6 More Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

Tuesday’s post highlighted 8 tips based on guest posts during the past twelve months. Today, I offer six more.

Blythe Gifford author of The Witch Finder starts every one of her novels with a map. In Creating a Sense of Place Blythe says:

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

 

In History as a Mirror of our Present, Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, writes that:

the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus, the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.

 

In The People of our Past, George Dovel, author of The Geometry of Vengeance writes:

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

 

In Truth in Historical Story Telling, Tara Cowan reminds us that:

We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them? … We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters.

 

Harald Johnson explains how he researched Neanderthal times for his latest novel:

there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.

 

Melissa Addey, author of The Consort, provides an interesting perspective in Approaching Research as a Child:

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life.

 

And there you have it. A year of terrific guest posts and great insights on historical fiction.

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.

The Challenge of Going Way Back in Time

Harald Johnson has entertained us before with a perspective on transporting readers in time and place for his novel New York 1609. Today he tells us of going wayyyyyyyy back in time as he’s done in his latest novel Neander: A Time Travel Adventure. Yes, that’s Neander as in Neanderthal.

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On its surface, the writing of historical fiction seems straightforward: pick a theme, premise, or concept from at least 50 years ago (the official minimum), spend some time researching locations, conducting interviews, studying photographs or artwork, reading documents, letters, memoirs, articles, etc. And then write your book.

Beyond the obvious challenges of having the time/resources to do it, having or not having a publisher to accept it (not a problem for an Indie author like myself), and all the other challenges that novel writing presents, the path to creating a work of historical fiction seems fairly direct, albeit sometimes—many times!—daunting.

But here’s another complication I encountered in publishing my recent time-slip novel, NEANDER: A Time Travel Adventure: a lack of most of the resources listed above. Why? Because my time frame drops back to 40,000 years ago!

Here is what I faced in doing my research:

* Documents, letters, memoirs? Nope. Writing wouldn’t be invented for another 30,000 years or so.

* Photographs? None; photography was invented in 1826. How about drawings/paintings? The earliest-known examples of representational art (e.g., the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and Altimira) date to a time period later than mine. So nothing there.

* Interviews with survivors, relatives, witnesses, etc.? Obviously, none. But here’s a further twist: my subjects were not even Modern Humans (Homo sapiens). They were Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis)! So, technically—and realistically—there were no first-hand subjects I could have interviewed on this entire planet (notwithstanding the fact that all/most of us actually have fragments of Neanderthal DNA within us, but that’s another discussion).

* Then there’s the question of language. In some cases, a writer has to deal with unusual accents, or even different or archaic languages. But what if the existence of language itself is questioned? Did Neanderthals even speak? Did they have the cognitive ability plus the anatomy to vocalize (beyond simple grunting)? The answer is Yes but see more below.

* How about the location(s)? Now we’re getting somewhere. My main setting is Gibraltar, that British overseas territory attached to Spain like an appendix. But here’s another quirk: the Gibraltar of today was not the Gibraltar of 40,000 years ago (“40 kya” in scientific lingo). Yes, it still jutted out toward the Mediterranean, but sea levels were 100+ meters lower back then. Which made the geography and environment very different.

(Top) Gibraltar of today. Note the caves at sea level under the promontory. (Bottom) A reconstruction of late Neanderthal times. Note the exposed land leading out from the caves. Courtesy: Gibraltar Museum.

So what was left for a historical novelist to do in terms of research? In a word, science.

Happily for me, there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. To discover that Neanderthals were not the dim-witted, knuckle-draggers that popular culture portrays. Instead, these archaic humans were not that much different from ourselves: thinking, speaking, and feeling people.

And what about other books/novels? Where there some to consult?

Absolutely.

Beyond the nonfiction books that summarize the scientific findings mentioned above, there were the novels already written. A few of these are famous. Like Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear series. And J.H. Rony-Aine’s La Guerre du Feu, which you probably know better for its film adaptation: Quest for Fire.

Amoukar, Naoh, and Gaw in the 1981 movie Quest for Fire

The problem with these and other fiction books is that many include ideas and plot concepts that have now been proven wrong by science. As an example, take Clan of the Cave Bear. While Ms. Auel certainly did her research prior to the release of her first book in 1980, time has overtaken her. Having her heroine (Ayla) being a blue-eyed, blond (Daryl Hannah in the movie) is probably the opposite of what the situation was back then. In reality, the “modern” people (Sapiens) were darker-skinned and the Neanders were more likely lighter. After all, the Neanders had had tens—even hundreds—of thousands of years to evolve to be better adapted to their higher-latitudes environment (where lighter-pigmented skin provides an evolutionary advantage). The Sapiens were the (relatively) new arrivals from Africa.

In La Guerre du Feu (published in 1911), the time period is roughly 80,000 years ago and it features a village culture that would not exist for another 70,000 years at the earliest!

Well, it’s called “fiction” for a reason, but as we all know on this site, historical accuracy is still very important. It just gets a lot trickier when the historical record has so many gaps and deficiencies. And then in my case, I added a further complication to my story-telling: time travel from the modern to the prehistoric. But traveling through time is relatively easy to deal with in writing. It’s called: magic.

Many thanks, Harald. As always a fascinating look at your writing and the time period you’ve chosen. Best wishes for success.

