Worldbuilding the Past

Mike Kanner and I connected a few months ago over the topic of WWI trenches. Yes, connections can come from all sorts of places! With a military career behind him, Mike entered academia and ended with a Ph.D. in political psychology and a job as a lecturer in security and international relations. But he’s always been drawn to historical fiction and has contributed a number of stories to various anthologies and considers himself a student of WWI – hence the trenches.

Today, Mike discusses world building – one of the seven elements of historical fiction.

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World building is associated with science fiction and fantasy, but writing historical fiction, I have the task of rebuilding a world that existed one hundred years ago. For that, I reached back to the people that lived during that period. 

My interest in soldier’s diaries started when I wrote doctrine for the US Army Infantry School back in the 1980s. After reviewing a tactical manual, our general called me in and asked the question, “What happens in the last 100 yards of battle?” He said he had his own experience, but he was interested in any general lessons to be learned. This sent me to the Infantry School Libraries collection of first-person accounts from World War 1 to the Grenada Invasion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer the general’s question since soldiers could only account for what happened in front of them and to them. However, I was fascinated with the detail that some of these accounts had about the conditions on the battlefield. So, over the years, I collected diaries, first-person accounts and photographs from World War 1. 

Once I retired from the service and started to write historical fiction, I found these accounts to be both inspiration and information. The best way to illustrate this is by describing the research supporting a specific story. 

“White Feather” was recently published in Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice and was inspired by a presentation by the Western Front Association on conscientious objectors in World War 1. I knew I wanted to write a story of a pacifist that became an objector yet served on the front as their alternate service. The presentation and links provided gave me information on the process of asking for objector status, but what I wanted to focus on was what that would have meant for my main character. I got the technical aspects of being a stretcher bearer from my copy of the 1917 Service Manual for Sanitation Troops; however, I was more interested in what that duty would involve. For that, I turned to my copy of Ambulancing on the French Front by Edward Coyle.

Coyle was an American who, in 1917, decided to join the American Red Cross in France. In 1918, he published his diaries so Americans could know about the ‘true conditions’ in the war. Although this has been republished, I had an original copy including pictures of conditions at the front. This, and my collection of postcards of the period, provided the story’s visual elements. While the Sanitation Troops Manual told me how evacuation was supposed to be done, Coyle’s story told me how it occurred on the battlefield. In addition, the incident he related in the “Kamerad” chapter was the basis for one of the significant scenes in the story. 

Having set the plot and the visual framework, I wanted to evoke other senses. For these, I went to other accounts. Some, like Graves’ Goodbye to All That, are classics; others that I have were less known. Rereading their accounts of trenches, two conditions were evident – the noise and the smell. Common to all accounts was the constant background of artillery, even when a sector was not in combat. Based on my time in the service (especially at gunnery training), I knew my main character would also hear sounds from the troops in the trench. The result was the line, “There was nothing quiet about this ‘quiet sector.’ Distant artillery echoed off the clouds while the trenches were filled with conversations, snores, and the groans of the men in the Aid Post awaiting evacuation.” 

Next, I wanted to give a sense of the smells. Since trench warfare is not common, I could not call on my experience, so I again referred to the contemporary accounts in diaries. Officer accounts, such as Graves’, tended not to include descriptions of the smells; however, ordinary soldiers did. Typical to their descriptions was the presence of mud, rot, and rats. These were also present in sewers inspired me to write, “The trench smelled like the open sewer it resembled.” 

So while history gave me the skeleton of events, it was the personal accounts that let me add flesh and sinew to the body of the work

Many thanks, Mike. You’ve highlighted an important source for world building along with the significance of portraying each one of the senses.

Mike is a contributor to Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice

In art, chiaroscuro is a technique that explores the interplay of light and dark through stark contrasts. In the same way, this anthology explores virtue and vice and the interconnectedness between these two ends of the morality spectrum. A virtue taken to excess transforms into vice; a vice in the right circumstances becomes virtuous. Via poetry and prose, Chiaroscuro will take you on a journey through light and dark, right and wrong, good and evil, and the spaces in between.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

From Family to Fiction

David O. Stewart is writing a series of novels called the Overstreet Saga, and I had the pleasure of endorsing the first of those novels, The New Land, with this comment:

“An engrossing saga of hope, determination, and bravery in a new world called America. Seeking land and opportunity, Johann and his wife Christiane risk everything to cross the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Broad Bay, they are devastated by the false promises of charlatans, the harsh land, and the ever-present threat of native attacks. Only through faith, grit, and the power of love do they secure a future and build a legacy for their family. David O. Stewart’s action-filled prose creates an unforgettable story.” 

Today, David shares the experience of writing historical fiction inspired by family stories, especially when you knew and cared for some of the figures. Many thanks, David.

