Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Monday, April 26, 2021
Pitfalls. We all want to avoid them, don't we? Since I write historical fiction, I decided to talk about some potential pitfalls, but rather than give you a dissertation that will make your eyes glaze over, I thought we’d have some fun. My version of fun, anyway. It’s a little quiz. The object is to see what’s wrong with each of the following selections.
The first one is from a book set in 1170. Yes, the Middle Ages.
“Can you not settle this peacefully?” Marguerite asked Alain. Surely he must see how conflicted she was by the situation.
“Perhaps I was mistaken,” Alain said, not bothering to hide his scorn, “but I thought it was a knight’s duty to protect his lady.”
Marguerite sighed. She wouldn’t go there. Instead, she nodded stiffly, then took her seat next to Louise. The teenager’s enthusiasm for the fight stood in marked contrast to her own reluctance to see blood shed. But the fight was over almost before it began. With one deft stroke, Alain sent Henri’s sword ricocheting against the wall.
If you guessed that there were anachronisms in it, you’re right. There are at least four. “Conflicted” came into general use in 1967. “Wouldn’t go there” is a phrase from the 1990s. “Teenager’s” first usage was 1921, and – this one surprised me – “ricocheting” wasn’t commonly used until 1828.
Why worry about anachronisms?
The first reason is that they brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term? Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.
The second reason is that at least some of your readers will notice the anachronistic terms. For some it may be a mild annoyance. Others may find the errors so jarring that they stop reading. In either case, the suspension of disbelief that we strive so hard to create is broken, if only for a second. Don’t do it. Don’t risk losing readers.
Okay, are you ready for quiz number two?
At least it wasn’t raining. Normally he wouldn’t mind it. In fact, he preferred rain when going into battle. Unfortunately, today he wasn’t waging war, nor was he facing an opponent at the other end of a lance. It would have been easier if he were. Even a few hours at the quintain would have been preferable to the fate which was now mere minutes away.
The knight on the silver gray destrier let the reins slacken as he looked around him. Though the wheat field could not compare to the raw magnificence of Outremer, there was no denying its beauty. It spoke of fertile ground, of centuries of tradition, of home. This morn it also reminded Alain de Jarnac of the obligation awaiting him.
This is another selection from the same medieval. While there are no anachronisms in this passage, I would venture that some of the vocabulary made you pause. Admittedly, devotees of medievals are familiar with quintains (a post with a revolving crosspiece that knights used for training) and know that a destrier is a war horse. They’d also know that Outremer meant overseas and was a term used during the Crusades.
But – and this is an important “but” – many readers won’t recognize those terms. If a potential reader picked up the book and glanced at this passage, the chances are she wouldn’t buy the book, simply because of the unfamiliar words. You don’t want that to happen, and so I urge you not to fall into this potential pit.
Either use common words or include an explanation. For example, if the author had replaced the simple reference to a quintain with “a few hours of jousting against the revolving arms of the quintain post,” the reader would have understood what a quintain was and might have smiled over the fact that he’d learned something new. The key is never to make a reader feel stupid.
That’s all for today, but I’ll be back next week with part two of the pitfall discussion. I hope to see you then.
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
What's it all about?
The sculpture represents the first puff of smoke from a newly lit pipe and is designed to highlight the importance of Devils Tower to the twenty affiliated tribes for whom this is a sacred spot.
Monday, April 19, 2021
Research. As a writer, you either love it or hate it. In either case, one of the facts of life, or at least of writing historical fiction, is that it’s an essential part of the process. One of the reasons readers choose historical fiction is that they enjoy learning something new. They want to be swept away to a distant time, and they want that time to come alive for them. The only way that will happen is with the judicious use of historical details.
Note the word ‘judicious.’ A common mistake of beginning writers is to include what one author calls the dump truck. You’ve all seen that, where an author gives so much background information in the first chapter that your eyes glaze over with boredom. The trick is to use only snippets of information, enough to set the scene but not so much that your book reads like an encyclopedia. That’ll be the subject of another discussion.
