Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction with Ben Kane

Ben Kane was born in Kenya and moved to Ireland when he was 7. With a veterinarian for a father and a love of animals, Ben did the logical thing and became a vet. All his life he’s been an avid fan of military and historical fiction. In 1998 he set out to travel the world for three years. It was during this time that he first had thoughts of writing military historical fiction. As Ben tells it: “What started as a hobby soon became an obsession, and about four years later The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light.” His latest novel is LionHeart.

Is there a particular time period you concentrate on? If so, why? If you’ve switched time periods, why?

My first thirteen novels were set in ancient times. I have long wanted set books in other time periods, however, because my interest in history is not confined to Rome and its enemies. When my publisher offered me the opportunity to write a non-Roman novel, I seized it with both hands. Why Richard the Lionheart? Because he has fascinated me since childhood, and because there aren’t that many books out there about him.

Why historical fiction? Why not contemporary stories?

History is my one true love; I have adored it since childhood. While I have toyed with the idea of writing contemporary stories (and may yet do that too), history is what really lights my fire – all time periods!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

See above! In short, everything. Getting it right regarding how people lived, spoke, behaved, ate, drank, fought, died. Filling the pages with tiny brush-stroked detail so that the reader is transported to the time and place that the book is set in.

How do you choose the stories you tell?

With one eye on the story and the other on the market. I wish I could just write novels about whatever takes my fancy, but my book sales keep a roof over my head, and feed my kids. (I am, fortunately, a fulltime author.) I could write the best-written work about the pottery making people who lived in southern India in the fifth century BC, but no one would buy it. The title and subject have to appeal to the reader.

How has your writing style changed over time?

It has improved immeasurably – I am so much better at writing than I was ten, twelve years ago.

What would you do differently if you could start again?

I would re-write my first three novels knowing what I know now, and edit thousands of overwritten sentences. Things like, ‘he shouted loudly’ really grate with me now!

What are you working on now?

I am in the finishing stages of Crusade, which is the sequel to Lionheart. It’s been a blast to write – so many contemporary accounts of Richard’s crusade have made my job pure joy.

What advice do you have for new authors?

For the vast majority of us, it takes years of writing to hone your craft well enough to publish. Do not assume that because you have finished a novel that it is ready for publication. Set it aside for a month or two when you have ‘finished’ it, and then go back and re-read the whole thing. You will see it through different eyes, and your edit then will be worth a dozen of the ones that went before. PAY for a professional editor to edit the book before you publish – and make sure they are high-quality. Only then should you consider publishing. Never give up!

Many thanks, Ben. You can read another blog post featuring Ben Kane here

Lionheart by Ben Kane ~~ 1179. Henry II’s Norman conquerors have swept through England, Wales – and now Ireland.

Irish nobleman Ferdia has been imprisoned in Wales to ensure the good behaviour of his rebellious father. But during a skirmish on a neighbouring castle, Ferdia saves the life of the man who would become one of the most legendary warriors to have ever lived: Richard Plantagenet. The Lionheart.

Taken as Richard’s squire, Ferdia crosses the Narrow Sea to resist the rebellious nobles in Aquitaine, besieging castles and fighting bloody battles with brutal frequency.

But treachery and betrayal lurk around every corner. Infuriated by his younger brother Richard’s growing reputation, Henry rebels. And Ferdia learns that the biggest threat to Richard’s life may not be a foreign army – but Richard’s own family . . .

Available on The Book Depository and on Amazon.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A surgeon’s advice…on how to write books

May 1, 2019 carries the burdens and celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the 442nd Regiment heading off to fight in World War II. The 442nd was made up of the Japanese American men taken out of internment camps all over the west coast; they fought valiantly at home and in Europe to prove their loyalty to the US. By no coincidence, award-winning author and retinal surgeon Andrew Lam releases Repentance (Tiny Fox Press) on that commemorative day. I’m delighted to welcome Andrew to the blog.

A Surgeon’s Advice . . .  on How to Write Books by Andrew Lam

I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell a stranger their loved one had died under my care. I did it over the phone, in the middle of the night. The woman’s voice rasped; I’d woken her up. I didn’t tell her that I’d only met her father in the emergency room two hours before. I didn’t mention I was exhausted and only a few months out of medical school. I tried to conceal the truth—that I wasn’t sure what to say because I’d never done this before.

For a long time—years, in fact—writing my first book felt like that. I had no idea how to begin. I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. I worried I’d embarrass myself. I wanted to write a fabulous book, just like I wanted to be an excellent doctor, but in both medicine and writing, good intentions do not mean you’ll be any good at either.