Neander: A Time Travel Adventure by Harald Johnson ~~ At an archeological dig in Gibraltar, a boat explosion shatters the hopes of science journalist Tom Cook. His pregnant fiancée was on the boat and is missing. During the search, things go from bad to worse when Tom plunges through a time portal and into the strange and dangerous era of the Neanderthals. Can he get back, or is he stuck in the past forever?

On top of figuring out how to return to the present, Tom must use his modern-day wits to fight for survival in the world of 40,000 years ago. And contend with a group of archaic humans that are not at all like what he expects. Finally, Tom faces a crucial decision that could alter the course of human history. A history he knows he has the power to change. Will he make the right choice?

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.

Transported in Time and Place by Harald Johnson

Harald Johnson brings us his take on transporting readers in time and place. In his novels Harald builds the world of 1609 and the early days of what we now know as New York City. He’s lived in Paris and speaks fluent French, worked in Hollywood as an art director, and published magazines. Harald also launched and ran a marketing communications agency in LA. Quite the career!

Transported in Time and Place – by Harald Johnson

The final motivation for writing and publishing NEW YORK 1609 came in the mail from my mother. It was an old family photo album; the kind with the black pages, white ink captions, and those little black-and-white photos with the scalloped edges. For some reason, I had placed it next to a binder of my old swimming accolades, and it now struck me: When I had swum around the island of Manhattan in 1983 as part of a swim race, I was swimming over the exact spot where my family had arrived (with me as a child) on a ship from Germany in 1953 to start a new life. And this was also the very same location Henry Hudson encountered in 1609 when he arrived with his Dutch-Anglo crew seeking a new water passage to the Orient. The parallels were just too hard to ignore.

Photo: Arriving in NYC in 1953. That’s me in traditional lederhosen and knee socks with my Mom and Dad. My mother’s written description reads (translated): “Now we’ve done it, and in a few moments, we’ll step for the first time on American ground.”

I had already decided that I wanted to write a historical fiction novel in the style of James Michener or Ken Follett (two of my favorite HF authors), and had played around with different concepts, including one involving New York City, a place I had visited many times over the years. But nothing really clicked until I made the connection between my own history and that of the city itself. It seemed we were solidly tied together. It was time I took action on this idea.

The first thing I did was to locate and read the historical novels about NYC that already existed. And oddly enough, I could only find three that covered this early- to mid-17th-century time period. And none of them started at the beginning, which in my mind is clearly 1609 with Hudson. So I was determined to be the first.

After reading all the nonfiction history books about NYC I could find, my last step was to make another trip to The Big Apple to meet with history experts and to basically verify the research I had already done from a distance (and from my memory). This trip also included finalizing the licensing of the amazing image you see on the cover of the book. It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.

And most importantly, this final visit would help me get one last “look and feel” for my setting. My characters would be living and spending their time in and around the rivers, sounds, and straits that are such an important part of what New York is, so I had to re-experience that for myself, both on land and water (I didn’t swim this time!). I wanted to watch the sun as it arced through the sky, listen to the gulls wheeling overhead, touch the gnarled bark of an oak tree, smell the rotting of seaweed, and, yes, taste the water’s brininess (NYC is situated in a tidal estuary). In other words, I wanted my readers to really feel like they had been transported, in both time and place.

Here’s a small excerpt from the novel to give a sense of place and of the time period:

“Hudson spent each morning tasting the water for its saltiness. He used an empty bottle partially filled with small stones for weight, which he tied to a long rope and flung over the side. The presence of salt far up the river suggested he wasn’t sailing on a river at all but, rather, on a fjord or strait, which to him could only mean one thing: this channel connected to a saltwater sea. The South Sea. The Orient. So far, there was a fine taste of salt in his mouth in the mornings.”

PHOTO: Here I am on Governors Island judging the distance across to Lower Manhattan in bow shots. It’s five, and it’s in the book!

For me, there is nothing better than standing in an important historical location and imagining what it was like before. Sometimes long before. In my case, I would travel to New York City again and again, and on each trip, I’d stop and stare at the waters encircling Manhattan. And think back to the day I was treading water at the island’s tip, waiting for the ebbing tide to change, and looking up to wonder: What was this place like at the beginning? I mean, what was it REALLY like? And how did things get to be the way they are today? Imagining the answers to those questions helped inspire me to write the story told in—and transport readers to—NEW YORK 1609.

PHOTO: Standing at the tip of Lower Manhattan, this is the view—minus the Statue of Liberty above my right arm—the native Manahate band would have had as a strange ship carrying strange beings sailed into New York Harbor in September of 1609.

(photo: Jay Tanen)

NEW YORK 1609 by Harald Johnson

When a Native American (Lenape) boy joins Henry Hudson’s expedition up the river that now bears his name, the fearless and visionary–and misunderstood–Dancing Fish doesn’t realize his entire world and way of life are in peril. Enthralled at first by these strangers, he begins to discover their dark and dangerous side, touching off a decades-long struggle against determined explorers, aggressive traders, land-hungry settlers, and ruthless officials. If his own people are to survive, the boy-turned-man must use his wits, build alliances, and draw on unique skills to block the rising tide of the white “salt people.”

Many thanks, Harald. I can vouch for the authenticity Harald brings to this novel and I’m sure readers will be delighted to experience that long ago 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.