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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels


Tips For Writing Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

As a final entry for these 2013 blogs, here’s what I’ve learned from two decades of writing about history, taking writing classes and writing for Writing Historical Novels.

If you can, visit the places you write about

I know this is impractical for some readers of this blog, but for stirring the imagination, nothing beats the experience of walking in the footsteps of your characters. When I wrote Powder Monkey, about a boy in Nelson’s Navy, I got half a book worth of ideas from a single afternoon aboard an early 19th century frigate. (HMS Trincomalee, in Hartlepool, UK.)

Stray from the mainstream at your peril

My most successful novel (Auslander) is set in Nazi Germany. My least successful (The Cabinet of Curiosities) is set in Renaissance Prague. I loved writing them both. Trusted critics (family members who don’t just say ‘that’s nice’, my editor, my agent…) were very positive about both. The plain fact is that lots of people in the Young Adult market (where I work) enjoy reading about the Nazis. They’re history’s baddest apples after all. On the other hand, most people in this demographic don’t give a fig about the Roman Emperor c.1600 and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution.

Don’t be too pedantic in your regard for historical accuracy

‘Chillax, Romulus. Remus is a jerk but there’s no need to waste him.’ That’s plainly wrong (!).

Calling Stalin’s NKVD the NKVD when they were actually the NKGB for three months in the time you’re writing about (April to June 1941) is a calculated decision based on not trying the patience of your reader. It’s a novel you’re writing, not an academic text book.

Not everyone gives a hoot about historical accuracy

Personally, I dislike novels and films that are cavalier about historical accuracy. I know this is a subject many readers and writers of historical fiction care about. I think it’s essential to the credibility of your story. But vast swathes of readers/viewers don’t care. One successful seller in the field I write in has two 12 year old German refugees parachuted back into Nazi Germany ‘on a top secret mission’.

Political correctness is a minefield

We wrestle with this all the time. I’m all in favour of not offending people and I’m happy to avoid historically accurate terms that were fashionable and/or acceptable 200 years ago (or even 30 years ago), but which aren’t now. But the whole PC subject is so sensitive that even discussing it is almost impossible. So, to borrow an awful Americanism ‘Don’t even go there.’ (I like lots of Americanisms too, in case anyone thinks I’m being snooty about Americanisms.)

Publishing is a business

Writing to purge your inner demons, or air your pet interests, is fun and/or therapeutic. By all means do it if you enjoy it. But don’t expect a publisher to want to publish it. (Unless you’re an especially brilliant writer.) Publishers need to publish books they think will repay their investment in:

– your advance

–  the wages of their editors/designers/marketing/publicity/sales people who work on your book, and

– production and distribution costs.

It’s always worth remembering that publishers want a book they think will sell to a readership.

Thank you to the readers of this blog who have taken the trouble to respond to my articles and I wish you all a happy New Year and a successful 2014.


Paul Dowswell’s author website:

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AuslanderSektion 20Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels

Being A Disciplined Author, by Julian Stockwin

Gone are the days of tapping away on a typewriter in a garret! Not only do modern writers have to produce around 100,000 words of very polished text each year but they have to fit in all the various other activities demanded of them.

Money matters 

As soon as you start working on your book you need to put in place a system for keeping tabs of any expenses incurred in the production of your work. Once you’ve sold the rights to your manuscript I recommend you find an accountant who is familiar with publishing. Try not to just throw all the receipts into a box without sorting them first. It makes life much easier if you set aside a certain amount of time each month to annotate receipts, etc. You’ll thank yourself when your accountant starts reminding you that you are close to the deadline for getting for his paperwork to him.

A big question you’ll have to face is whether to give up your day job. Publishers pay an advance for a manuscript but this will be delivered in instalments – on signing, on delivery and on publication. If you have an agent, they will take 15-20% of that, then more will have to be set aside for the tax man. You need to calculate very carefully whether you can afford to live on your writerly earnings alone. If you do give up the day job make sure that you discipline yourself to dip into the money carefully, not blow a large amount all at once. If your book is a hit you might be anticipating big cheques through the post, but royalties are set against any advances and may not come for some time.

Budgeting time 

Once your book comes out it is important to keep your work and yourself in the public eye as much as possible, but this must be balanced against actual writing time.

If you are working at home full-time, it is tempting to think you’ll just attend to a few domestic tasks before you start work. DON’T. Devise a schedule of working hours and stick to it. If you were in the workplace you wouldn’t get up and tell your boss you are going shopping for two hours, would you?

I love classical music and I thought it would be nice to have it in the background as I write but I found it too much of a distraction. You need to focus completely on the world you are creating.

I aim to be at my desk at 8:30 am. Around 11:00 Kathy and I usually take a short break for coffee and then resume work until lunch at 1:00 pm. Following my practice in the Navy I often take a forty minute nap after lunch, and then we may take a stroll into Ivybridge. (We live just a couple of minutes’ walk from the centre of the village). I find I am at my most creative in terms of writing in the morning so afternoons are mostly reserved for research and answering emails. Reading my growing library of resource material is a necessary but most enjoyable part of the job!