From Family to Fiction by David O. Stewart

Writers are magpies of experience.  Whatever we seem to be doing, we also are gathering material: ideas, events, settings, phrases, facial expressions, actions, and feelings.  Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, we dredge through that inventory of random observations to meet the writing challenge of the moment.  

Mostly we don’t get in trouble for scavenging bits of life from the world’s vault of experience, so we do it unblushingly.  And we get away with it.

The risks from such scavenging rise dramatically, however, if the source is family.  Family members know things that others don’t.  Family members are more likely to remember at least their version of an event.  They’re (at least slightly) more likely to read what you write.  And the cost of offending them can be high.  Some writers produce long books – multiple volumes, even – about themselves and their close relations, often settling long-simmering scores.  I, however, have written nonfiction about the long dead, or novels featuring characters I’ve only imagined.  Until now.

Now I have a fictional trilogy coming out with stories inspired by the experiences of my mother’s family in America.  The first installment has launched as The New Land The next two will be released next year.  The novels follow stories that have been in my head for as long as sixty years.

Gratifying, yes.  But, maybe, a bit risky?  

Not very risky, it turned out, for The New LandBook One of the modestly-titled Overstreet Saga.  The story unfolds on the Maine coast in the eighteenth-century.  Not much information has survived about the ancestors who blundered into dangerous place, so the story is mostly made up – that is, fiction!  Anyway, those long-gone ancestors are in no position to kick up a fuss.

Book Two, The Burning Land, launches next May.  Picking up family descendants in the Civil War and Reconstruction years, I remain on safe ground.  I know more about those ancestors (census records, military records) but they’ve also been dead for more than a century, along with anyone who knew them.

The forecast is less clear with Book Three, The Resolute Land, which will release next autumn.  Scrounging around for an idea for Book Three (publishing loves trilogies), I had a slap-my-forehead moment.  During World War II, my mother worked for Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House.  Her brothers served in the Army Air Forces.  One flew in Europe and the other in Asia.  And their father was Midwest regional director of the War Production Board. Those four figures provided a stout structure for capturing much of that gigantic war: two on the home front plus one in each major theater of the fighting.

Then a small interior voice whispered. Did I want to write stories inspired by family I actually knew? I immediately began to rationalize. That grandfather died before I was born.  I never spent much time with my uncles, never speaking with them about their war experiences.  So I would just borrow the outlines of their lives, not their actual personalities.

I resolved to eschew research about the three men.  I wouldn’t quiz my cousins.  Nor would I seek records of their military and public service.  The characters they inspired would be fictional creations with fictional exploits, fictional friends, and fictional lovers.  Any offending passages would be the result of my twisted imagination, not malice.

But that left the fourth character, the one inspired by my mother.  She was pivotal to the tale, offering a backstairs look inside the Roosevelt White House, the center of the war, and also functioning as the hub of the fictional family.  The problem, of course, was that I knew Mom really well, for a lot of years. Her voice in my head wasn’t going to be quiet while I wrote this book.  

Parts of the real person seeped into the fictional character.  I still had to imagine dialogue, scenes and other people in her life.  But some of the personality is her: highly verbal, socially ept, quick to judge, strong yet unpredictably vulnerable, resilient, coaxing fun from unpromising circumstances.  The fictional character is not my mother, but then again. . ..

The experience leaves me on edge.  I think I’m glad to share some of her with readers.  I hope they are drawn into the character’s challenges and how she deals with them.  Then again, I also hope I’ve been fair to the real person who inspired the story. We’ll see.

David O. Stewart is the author of five non-fiction books and six novels, counting the three books in The Overstreet Saga. For more about his writing, check out the post on his recent non-fiction about George Washington and his mystery series, specifically The Paris Deception. He’s way more productive than me!

The New Land by David O. Stewart ~~ Lose yourself in the challenges and emotions of eighteenth-century Maine. 

In 1753, Johann Oberstrasse’s wife, Christianne, announces that their infant sons will never soldier for the Landgraf of Hesse like their father, hired out to serve King George of England. In search of a new life, Johann and the family join an expedition to the New World, lured by the promise of land on the Maine coast. A grinding voyage deposits them on the edge of a continent filled with dangers and disease. Expecting to till the soil, Johann finds that opportunity on the rocky coast comes from the forest, not land, so he learns carpentry and trapping. To advance in an English world, Johann adapts their name to Overstreet.

But war follows them. The French and their Indian allies mount attacks on the English settlements of New England. To protect their growing family and Broad Bay neighbors, Johann accepts the captaincy of the settlement’s militia and leads the company through the British assault on the citadel of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Left behind in Broad Bay, Christianne, their small children, and the old and young stave off Indian attacks, hunger, and cruel privations.

