8 Tips from Guest Post Authors

During 2019, A Writer of History had the good fortune of securing many guest authors to discuss a range of topics related to historical fiction. Below are 8 tips that stand out for me.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times.

Mary F. Burns, author of The Love for Three Oranges

In Keeping Historical Figures Real, Mary Sheeran discusses how to weave real historical figures into your novels. She says that:

“we can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them.

A Surgeon’s Advice … on how to Write Books with Andrew Lam

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.

 

Marc Graham whose novel Song of Songs is about the legendary Queen of Sheba, writes of the challenges in going far back in time.

While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

 

In Writing the Stories of History’s Powerful Women, Judith Cromwell tells us that:

such writing requires meticulous research.  Research resembles a mixture of jigsaw puzzle and mystery.  The writer must identify clues, track each to its source, evaluate each within the context of the subject’s life and character.  Original research brings the thrill of unearthing new information.

Donna Baier Stein, author of Scenes From the Heartland, discusses using actual images as a basis for building a story in her post Turning Images into Tales:

as a fiction writer, my desire was not to capture the truth of the actual image (the way a photographer might want to do), but to imagine a potential story behind this scene.

 

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about Pablo Picasso. He writes about examining the works of Picasso in order to gain a deep understanding of his character:

when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

 

Elizabeth Bell’s guest post The Importance of Warts brings out the theme of creating characters and stories that don’t gloss over the warts of historical events, culture and social mores. She says:

As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers … We do [readers] an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth… If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.

Important lessons. I’ll have a few more for you next time.

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.

Writing historical fiction with author Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. Today Mark gives his take on writing historical fiction and I’m delighted to welcome him to A Writer of History.

How I Go About Writing Historical Fiction by Mark Ellis

I have written three books in my fictional mystery series set in World War Two Britain. The main protagonist of the stories, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a senior police officer working in Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters of the time. I chose wartime Britain as my setting partly because of a long-held general interest in the war, and partly because of a more specific fascination with how ordinary life on the home front was lived. I also thought that the setting would be an excellent backdrop for a crime series as the years from 1939 to 1945 saw a great rise in criminal activity. Reported crime in England and Wales grew by almost sixty per cent during that period and the real policemen of the time had their hands very full.

There are three stages in my writing process – research, creation, and editing and redrafting. Before I set down a word, I spend three or four months immersing myself in the very specific period in which my book is set. For the first Merlin book, Princes Gate, that was January 1940, the period known as the ‘Phoney War.’ For Merlin 2, Stalin’s Gold, it was September 1940, when the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were under way. For my new book, Merlin At War, the setting is June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before Hitler invaded Russia. I aim in my books to describe Merlin’s fictional adventures against as authentic a portrayal of the life of the time as I can. To that end I consult my own library of key reference books as well as the collections of the many excellent public libraries in London. Libraries like the Kew Public Records Office, Britain’s principal historical document facility, where I have spent many hours delving into its comprehensive stocks of old newspapers, journals and other records of interest. I draw on the huge range of pertinent history books, biographies, and diaries which have been published since the war, as well as on war fiction, particularly that written at the time or soon after. Then there is, of course, the internet which has become a brilliant research resource. One feature of my books is that every chapter is set on a specific day, and I like to be as accurate as I can about that day as well as about the general period. The internet can now provide pretty much any of the detailed information I require. If I want to know if it was sunny or raining in Central London on Tuesday June 3rd 1941, the internet can tell me. If I want to know what planes were in the air on a given day in the Battle of Britain and which airbases they flew from, the internet can tell me. If I want to find out what variety show was running in the London Palladium at the beginning of June 1941 and who was starring in it, the internet can tell me. And it will do so rapidly!

I like to know as much as I can about the places in which the action of my books takes place. London, where I have lived most of my life, is the principal location for my stories. However, there are scenes in foreign cities such as Moscow, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Paris and New York and more. I was lucky enough to travel extensively in my business career and got to know some of these places well. However, if I haven’t been somewhere and I feel the book needs it, I travel there.

After the research comes the slog of getting the book written. There are many different ways in which authors approach this task. In my own case, I do not, as some fiction writers do, map out the whole story in outline before fleshing out the detail. When I start, I have in mind a few plot ideas which have usually been prompted by my research. I start writing and see where those ideas take me. When I am around half way through the first draft, having developed or dropped some of these plot lines and added a few more which have occurred to me along the way, I then try and work out how everything is resolved. I trust to inspiration. Some might find this way of doing things a little stressful, but it works for me, or has so far at least. Once I have a first draft, I edit and redraft many times. With my latest book I had over 20 drafts. Sometimes, but not often, I make a major plot change during a redraft.

With Merlin At War, it took me around 18 months to complete a manuscript with which I was satisfied, although I would have been a few months quicker if a computer malfunction hadn’t disconcertingly deleted a few months of edits from my working draft. I am speeding up with each book and want to continue doing so. We’ll see how I get on with Merlin 4 which I am just about to start researching. It is to be set in December 1941, the month in which Pearl Harbour precipitated America’s entry into the war. An interesting time, I think, for Frank Merlin’s next adventure.

Many thanks, Mark. My husband is a dedicated thriller reader and I plan to introduce him to your novels! 

Merlin At War by Mark Ellis – Summer 1941. Four violent deaths, French double agents, an escalating fraud case – DCI Frank Merlin sets out on his most complex case yet.

War rages across Europe. France is under the Nazi thumb. Britain has its back to the wall. In London, Scotland Yard detective Merlin investigates a series of disturbing events – a young girl killed in a botched abortion, a French emigre shot in a seedy Notting Hill flat, a mysterious letter written by a British officer, gunned down in Crete.

Chasing evidence spanning Buenos Aires, New York, Cairo and Occupied France, Merlin and his team are plunged into an international investigation of espionage, murder, love and betrayal.

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.