How to Write Historical Fiction

historical fiction
Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

 

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’ve been trying to decide between two fiction writing projects to devote my head and spare time to this year. And – ta-da! – I have chosen the new novel idea, which is historical fiction. I chose this over working on the children’s novel that I have already drafted. (I’ll get back to that another time.)

In 2019, I’ve decided, I’m going to write a novel based on a true story from the past that’s been swirling around in my head forever. I’ve been thinking about this and writing bits and pieces of this story for years and years. It is, I am realizing, a historical fiction project. Historical fiction can be defined as a fictional story set in the past that uses some true characteristics of the period.

It never dawned on me that I could turn this into a novel until recently, although now it seems obvious to me. I’m excited about this project.

Avoiding the Rookie Move

In life, of course, a real story doesn’t go the way a novel needs to play out. This one sure doesn’t. And I know it’s a rookie move to try to write a novel based on a true story unless you take steps to “novelize” it. You need to turn the fact into fiction and carefully create (and discard) characters. You let the story move forward without requiring yourself to stay true to the facts, which might not work in novel form.

At writepractice.com, author and story coach David Safford says there are four things you must do to write a book based on a true story:

  • Remove yourself from the story
  • Cut characters
  • Exaggerate (or invent) motivations
  • Edit a true story into a great story

I plan to take the gist of this true-life tale that fascinates me and fictionalize it. I’ll have to do research about the parts I don’t know or that don’t fit the story I want to tell. I’ll need to create characters who are fleshed out, so to speak, “real people” that a reader will care about. Then there’s the importance of settings, and adding conflict in the right places, all that.

In the end, it will no longer be the real story at all. But I will have worked through this true story that fascinates me and made it my own. I suppose that’s historical fiction.

This article from The Writer is about writing historical short stories, but its tips are good and apply to novels as well. Chuck Sambuchino‘s Writers Digest article discussed whether it’s possible to be completely accurate historically and still tell a great story. (He says he doesn’t think you can do both — and that maybe it’s not even necessary.)

Historical Fiction Novels

As I figure out how to write historical fiction, I realize it’s my favorite genre. Here is an eclectic list of such novels that I have especially enjoyed, in no particular order. I gathered them here merely to remind myself to aim high (not because I expect to be able to pull off a first novel written at this level, holy cow!).

Or in case you, too, like historical fiction novels and would enjoy some recommendations. You can click on any of these titles to read more. They are all great.

(When I find lists of novels that are especially interesting to me, I always imagine ordering them all at once. In my fantasy, a box arrives filled with all these wonderful books I am completely interested in. I carry it in off the doorstep, make a cup of coffee and then stretch out and read all day, every day, for weeks. This is not the life I live, at all, but it’s one I dream about!)

historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fiction   historical fictionhistorical fiction  historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction    historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction

Now that I’ve thought about each of these books as I copied code into this post, I want to reiterate something: I have no illusions I am going to write the next Gone With The Wind this year. There are some amazing historical fiction novels out there. Sheesh. I love all the books above, but revisiting them while talking about my own novel is a little overwhelming. I will just figure out how to write historical fiction and then do the best job I can.

Doing Some Pre-Work. (Which is Still Work.)

I haven’t quite started writing yet—soon—but I’ve been thinking a lot about this new novel. That has been helpful. I’ve sat with a notebook and figured out why I want to write this particular story and it’s taken me deep. Part of the answer? I’ve been researching and thinking about this story for years, trying to fill in the holes. If I didn’t have to earn a living it’s what I would be working on anyway right now.

And I’ve been trying to come up with one sentence that describes this book I want to write. All of these questions are themselves writing projects that require a lot of passes. I’m still working on them. Each gets to aspects a little deeper and more interesting than the last.

These questions I’ve been answering are the some of the first exercises from Author Accelerator’s 7-Day Writing Challenge, which is great. One is to zero in on what I want to get across with this story. It’s like a road map, I think, that will keep me on track throughout the writing. I like the idea of thinking about this ahead of time. It seems like if I know where I am heading, I’m more likely to get there.