Peace brings Johann success as a carpenter, but also searing personal losses. When the fever for American independence reaches Broad Bay in 1774, Johann is torn, then resolves to kill no more…unlike his son, Franklin, who leaves to stand with the Americans on Bunker Hill. At the same time, Johann faces old demons and a new crisis when an escaped prisoner—a hired Hessian soldier, just as he had been—arrives at his door.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Writing for Young Adults

Vali Benson had her first novel, Blood and Silver, published in 2020. The book has won awards at the San Francisco Book Festival, the New York Book Festival, the Arizona Literary Awards, the Paris Book Festival, the Moonbeam Book Awards, and the 2021 American Fiction Awards. Phew – that’s a lot of awards! Blood and Silver is young adult fiction and I invited Vali to chat about writing for young adults.

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As a lifelong reader, I often thought, “I could do better than that”. So, I decided to finally do something about it. The problem was I wasn’t sure what demographic I wanted to pursue. Then I remembered how important reading was to me as a teenager. It provided acceptance when I couldn’t find any in the real world. So, I decided to craft a story that featured a resilient young character who is forced to deal with issues that far surpass her age. And since I have always loved period pieces, I decided to set my story in the old west. It is called Blood and Silver.  

Blood and Silver is my first book. It is a young adult historical fiction novel about a twelve-year-old girl in 1880’s Tombstone, AZ who runs into all kinds of trouble trying to save her mother’s life. I like to think it has an entertaining combination of history and heart. The inspiration for Blood and Silver was formed from family outings. When our boys were little, my husband and I used to take them to Tombstone for the Wild West show. I was amazed when I learned that this little town of just over thirteen hundred residents had once been a boomtown of fifteen thousand. I couldn’t imagine it, but I knew there had to be a great story there.   

I was shocked when my book started winning awards. I’ve won several in the “young adult” category which confounded me a bit because I was not sure if it fit the traditional definition of the genre. I wrote Blood and Silver thinking of a twelve-year-old girl because that is the age of my heroine. I thought about myself at twelve. I had just finished reading Gone with the Wind for the third time (I was obsessed!). My mother had not thought it appropriate for a twelve-year-old due to the subject manner. I fell into the same quandary with Blood and Silver.     

My twelve-year-old heroine lives in a brothel with her mother, who is addicted to opium. Sadly, many children these days are facing a challenge similar to this, especially teenagers.  When I thought about my demographic with that perspective, it eased my reservations. Like my heroine, Carissa, many children today are living lives where they are forced to be the adults. Their parents are drug addicted or alcoholic, or simply unable to raise their children. Yes, there are young people who might be confused about Carissa’s situation, but I  think that most teens today know much more than we adults did at that age.  

I was concerned at first about the “young adult” label. However, I have received numerous comments praising my handling of very delicate subjects. I remember one early review in particular which stated, “Blood and Silver by Vali Benson is entertaining and heartbreaking. This is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular.” Feedback like this helped validate my belief that my story fits nicely within the young adult category. The main reason I believe is because Blood and Silver grants the young adult reader the respect to deal with mature issues while not subjecting them to the explicit details.      

It is very important to write with your audience in mind. Writing for young adults can be tricky because certain concepts and notions will not resonate although they can be vaguely understood. The author must remember that the readers are not fully formed individuals yet. But they are not kids either. Give them credit for knowing what’s what in the world. The genre of young adult does not have to be dumbed down simply because the target demographic does not have as much life experience.

Many thanks, Vali and congratulations for writing this award-winning novel. Hopefully, you will soon have another one ‘out there’.

Blood and Silver by Vali Benson ~~ What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother? If she is Carissa Beaumont, she outsmarts the evil madam and figures a way out.

“Blood and Silver” is a clever page turner with a witty young heroine set against an actual place and time in history. Dripping with suspense, charm and perseverance, it has been described as “both heartbreaking and heartwarming”. The narrative also features very identifiable issues. As opposed to so much Y/A fiction, “Blood and Silver”  is entertaining in a very relatable way with the benefit of a historically accurate perspective. According to Rabia Tanveer of Readers’ Favorite, it “is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular”. With a host of colorful characters and meticulous attention to period detail, “Blood and Silver” is a story of the best and worst of human nature, the passion for survival and the beauty of true friendship.

Buy Links:
Website:
http://valibenson.com/
Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Silver-Vali-Benson-ebook/dp/B086R4RBF3
Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53167218-blood-and-silver
Barnes & Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/blood-and-silver-vali-benson/1136812955?ean=9780228827542
BookBub:
https://www.bookbub.com/books/blood-and-silver-by-vali-benson

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.