First you need to discover all those fascinating details, and that’s where research comes into play. The problem with research is that it can become endless. One book leads to another, or if you’re on the Internet, one site leads to another. Before you know it, you’ve spent days – maybe weeks – reading, but your book still isn’t started.
How can you avoid getting caught in the sinkhole of research? I can’t guarantee that this technique will work for you, but I’ve found it useful. I call it layered research. The idea is to do only as much research as you need for the particular stage of the book. Planning requires one level (normally a cursory understanding), while the final draft will demand specific details.
The resources I’ve found most valuable are:
The children’s section of the library.
One of my publishers asked me to write a trilogy set during World War One. At the time, what I knew about that time period could be described in two words: not much. The adult section of the library had huge tomes, detailing each day of the war. I could have spent weeks reading them, but instead I went to the children’s section. The books I found there were considerably shorter. Even more importantly, they gave me the basic information that I needed to plan the trilogy, namely the causes of the war and the major battles.
Later, when I knew exactly when each book would take place, I consulted the ten-pound tomes to see what was happening on specific key dates. My advice is to always begin with children’s books.
Historic diaries and letters.
What I like about diaries is that they tell you how real people lived, and as such, they’re a valuable source of details. For example, when I was researching my 2012 release set at Wyoming’s Fort Laramie, I read excerpts from an officer’s wife’s letters. In them I learned that the dried potatoes the post store sold were considered virtually inedible. An interesting fact, and one you can be sure made its way to the manuscript.
Costume books. Readers want to know what people wore. Oh, they don’t need to have a gown described down to the last furbelow, but knowing that women wore bustles in the 1880s and that skirts often had panels draped over the hips and continuing into trains in back helps you add authentic details to your story. I find costume books, particularly those with extensive illustrations, valuable. There is also a growing number of web sites with pictures of clothing from various eras.
Like diaries, these help you understand what people ate during your chosen time period. Just as importantly, they provide clues to what people did not eat. If you don’t find a recipe for ragout, it’s probably because the term wasn’t used then. To be true to the period, simply call it stew. And that leads me to what I consider one of the most important research tools.
Dictionary with date of first usage.
I hate anachronisms. For me there’s nothing so jarring as to be reading a book set in the Middle Ages and read, “The sword slid off his shield as if it were covered with teflon.” Admittedly, that was an extreme example, but I found myself wanting to use the word ‘camouflaged’ when writing about the 1850s. My trusty dictionary saved me from that by pointing out that camouflage came into usage during World War One.
Why worry about anachronisms? They brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term. Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Monday, April 12, 2021
If one of your dreams is to write historical fiction, read on. If it isn’t … well, you’re welcome to continue reading.
I don’t claim to have all the answers – far from it – but I do know that if you want to write historical fiction, there are three basic questions you need to answer.
1. What kind of historical fiction do I want to write?
Brilliant, bestselling, award-winning are not the answers I’m looking for, although there’s no doubt that’s what we all hope we’re writing. Instead, I challenge you to identify the category of historical fiction that most appeals to you. There are undoubtedly other ways to divide historical fiction, but I’ve split them into two groups: fictionalized history and period fiction.
In fictionalized history, the events of the period play a critical role in the story. Just to further complicate things, I’ve divided fictionalized history into two sub-categories.
* In the first, the main characters are well-known historical figures. Jill Eileen Smith’s Wives of King David series is a good example of this.
* You’ve probably guessed that the other sub-category features protagonists who are fictional or less-known figures. Consider Diana Wallis Taylor’s Journey to the Well. Though the heroine is a Biblical character, without Diana’s book we wouldn’t even know her name. I’d call her a less-known figure.
Regardless of the sub-category, real historical events form the framework of the plot in fictionalized history.
So, you might ask, what differentiates this from non-fiction? The emotions. Are you familiar with the journalistic Five Ws? Using those terms, readers of fictionalized history know what happened, where and when. The book provides the answer to why and makes the who come to life.
In contrast to fictionalized history with its focus on real people, the main characters of what I call period fiction are fictional. Historical personages, if any, play minor roles in the story. Similarly, historical events form the backdrop, not the framework, for the story. Most of the historical fiction books currently published by either the CBA or the secular market fall into this category.