I’m sure things will change along the way. Although I work as a professional writer, I’m new to writing novels and I don’t have structure and other technique figured out yet. I will have to learn that as I go.

But I like the idea of having a plan as I work, so there’s something concrete I am working toward. That should make it easier to actually finish. If my story’s direction changes while I’m writing it, I can go back and rework my overview to match. It means, I think, being aware that it is changing, and thinking it through intellectually and knowing why you are going in a particular direction. Making sure, as much as you can when you’re a new writer, that it all makes sense and still holds together.

That’s the plan, anyway. Hold on—I’m getting started! I’ll be back soon to let you know how it’s going.

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Make It Happen, Step 1: Choose the Path

Make It Happen
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

It’s time to make it happen.

It’s one week into 2019, the year in which I proclaimed I’m going to write (and actually finish) a novel, and I thought I knew my plan.

Suddenly, though, I have two projects to choose between. I need to make a decision.

Let me tell you about the first project, A few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote a full draft of a children’s book. It’s a middle grade novel, to be more specific.

When I finished, I sketched out two more books in the series and wrote their first drafts. And then I mostly just left it all alone.

Last year, I showed the first couple chapters of the first book to a literary agent at the ASJA conference and she gave me some good feedback. She suggested changing an aspect of the plot, which she said was a little too dark for that age reader. It made sense. She said after I did that, she’d like to read it again.

I reread the trilogy a few months ago and realized that while it needs a lot of work, I still like the story. I should get back to this, I thought.

Then the other day I realized that another idea, the story I have been trying to write for half my life, is actually a novel. Suddenly I am really excited about writing that novel and cannot get it out of my mind.

But then—there goes that seesaw again—last week I got an email saying the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Hawaii was going to start offering meetings here in Hilo.

Other writers, right here in Hilo!

I went to the first meeting and felt my body relax into an, “Ah!” While I have many writer friends, most live outside of Hawaii. It can be lonely writing on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific. When I looked around that meeting, I wondered if maybe some of these children’s book writers and illustrators could be on-the-ground writer buddies.

We met in downtown Hilo’s former Koehnen’s building, an elegant 1910 building that takes up a whole city block. It’s a lovely, gracious, and well-maintained Renaissance Revival style building with koa walls, ‘ōhi‘a floors, and a grand koa staircase. Originally it was the Hackfeld Company, then Koehnen’s, both retail enterprises.

Now, it’s the National Oceanographic Institute’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, which interprets the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding marine environment.

We gathered upstairs, under the very tall, open-beam ceiling and next to huge, unscreened windows that let in the breeze. In the distance, beyond coconut trees, I saw two canoes full of paddlers glide slowly across the gentle, gray ocean.

There was a reminder of the building’s current marine science focus in the corner—a large, papier mâché “rock” sporting orange, gold, and green coral.

Listening to Richard Peck

Among other things, we watched a Master Class interview with children’s author Richard Peck. Decades ago, when he and I were both much younger, I once heard him speak in person at Henderson Library in Torrance, California.
Make It Happen

I was already a big reader and fan then, and he was already a successful novelist. He went on to write an astonishing 41 books for young people before he passed away last summer.

Here’s some of what he said in the video that interested me:

• In a children’s book, the young person has to solve his/her own problem and find his or her own way.
• Their parents must be kept in check—supportive, but in the background.
• You should write from observation, he said, not from experience.
• He said he always sits behind young people on the bus, and hangs out in malls. That’s how he gets the dialog right.
• Take yourself out of the story by always writing in first person. Then it’s a child’s diction.  Make It Happen
• He said he was born listening. “I grew up under tables and behind doors, listening.”
• He loved to listen to the old people and now, he said, the grandparents and great-grandparents were coming out in his writing.

I really liked hearing that last bit. I am all about the family stories, the generations, and the connections across time. They come out in my writing, too—my children’s book trilogy has all of that. So does my other novel idea, actually.

