourage you to be open to cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination for plants is necessary for their survival. Some trees, such as willows, depend on it because willows don’t have male and female plant parts on the same tree. For other plants, cross-pollination ensures that the successive offspring are diverse, robust, and potentially more likely to survive changes in the environment, such as drought.

In order to create books that will stand out in the marketplace, I believe it’s necessary to open yourself up to influences outside your literary ‘gene pool.’ Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games is a case in point. In an interview, Collins noted that she’d read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur when she was eight and it had stuck with her. And then,

One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.

Collins had already absorbed a literary precedent (Greek myths). Her open mind then took in a story of children in war (journalism/non-fiction) and a story of children in a competition (reality TV): those disparate sources came together to create a literary work that was compelling, complex, different—and an enormous success.

So go ahead, blur the lines. If you write MG fantasy, read PB non-fiction. Read biographies, like the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create Hamilton. Read manga and a book of obituaries. Go to the circus and think about writing. Listen to podcasts about the past. Learn a new language, do something you used to do when you were younger, sing in a choir. Take in the ballet, watch a documentary, visit an art exhibit or an ethnic grocery.

I think most writers do this very naturally; but this year, one of my goals to cross-pollinate more consciously. I’ve set aside pages in my journal where I’m listing the disparate things that spark something for me. Interestingly, the more I do this, the more I see.

So, be the bee. Blur the lines. Stay open to the wind.

I’ll be tweeting cross-pollination inspiration under the hashtags #amwriting, #creativity, and #crosspollinate, as well as on my blog. I hope you’ll join in with what inspires you.

This week’s inspiration: a man devotes himself to sculpting espaliered trees.

 

Further reading:

Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist and his blog

Jessica Crispin, The Creative Tarot

Cheryl Klein, The Magic Words

 

IMG_1617 GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Perfectionism and Pomodori

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If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re not alone. Most writers I know have faced that wall many times and surmounted it. Some people find themselves at that wall over and over again.

Sometimes this happens because you’re not sure how to move your story forward.

Sometimes this happens because you’re terrified of failing.

If it’s the latter, you may be a perfectionist. One understanding of perfectionism is that it’s a psychological mechanism by which you attempt to prevent failure by being “perfect.” And one of the symptoms of perfectionism is procrastination, a way to avoid engaging with perfectionism’s relentlessly harsh taskmaster by…not writing.

Writing and Life Coach Hillary Rettig discusses this tangled web of fear and diminished productivity in her fantastic book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. She presents lots of ways to tackle perfectionism and become more productive, the chief among them being a mental attitude of “compassionate objectivity.” You might think of this as the voice of the loving (grand)parent, the wise mentor, the friend. It might be the voice of your writing partners or critique group (that’s certainly true for me), who say, “Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this.”  It’s very different than the nasty voice of perfectionism, which hisses, “Why did you ever think you could do this? You’re a total failure. Quit now.” One of the ways Rettig proposes writers develop the compassionate objectivity and resilience they need to become prolific is through extremely short timed writing.

I taught creative and expository writing for many years, and I often asked my students to free-write for fifteen or twenty minutes. I was inspired to do this by Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones, in which she extols the virtues of free-writing and cautions: Don’t let the hand stop moving. Rettig’s important twist on this practice is that if you are suffering from writer’s block, you have to start small. Laughably small. If you’re blocked—either by perfectionism or because you don’t know where to go with your piece—start with five minutes of writing.

FIVE minutes?

Five minutes.

If you’re blocked, you’re probably thinking: How the @&?!*%#$! is five minutes going to help me? I have a 400-page novel to write! Tell yourself Rome was not built in a day. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott says, to just do it “bird by bird.” And then give this practical technique a try.

Get a timer. Rettig suggests using an old-fashioned kitchen timer. I tried this and it made me feel like a bomb was about to go off under my desk, but if it works for you, go for it. I like the free app called Pomodoro (more about the Pomodoro technique & other apps here). You can set up the timer for up to five intervals, each one lasting from five to twenty-five minutes. You can also create a break between your sessions, however long you wish, which are perfect for rewards (see below).

The idea is to write for a very short time. Set an interval that makes you say: I can definitely write for X minutes. Then choose any part of your story and write for X minutes. The idea is to not worry about quality at this point. And if you get stuck trying to write the story, Rettig recommends you write about the story, or about the problem you’re having with it.

Five minutes. Then stop and celebrate. Reward yourself well—you must treat yourself way better than you think you deserve for writing for five minutes—and then, when you want to write again, do so. But only for five minutes.

Short, timed writing—what I think of as micro writing—defeats the perfectionist nay-sayer and stops procrastination. It’s only five minutes, after all. And, as Rettig points out, as you use this technique you will find that your sense of accomplishment returns. And when that happens, you can lengthen your timed sessions: fifteen minutes, forty minutes, four hours.

It’s very simple and very powerful. And if the panic sets in after you get going with this, and it probably will—“Yes, yes, I was writing nothing but I’m still only writing 2,000 words a day and it’s not nearly enough to finish my 400-page book!—gently go back to timed sessions. Trust the process to get you back on track so that you are once again writing without fear.

Pomodoro by pomodoro: which is how I wrote this post.

Explore Hillary Rettig’s methods (time-management, helicopter writing, back-to-front writing and more) on her website and in her excellent book.

 

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still does. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy set during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Christopher Paul Malone, The Watsons Go to Birmingham
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here.

Emma Darwin’s guide to writing historical fiction (not specifically for kidlit writers but useful nonetheless) is available May 25, 2016.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still believes it. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy that takes place during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram, where she often posts about her research.