The difference between fictionalized history and period fiction is critical, particularly where reader expectations are concerned. While readers of fictionalized history want to delve more deeply into the story of real people, readers of period fiction want to be transported to a different time. They want to learn about that time but from the view of ordinary people rather than historical personages whose biographies they might be able to find in the library or on Wikipedia.
Which category is the right one for you?
Only you can answer that question. The key is to write the kind of book you love to read. While it’s true that the market for period fiction is larger than for fictionalized history, if the story that’s burning in your heart is fictionalized history, write it!
That leads us to the second question.
2. How much history should I include?
I wish it were otherwise, but the answer is that oh, so frustrating “it depends.” Readers of fictionalized history expect more references to actual events than do readers of period fiction. In either case, it’s important to remember that you are writing fiction and that the primary focus of fiction is entertainment, not information. If all a reader wants are the simple facts about a particular event, she can find them in the non-fiction section of the library or bookstore. If on the other hand, she wants to live those events through a character’s eyes, she’ll choose fiction.
When deciding which historical facts to include, my theory is that less is more. Include the events that shape your protagonists’ lives and omit the others – no matter how fascinating they might be – unless they have a direct impact on your characters.
3. How do I make my book feel historical?
Although there are numerous techniques, I’d like to suggest three.
* Judicious use of historical-sounding dialogue. Notice the word “judicious.” Depending on the period you’ve chosen, authentic dialogue might overwhelm the reader or – even worse – slow the book as the reader tries to translate it into modern English. Overuse of “thee,” “thou” and “ye” can become tedious. On the other hand, the occasional “whilst” instead of “while” and “four-and-twenty” rather than “twenty-four” gives the dialogue an historical feel without becoming burdensome to the reader.
* Era-appropriate analogies. If you’re writing a story set in the nineteenth century, you’d hardly describe something as being at “warp speed.” However, consider the following selection from Vickie McDonough’s The Anonymous Bride.
“They crossed the street, shoulder to shoulder, like a trio of gunslingers looking for trouble.”
With the reference to gunslingers, is there any question that we’re in the nineteenth century?
* Telling Details. Sometimes it’s the smallest of details that adds historical authenticity to a story. I like the way Stephanie Grace Whitson needs only one sentence in Sixteen Brides to bring the nineteenth century to life.
“Button hook in hand, she sat down and lifted Caroline’s foot into her lap, quickly unhooking each of the ten buttons running up the side of the stylish black leather boot.”
Another author might simply have mentioned the button hook, but the inclusion of “ten buttons” and the notation that they’re “running up the side” gives the passage a feeling of authenticity that can’t help but intrigue readers.
Have I confused you or – even worse – discouraged you? I hope not. The bottom line is that while writing historical fiction is not easy, it can be very rewarding. Not only does it give you a chance to bring earlier times to life for your readers, but it’s also a chance for you to learn new things as you do your research. If you’re at all interested in writing historical fiction, I urge you to do so. After all, who can resist the lure of “once upon a time”?
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
As you can see from the picture above, Devils Tower dominates the skyline, making it one of the prominent features of northeastern Wyoming.
It's even more impressive close up.
Monday, April 5, 2021
Rejection. As much as we’d like to deny it, rejection is a part of most writers’ lives. Rejection can come from agents, from editors, from reviewers and even from potential readers. A booksigning where customers walk by, possibly chat with us but don’t buy a book is a form of rejection, isn’t it? While there are many forms of rejection, they all have one thing in common: they hurt. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Having someone say our story, which is after all a part of us, isn’t ready for publication or – in the case of bad reviews – should never have been published is painful.
So, how do we cope with it? Besides eating a pound of chocolate, that is. That’s where SARAH comes in. Who’s SARAH, or more precisely, what is SARAH? You’re probably familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, the book that first introduced the idea of the five stages of grieving. Further research indicated that it’s not only people who are facing either their own mortality or that of a loved one who experience the five stages. Any traumatic experience can trigger them. I would argue that being rejected is traumatic, because it’s the death of a dream.
If we want to survive rejection, it’s important to understand the stages, then identify coping devices that will help us through each stage. Let’s begin.