After the SCBWI meeting, a couple of writers talked about starting up a critique group, something I’ve been thinking about lately. It had me thinking seriously about choosing to work on my very rough children’s novel for this 2019 project.

What to do, what to do.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about the other possibility. And I’ll make a decision already!

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How (and Why) I Will Finish Writing a Novel in 2019

finish writing a novel

 

 

Why make it a goal to finish writing a novel? The quote below explains why Wyl Menmuir and I are into the whole novel-finishing thing.

Q:What made you decide to start a novel?

Wyl: I read somewhere that action tends to happen when the fear of not doing something overtakes the fear of doing it. That was true for me – I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember and I’d reached a point where I realised if I didn’t just sit down and do it, I’d end up as a frustrated would-be novelist rather than someone who had at least given it a good shot. The other side of it was about knowing I had the right story to tell.  

Yes! EXACTLY THAT.

Menmuir is an English writer whose debut novel The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. He achieved his goal, and he’s on the other side now.

I’m a professional writer (of nonfiction) with a Big Goal for 2019: I will craft a novel from some ideas that have been swirling around in my head for years and years and years.

By the way, I don’t know Menmuir. I just read his quote, and it was like a cartoon anvil swung into my head.

Strategies

I also liked reading his article How to Finish a Novel, where he talks about the tools he used to write, and finish, his novel. He was very strategic. He used software that blocked his social media access; a word tracking app; set daily goals, and more. It worked for him.

Ninja Writer Shaunta Grimes also recently wrote something interesting about why you should finish writing a novel, if that’s your thing. She wrote, “A finished manuscript, whether that’s a novel or a blog post or a social media post for a client, is pretty much the only hard MUST. We all know of writers who make boatloads of money off of poorly written crap—but all of those writers finished writing the thing.

Of course, she’s right. Whether it’s an, um, “valiant effort” or a brilliant masterpiece, you have to finish it or there’s zero chance of publication or boatloads of money.

I don’t know that I can write a novel that’s brilliant (or even valiant), but at the least, I will have succeeded in completing my “practice novel.”

An Eye-Opener

I also admit to being slightly fascinated with an idea I got from Gretchen Rubin, who does the podcast Happier. It made me realize why I have been finding it so difficult to finish a personal writing project.

Rubin says people fall into one of four personality types regarding how they respond to the idea of a rule, whether it’s internal or external. She calls these personality types the “four tendencies.”

  • Upholder
  • Questioner
  • Obliger
  • Rebel

Knowing which one you (or the people around you) are helps you answer the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” She wrote a whole book about this and it’s interesting.

I’m not one to follow every pop-psych trend, but what she was saying made sense to me, and so I took her online quiz. I learned I am an obliger.

Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Obligers meet outer expectations just fine (give me an assignment and a deadline, and I will meet it), but resist inner ones (even when I very much want to finish writing and revising a novel, I don’t).

The answer for us obligers, says Rubin, is to create systems of external accountability.

It makes so much sense. It was the cartoon anvil to the head again. It’s why, for instance, I take regular walks every week. Though I like walking by the ocean, I only go because my friend Angie is waiting for me.

To finish writing a novel, I need external accountability. That’s why I’m going to keep writing about my 2019 writing goals and how I’m doing with them. Because it makes me feel accountable.

I feel like I have people expecting me to achieve these goals now. And I meet external expectations.

Here we go!

Please note this post contains affiliate links.

 

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New Year’s Goal: Finish My Writing Projects in 2019

 New Year's Goal

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Do you have a New Year’s goal? I have big plans for 2019.

This is going to be the year I make it happen. I’m going to finish some personal writing projects I’ve been working on for way too long without completing, and take each to its next steps.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” – Neil Gaiman a.k.a. @neilhimself

I’m also going to do it “out loud.” I’m going to write here about the routines, processes, and other tricks that help me finally get these writing projects to the finish line.