No one starts out being a skilled surgeon or best-selling author. It takes years of practice, and lots of failure. I didn’t think about this back in college, when I chose to go to medical school simply because I wanted to help people. But now that I look back at all the ups and downs of my arduous training, and also have a few books under my belt, I’ve singled out five lessons that helped me succeed at both careers, and can be applied to almost any challenging endeavor.

Just do it. You never know how far you can go until you take the first step. It may come to nothing. It may mean taking a risk. But you only get one life and if you feel passionate about your idea for a book, screenplay, or other creative project, turn off the TV, carve out some time from your family, take a break from Facebook, and just start doing it.

Find fulfillment in the journey, not the end point. It is very difficult to excel at something you are not passionate about. Any goal worth achieving entails some degree of unpleasantness. Hard work. Long hours. Rejection and failure. The only way you will outlast these trials is to believe you are doing something truly worthwhile. There is no way I could have become a highly specialized retinal surgeon without enjoying what I learned in my psychiatry and pediatrics clerkships. I spent years learning things that have little to do with the surgical discipline I now practice; but they were necessary to hurdle in order to achieve my ultimate goal. As a writer, you may write an entire book and then scrap it before starting a new one that finds success. If you do not find joy in the process—if writing starts to feel too much like “work”—you should find another hobby or seek a different topic that inspires you.

Help others—they will help you. No author can do it alone. We all need teachers and friends to read and critique our work. There is simply no other way to improve. We need friends and connections to help us find agents and editors and more friends who are willing to attend events and leave book reviews. I am indebted to scores of surgeons who taught me how to save sight, and scores of others who helped my books succeed. And whenever I can help someone else, I try to do so if I can.

Gain trust by paying attention to detail. The most humbling part of my day occurs when patients who need an operation give me their trust within minutes of meeting me for the first time. That is an incredible honor and privilege. When I operate on a patient going blind from a retinal detachment, that person is trusting that I will be as meticulous with her as I would be with my own mother. In a similar way, authors consider it an honor whenever a fan takes the time to read their book. We are also asking readers to trust us. Nonfiction readers trust that the writer is an expert on the subject. With fiction, authors must write convincingly about characters, time, and place, because readers quickly see through anything less than genuine. So we should write about what we know, and convey details that make our prose authentic. I know about history, medicine, being a husband and father, and being Asian American. These are the themes I write about the most.

Find something that matters. When I chose a medical field, my most basic desire was to find one that mattered. I chose to be an eye surgeon because of how precious sight is to all of us. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have to tell a patient they’ve gone blind and I am powerless to help. But I am always completely engaged because the stakes are so high. Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

That night on the phone in the hospital, I stumbled through an explanation of how my patient had died—his initial presentation, our attempts to resuscitate him. The daughter was grief-stricken. It occurred to me that this conversation would be one of the most important of her life, a thought that gave me energy when I’d had none. We talked for a while, and I learned more about her family, and the way they’d loved the man I’d only known for the last two difficult hours. That was many years ago. Today I project the confidence of a surgeon who’s performed thousands of successful cases. The years between then and now were long and arduous, but it was entirely worth it and I’d do it again.

Writing books is just like that. Successful authors work hard, delay gratification, and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, never stop learning, and remain authentic. They enjoy the journey and know it is impossible to excel at something one does not find fulfilling. These qualities can be applied to any profession or goal. And those who adopt them may ultimately discover that their greatest satisfaction comes, not from the success they attain, but from the work and dedication that took them there.

What great life lessons, Andrew. Many thanks for sharing your journeys as surgeon and writer. Best wishes for Repentance. I’ve already put it on my TBR list.

Repentance by Andrew Lam ~~ France, October 1944. A Japanese American war hero has a secret. A secret so awful he’d rather die than tell anyone–one so entwined with the brave act that made him a hero that he’s determined never to speak of the war. Ever.

Decades later his son, Daniel Tokunaga, a world-famous cardiac surgeon, is perplexed when the U.S. government comes calling, wanting to know about his father’s service with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Something terrible happened while his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the Department of Defense won’t stop its investigation until it’s determined exactly who did what.

Wanting answers of his own, Daniel upends his life to find out what his father did on a small, obscure hilltop half a world away. As his quest for the truth unravels his family’s catastrophic past, the only thing for certain is that nothing–his life, career, and family–can ever be the same again.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Perspectives on writing with author Bob Rich

Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. He’s worked as a research scientist, a builder’s labourer, a nurse, a psychotherapist and always as a storyteller. For eighteen years, he’s written a newsletter – a collection of thoughts and insights on a wide range of topics – called Bobbing Around. I think you’ll find his perspective refreshing.