Understanding Those Oh, So Critical Stages
We’re all writers, so I’m sure you realized that the fact that I capitalized SARAH means it’s an acronym. It is indeed. The five stages of dealing with rejection are:
No matter how often we remind ourselves that rejection is a fact of life, we’re never truly prepared for it. That’s why we find ourselves in Shock. The important thing to remember about Shock is that a person who’s experiencing it may exhibit unpredictable and irrational behavior. This is probably the most dangerous stage, since we’re not in full control of ourselves.
Next comes Anger. It’s only normal to be angry. How could that agent/ editor/ reviewer – you fill in the blanks – say something like that? Don’t they know that my story is the most beautiful piece of prose in the English language?
Eventually Anger fades and is replaced by Resistance. Some refer to this stage as Denial. In it, our energy is still diverted, because even though we don’t want to think about it, the rejection is hanging over us, sapping our creativity.
Acceptance is the first positive stage. In it we admit that yes, we were rejected, but the world didn’t end.
And then comes Hope. This is where we tell ourselves it will be different the next time. The next editor will love this manuscript. And if that doesn’t happen, there’s always another story. At this point, the pain has faded and we’re ready to resume our normal lives.
Things You May Not Know About SARAH
There are two important things to know about the five stages of SARAH. First, the speed with which people progress through them varies. Some will race through the first three quickly, spending little time in Acceptance as they make their way to Hope. Others will remain mired in one of the early stages and never reach Hope.
The second thing to know is that progress isn’t necessarily linear. Although you may have reached Resistance or one of the later stages, it’s possible that a new event will trigger backsliding and you find yourself back a stage or two. Don’t let this upset you. It happens. The key is to know how to cope with each stage so that you’ll be able to reach Hope.
So, let’s talk about coping techniques. As I said before, chocolate is always helpful, but it has some downsides, including weight gain, so I advise using it in moderation. There are, however, other things you can do during each stage.
When You're in Shock
Fortunately Shock does not normally last too long. The key here is to stay away from your computer and your phone. The last thing you need is to send the agent or editor a nasty note when you’re in shock. Remember that irrational behavior is a hallmark of this stage. Be careful. Be very careful.
When you reach Anger, primal scream therapy and journaling are excellent tools. Call a friend and vent. You might even want to write a letter to the person who rejected you, explaining how totally misguided and incorrect the rejection was. As soon as you’ve written the letter, delete it, burn it or shred it. Under no circumstances should you send it to the rejecter. That’s career suicide.
Dealing with Resistance
I’m a firm believer in exercise. A brisk walk, even house cleaning (shudder!) releases endorphins, those wonderful feel-good substances. That’s why exercise is an excellent way to deal with Resistance. So, too, is reading. Escape into a book by one of your favorite authors. You can always claim you’re doing research, but the truth is, you’re helping yourself get through Resistance.
Do you keep a file of positive affirmations? You should. Whether it’s a favorable review of a published story, your critique partner’s praise or simply a compliment someone paid you, you should store it somewhere easily accessible. Reading those affirmations while you’re in Acceptance will help you on the path to Hope. So too will what I call “a trip to the post office.”
Edging Toward Hope
Even before you send the manuscript out the first time, you should have a backup plan just in case your submission is met with rejection. That backup plan is a prioritized list of other agents or editors who might be interested in that particular manuscript. As soon as you’ve passed through Shock, send the manuscript to the next person on the list. (I know I’m dating myself, but when I started writing, that involved a trip to the post office. Now a submission is usually as simple as email.) Getting the manuscript out to another agent or editor is the second most important step you can take to reach Hope.
So, what’s the most important step? Always be working on your next project. (Did the bold italics tell you I think this is critical? It is!) If you’re in the middle of your next project, your attention is focused on it rather than the manuscript that was rejected. That doesn’t stop rejection from hurting, but it does mitigate the pain and shorten the time to reach Hope.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line of all this is simple. If you let rejection by others defeat you, you’re admitting that they’re right. They aren’t. Don’t ever, ever, ever stop believing in yourself. You are unique. You see the world differently from everyone else. You have a story to tell. You are a writer!