What exactly does my New Year’s goal include?

  • I’m going to finish a novel I’ve been working on and take it to the next step.
  • I will finish a non-fiction book I’ve already started, self-publish it, and start on number two.
  • I will also finish at least two essays and submit them.

Subscribe to these posts if you’d like to see how this all plays out in 2019 (I’m curious, too).

The difference between my day job and personal writing projects

I don’t have any trouble finishing things in my “day job.” I have a business writing and ghostwriting for brands, agencies, magazines, and publishers about technology (especially hospitality tech), travel, tourism, and Hawaii, where I live.

Those projects come with deadlines, and that makes it easy.

Writing projects I do for myself, on the other hand—ones that no one expects me to send them by a specific date—are harder, even though they are so satisfying when I do actually work on them. There are always so many other things that need to be done, and I get distracted.

That is why the New Year’s goal. Not only am I going to figure out the resources, processes, and other tips that help me keep going and finish my writing projects, I’m also announcing it and blogging about it, so I have some external accountability to help me along. Knowing people will be reading about what and how I do makes me sit up a little straighter.

Do you have a creative project you’re going to make happen in 2019? Comment about it here, if you like. Or just decide on a goal, and, you know, make it happen.

Perhaps some of my processes will work for you, too. Worst case scenario? Maybe I will prove to be a cautionary tale. (Although I really, really hope not.)

I’ll talk to you again soon, and Happy New Year!

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Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing.

Writing is a craft that I continually work on. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups — and I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading over the years about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my then-four-year-old with a puzzled look, once, when I used that expression.) Though it’s best to put down the books and hit the keyboard from time to time.

Here are just some of the writing books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories here. I have learned from or been inspired by many of these.

BUSINESS

Early on I realized that you are only a hobbyist, and will likely get nowhere as a professional freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help:

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger
BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING
I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer (they were right!):
  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman
FICTION/NOVEL WRITING
What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already.
  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING
I have done an awful lot of this. I started out, long ago, writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. That was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. When I had several articles due each week, I also got over my reticence about calling people to ask questions. That was worth it all right there.

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it doesn’t always pay enough to pay the bills. There are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but you cannot count on that these days. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better start out with some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer
MEMOIR
  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser
ON WRITERS
It’s aways fun to read how other writers do what they do. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? Schedules? Rituals? Isabel Allende always starts writing a new novel on January 8th, because that’s the date she started her very successful (and wonderful) novel House of the Spirits. (It’s one of my favorites.)
  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton
COPYWRITING
Some of my work falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.
  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly
RADIO
This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I want to get back into it one day. Cool book.
  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism
LASTLY
And, my favorite title of all:
  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal: How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen

Image © Tanjaru | Dreamstime.com

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Message From The Dead

Except a living man there is nothing

more wonderful than a book!

A message to us from the dead,

– from human souls whom we never saw,

who lived perhaps thousands of miles away;

and yet these, on those little sheets of paper,

speak to us, teach us, comfort us,

open their hearts to us as brothers.

–  Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)

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‘Captain Cooked’ Book Signings – Meet The Author!

Listen, there’s a new book out and it’s an island culinary/romance/mystery novel that got me at its great title. It’s called Captain Cooked.

Full disclosure: I know about this book because its author, Steve Grogan, hired me before publication to review it for Hawaiian cultural accuracy. It’s set here on the Big Island, and he wanted to make sure he had his Hawai‘i facts down.

And so I got to read it early on, and saw that it’s really a fun read. Included throughout the book are really interesting island-related recipes. There’s also geocaching and more. And get this: He has hidden a shark-teeth club somewhere on the Big Island, and the book contains clues as to its location. Find the treasure and win $5000! This book really has it all! (Don’t ask me where the treasure is. I really have no idea.)

He did a similar thing with his previous book, a mystery titled Vegas Die. (Great book titles, huh?!) Nobody found the hidden dagger. Read where it was.