Why do you write historical fiction?

Mary, it’s not like that for me. Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life, and research is the yeast in the cake mix.

I started with nonfiction, and without meaning to, built up a wide following in Australia, where I live. As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to read anything that taught me something new. I used to read encyclopedias, and could get lost in them for hours. This gave me an understanding of our world, and how it can be improved.

For years, I had a concept in my mind: a small group of forest-dwelling teenagers, facing an invading patrol of nomads who kill the boys and abduct the girls. When I felt confident enough, I started writing, and this resulted in a series: The stories of the Ehvelen. The Ehvelen are the REAL little people, the base of the many myths. I know, because I visited them in 700 BC. They became the protectors of the wild places, the Mother’s sword against cruelty, slavery, exploitation.

My writing skills have greatly improved during the past 20-odd years, and I should rewrite the books, because the content is great. Only, I’ve grown since, and now I am less interested in opposing evil as in changing it into good. For example, my award-winning novel, Sleeper, Awake, has plenty of tension, but no villains at all. It’s also historical, but the time is 1500 years into the future.

Another historical project was set between 1939 and 2000. It’s the story of a woman who did the impossible and survived the unsurvivable, more than once. She used intelligence, creativity and ruthlessness to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary, then built a million-dollar business behind the iron curtain. Only, this is nonfiction: my mother’s biography. After she died, I had a suitcase-full of research materials, but couldn’t even look at them for two years. The resulting book has the highest number of awards among my 17 titles. It’s Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

In 2013, I had book published that’s mostly historical fiction: early Viking times in Ireland, the period surrounding the Irish rebellion of 1798 and its sequel of Irish people being deported to what became Australia, then the Victorian era, and finally our times. Why did I write this one? Because it is my life story, though fictionalized to protect the guilty. It’s the story of my life, and five of my past lives I recalled in 2007, but the hero is not me. Rather, he is the person I’d like to be. This is Ascending Spiral.

Finally, one of my recent books is historical fiction, set in Australia in the mid-19th century. The inspiration for it was my work as a counselor in an (Australian) Aboriginal health service. I came to love and admire these people, who are the survivors of genocide, and terribly traumatized from what the invaders did to people of an amazingly wise culture. So, Guardian Angel is a tribute to them.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

Typically, I invent a few characters, and put them into a situation. They then take over, and tell me what to write. Often, they tell me what I need to find out before I can make it happen. For example, Maraglindi, my Aboriginal heroine, told me that her life began near Newcastle, in New South Wales, so then I researched the area, contacted local Aboriginal associations, consulted with experts on various aspects of life in the area during the 1850s, and suchlike fun activities.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time?  Any disadvantages?

I think I’d get bored with sticking to just one time-and-place. Life is too short for the seriousness it deserves. (A young fellow told me this in 700 BC.) If I get a concept for a particular time, or location, then I have the joy of researching it.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I’m not fussed about speed, or deadlines, and have several projects going at the same time, all very different from each other. I had a historical novel published in 2017, a contemporary one earlier this year, I am almost ready to send a nonfiction book (From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide) to my publisher, and am working on a science fiction series set in the present time. I started the depression book about 10 years ago, and worked on it only when the more fun fiction projects dried up.

Writing for me is not distinct from life. Ideas bubble up all the time. Some I let go, others I grab hold of, and they take me over.

What strategies guide your writing career?

Get a piece of work as perfect as I can make it. Then I seek beta readers, and improve further. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement, and there is no such thing as a mistake, only learning opportunities.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

Enjoy. Do enough research that you could move into that time and place and be indistinguishable from the locals. Listen to your characters. They know better than you do.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?

What sets literature apart from the forgettable?

You can have a perfectly enjoyable book, which will merge into the great crowd of other memories within a few weeks, or at the most months. Other books stay with you. Real life events will bring something from the story to mind, and you feel a better person for having read it.

I think the difference is the message. Every book has a set of messages, which is the belief system of the author. When the subterranean messages are bland, the book is forgettable. When they challenge you, take you out of the ordinary and get you to question what others take to be common sense, then you have literature.

Many thanks, Bob, for sharing your views on writing. What an eclectic mix of stories. You mother’s life story sounds fascinating.

Guardian Angel by Bob Rich

1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love. During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart. Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.