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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My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:

via GIPHY

1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips? 

Ready… Set… WRITE!

running-498257_640If you read Julie’s post, you know it’s National Novel Writing Month again, which means a whole bunch of us are sweating through each day trying to write 50,000-ish words by the end of November.

While I’m not participating this year, I am still trying to keep up my own momentum on my current WIP.

But time has been so very tight for me this fall, and my normal writing routine wasn’t working for me. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I decided to try something new: sprinting.

Here’s how it works for me: I set my timer (generally for 15 minutes, though you can aim for more time if you have it), shut down the Internet, put my document in “focus mode” and start typing. I do not stop until the timer dings.

When I first started sprinting, I would get 250-400 words down each session. But as I got more used to it, I started hitting well over 500. Two fifteen minute sprints a day gets me back to my old goal of 1,000 words a day – all in a lot less time.

Of course, sprinting can be a little scary. I still sometimes have a moment of panic before I start my timer: what if I can’t find the words? But that fear is offset by the freewheeling joy of writing without second-guessing, without going back to edit, without stopping to ponder this word or that one.

There are a couple of different ways to approach sprinting. I like to keep working from where I left off – I find that sprinting forces me to be more focused about where I’m going with each scene. I have to know what’s going to happen each time I sit down to sprint, which means I have had to plot out each scene – and know what its purpose is in the overall story – beforehand.

If that’s too daunting or you’re worried about getting stuck, you can also plan out sprints for specific scenes. Some writers like to sprint through difficult-to-write scenes, knowing that sometimes getting something down is better than getting it down perfectly. Others sprint through character sketches or other important background writing.

I’ve always done my sprints solo, but there is a whole writing subculture devoted to social sprinting. This month, the NaNoWriMo Word Sprint feed (@NaNoWordSprints) will run periodic group sprints, some of which might include prompts or challenges to help you get unstuck.

There are even apps you can download, like WriteOrDie!, which rewards (or punishes!) you for reaching (or not reaching) your goals.

I think my favorite thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t allow me time to go back. I could easily spend half my writing time re-reading and tinkering with the words I’ve already written instead of writing new ones. With sprinting, I’m saving that word-shining for revisions.

I don’t know that I’d want to write an entire novel in sprints. But I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment I have each day after my sprint is done. And I know that as I race one kid to volleyball practice and my husband shuttles another to soccer while I text instructions to my oldest on how to put the rice on without burning down the house, that even if there’s chaos all around me, my writing is still getting done.

I’d love to hear about your sprinting techniques – please share them in the comments!

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Happy NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMoToday marks the beginning of the frenetic bundle of amazingness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This month, thousands of writers around the globe will try to write a 50,000 word first draft of a new story.

With an all-star line-up of NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, and hashtags on Twitter for both writing tips and daily sprints, this month is a great time to start writing that novel that you’ve been meaning to write for ages.

Here’s what the some of the Pennies have to say about their own NaNoWriMo experiences:

Julie Artz: I first learned about NaNoWriMo in 2012. And even though my story that year unraveled at 22,000 words, I was hooked. I came back in 2013 with a little bit more advanced planning and claimed the winner’s badge a few days before month-end. In 2014, I used the month to finish a story I started earlier in the fall. And in 2015, that manuscript made it into Pitch Wars. It was that 2013 story–a middle-grade post-apoc with steampunk elements–that first caught my agent’s eye. She offered a revise and resubmit on the manuscript, but, with her permission, I sent her my newest story instead. And the rest is history. This year, I’ll be cheering you all on from the sidelines as I revise for her instead of drafting, but it will be with a pang of envy, because I’ve got this new story idea that’s just itching to be written…

Jessica Bloczynski: In the fall of 2013, I ran out of every episode of Star Trek Netflix had to offer. I even suffered through Enterprise. I was bored. Climbing the walls bored. Honestly, finding NaNo was a fluke. I stumbled upon a Facebook group of folks doing NaNo together and an idea that had been riding around in my head for about a year spoke up and demanded to be written. And I figured, why not, might as well put my creative writing degree to use. I started writing, did writing sprints with friends and shared snippets of my WIP with other newb writers. Basically, I found this amazing, encouraging community and instead of writing my book alone, I wrote it with thousands of others. That’s a powerful feeling. At the end of November I had a very messy draft, that would, in the fullness of time, become the sci-fi novel that earned me a spot in PitchWars 2015. My advice? Do it. DO IT. Do it for the confidence it builds, the community you find and 50,000 words you can shape into something wonderful. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. Go Nanokids!

Mark Holtzen:  I first participated in NaNoWriMo when I was stuffed in a room with gobs of swarming third graders five days a week and I had two kids under five at home. I had no time and even less energy, but I figured if I was ever going to write a children’s novel in a more efficient way than my first one, I’d have to find the time somewhere in the day. O’dark thirty seemed as good a time as any. The timing wasn’t great–after three days of getting up early I’d pass out at 8:30pm, but that month did get me into the habit of staring at my computer screen for an hour each day. Sometimes I only managed forty minutes, sometimes ten, but I learned the important part was visiting the story once every day. It turned out to be a great thing to share with my students as well.

The Shadows We Know by HeartJennifer Park: My up-coming debut, The Shadows We Know By Heart, was a NaNo project in 2014… I didn’t win, but it jump started the draft and I got a lot of work done on it… I’m going to use this Nano to finish possible book 2. Definitely start strong and surpass your daily word count when you can, because I always lose the week of thanksgiving because of kids and traveling and just being busy… we’re moving this month, so I’ll be surprised if I make the 50k… but there’s always hope! And what I love the most about NaNo is that the momentum really carries through into the following months… I probably get my highest word counts in the months following NaNo because it’s so motivating, and you get to the point where 3000 a day is easily attainable. And I’m competitive, so if friends are doing better than me, I’ll work that much harder. And, no matter whether you win or not, we’re all doing it together. So it’s good to know that when you sit down to get that word count out, so is everyone else.

Kristi Wientge: I’ve participated in NaNo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. I won each of those years. Part of it I attribute to my inner drive that will NOT let me NOT do something I say I’m going to do. The other part I attribute to organization. I use notecards to map out my days. I also jot down notes and names and things I know I’ll forget later on, but don’t want to waste the time to scroll through finding. Usually, I have the first seven cards mapped out. So, my first week goes smoothly. Then, I do the next week and so on. It gives me structure, but still allows me to be flexible. Typically I use a Save The Cat type of beat bullet point to keep me on track and to ensure I actually complete the story. But, if I really find myself stuck, then I take the day to free write from one of the character’s POV’s. It’s words and it counts!

Happy NaNoWriMo writing friends! Share your NaNoWriMo story in the comments below.