Vegas Die, published by Addison & Highsmith Publishers, has gained recognition as a “Best Seller” in the West, with its special twist featuring a dagger worth $25,000 hidden somewhere in the Las Vegas Valley, with clues to be found within the book. The fictional plot centers around the murders of retired mobsters with the Mayor of Las Vegas becoming the #1 suspect.

Back to his current book: Steve Grogan is going to be here, on the Big Island and O‘ahu, signing books, and you should swing by. I’m going to stop by when he’s at Basically Books in Hilo on Saturday. He is an interesting guy and you should stop by, say hello and pick up a book, which he’ll sign for you.

If you cannot make a signing, you can order Captain Cooked online.

Captain Cooked Book Signing Tour Dates

Big Island

Saturday, February 19th Borders Bookstore, 75-1000 Henry Street in Kailua-Kona 10:30 am (808.331.1668)  — Tentative–check with store

Saturday, February 19th at Basically Books 160 Kamehameha Ave. in Hilo 2 pm (800.903.6277)

Sunday, February 20th   10am, Big Island Geocachers at Island Lava Java restaurant, 75-5799 Ali’i Dr., on Kona Bay in Kailua-Kona – Public welcome

Sunday, February 20th Royal Kona Resort with book cover Tiki artist Brad Parker, 4 pm to sunset,  75-5852 Ali’i Drive, Kailua-Kona

Tuesday, March 1st, Kona Stories in Kailua-Kona 6 pm ‘Words & Wine,’ Keauhou Shopping Center,  78-6831 Ali’i Drive (808.324-0350)

O’ahu

Friday, February 25th,  Pau Hana Meet & Greet with O’ahu Geocachers, 6-8 p.m.  at Kaka’ako Kitchen, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd. (Ward Centre)—Free, public welcome

Saturday, February 26th at Barnes & Noble in Ala Moana Center 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. Suite 1272   11am-2pm (808.949.7307)

Sunday, February 27th at Barnes & Noble at Kahala Mall 4211 Waialae Avenue   (808.737.3323) 1:30 pm-3:30 pm

Please contact book stores and locations to verify times

Please note: due to the impending Borders Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing the Honolulu book signings were cancelled and adjust your calendar accordingly.

Some of the press the book has received so far, and store announcements:

Captain Cooked Recent News Articles, Blogs, Book Store Postings

— as of February 1st, 2011

Craig’s List

http://honolulu.craigslist.org/big/eve/2177754916.html
Honolulu Star Advertiser

http://www.prlog.org/11261704-captain-cooked-book-review-by-star-advertiser.html
Big Island Chronicle

http://www.bigislandchronicle.com/2011/02/01/hawaii-news-get-your-copy-of-captain-cooked-autographed-in-upcoming-book-signing-tour/
Hawaii Life of Luxury

http://www.hawaiilifeofluxury.com/captain-cooked-mystery-book-by-s-p-grogan/
Hawaii Book Blog

http://www.hawaiibookblog.com/?p=5090
Hawaii Star

http://www.hawaiistar.com/2011/01/captain-cooked/
Big Island – Big Island Blog

http://www.bigisland-bigisland.com/author-of-captain-cooked-book-signing-dates-proceeds-to-food-basket-program.html
News Blaze review

http://newsblaze.com/story/20101001054427clar.nb/topstory.html
You Tube Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9g3GglE-Y
Craig’s List

http://honolulu.craigslist.org/oah/eve/2153723051.html
Native Books – Na Mea Hawaii

http://www.nativebookshawaii.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_12&products_id=4008
Basically Books – Hilo

http://www.basicallybooks.com/upcomingevents.html
The Big Island’s Food Basket Calendar

http://www.foodbaskethi.org/index.php/calendar/
Kahakai Kitchen Blog

http://www.wellsphere.com/healthy-cooking-article/alan-wong-s-whole-tomato-japanese-cucumber-salad-with-li-hing-mui-vinaigrette-for-local-foodie-mystery-captain-cooked/1189654

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