Julian Stockwin’s author website:

Julian Stockwin’s bio page


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BetrayalVictoryQuarterdeck     Blood of the ReichThe Leopard Sword (Empire)A Christmas Homecoming

Writing Historical Novels

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist, by Ben Kane

I worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, from 1992-2008. Like many people who dream of such a career, I started off with a childhood love of animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, cows – as a boy, it didn’t matter to me. I loved them all. Discovering the gentle, life-affirming James Herriot books helped build up a mental image of being a ‘doctor for animals’, as did the fact that my dad was already in the profession. Alongside my love of all creatures great and small ran a deeply rooted love of history. Don’t ask me where it came from, but I devoured any book I could find about the Romans, the Vikings, the Crusades, the Napoleonic wars, World Wars One and Two – in fact any conflict at all! I still ended up putting veterinary medicine number one on my university application form though. The main reason, from what I can remember, is that although I loved history, I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. There was certainly no concept in my mind of being a writer.

As with most people starting out on a career, my job as a veterinarian took over my life. Straight out of college, I worked in ‘mixed’ practice for nearly three years, which meant dealing with cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. Stints in purely ‘small animal’ and ‘exotic’ (snakes, birds, fish) practice followed in the UK, before the need to travel struck home.

In 1997, I went on a solo trip to the Middle East, following part of the ancient Silk Road. During this trip, I visited many of the ‘stans’, countries which were formerly part of the USSR. In Turkmenistan, I walked the ruins of Merv, an enormous walled city which was attacked and demolished by the Mongols in the 13th Century. As I wandered through the vast site, nearly a mile square, in temperatures of more than 110F, what became evident was that the city’s history was far more ancient. Merv had originally been founded as Antiochia – by Alexander the Great – in the 4th Century BC. Furthermore, Roman prisoners of the battle of Carrhae had been taken there by their captors, the Parthians. Fascinated by this, I did some research upon my return. This confirmed what I had read in Merv, and the seeds of The Forgotten Legion were sown in my mind, and I had my first thoughts of writing a military fiction novel.

After a prolonged (nearly three years) trip around the world, including a period working in Sydney, I returned to the UK in early 2001. The devastating outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease had just started, and believing it was my duty to help, I volunteered soon afterwards. The job took me to Northumberland, where much of Hadrian’s Wall is situated. During the terrible months of slaughtering animals that followed, I was able to visit many amazing Roman sites on the wall. The stunning locations and little museums fired up my imagination as never before, and I decided to write a novel about the Romans at last.

Over the next six years, I went back into normal veterinary practice, bought a house and settled down somewhat. Crucially though, I also started writing, a process which I quickly grew to love. Despite the long hours – 60+ per week – and ‘on-call’ nights and weekends of my veterinary job, it became an obsession. I wasn’t happy unless I could write every day. During my lunch break, I’d use my laptop in the staff room, my car or a cafe. Several days a week, I’d get up at 5am to do a couple of hours before going to work. For years, most weekends were non-existent except for 12 hours a day of writing.

In early 2006, I was fortunate enough to get signed by my literary agent, whose input and help with my writing skills was enormous. Discarding what I had written up till then – until another day – The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light. In Summer 2007, I signed a 3 book deal with Random House in the UK. By the time of the book’s release in May 2008, I had gone part-time as a veterinarian. By the beginning of 2009, I had given it up altogether. The pressures of family life, writing and a high-octane job were too much to continue forever without the risk of burnout. Now, I find myself ever busier, but as my own boss, doing a job that I utterly love, it’s a much easier thing to manage.

***Write with Ben Kane near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in February 2014

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The Forgotten Legion (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of RomeSpartacus: The Gladiator     Fortress of Spears (Empire)Auslander

Writing Historical Novels

Developing A Writing Routine, by Adrian Goldsworthy

I am lucky enough to be able to write full time.  It did not happen overnight. For almost a decade I was still working full or part-time as an academic.  Everyone’s circumstances will vary, but the odds are that at the beginning writing your historical novel will have to be fitted in with plenty of other things.  Some people write after a full day’s work, and one friend is currently working on a novel during the rare free moments granted to her as she raises two small children.  As far as possible, you need to find times when you can switch off the real world and focus on the imaginary world of your characters.  The more time you can get on a regular basis and ‘live’ with your characters the better.  Obviously that’s a lot easier said than done – real life, and especially such things as small children, may well refuse to permit you a set time every week (or even every month) to write.  As an aspiration it remains good.  The more time you can set aside to work on your novel, then obviously the quicker it is likely to come on and that will help a lot in terms of the flow of the story.

With historical fiction, you also need time to do the research, and this is easier in some ways, because you can sneak some time to read up on the period during a lunch break or daily commute.  With a bit of planning you can fit in visits to places, museums, or archives alongside work or holiday trips, especially if you think in advance.  As useful is time spent mulling over your plot, both before you start writing and as you go along.

In my case writing the historical novels is only part of what I do as a writer, and has only really got going after I had become established as a writer of non-fiction history – in my case on the ancient and specifically Roman periods.  With the non fiction I will aim to spend six months or so delving into the subject in general before I start writing at all.  After that, I read up on the topic of the next chapter for a week or two and then write it, repeating the process over and over again.  In contrast, with a novel I prefer to spend a month or so reading up and then aim to write the first draft of the story in one go over the next six to eight weeks.

My daily routine is much the same for both.  I have sometimes written on trains or in hotels, but am happiest in my office at home, and as far as possible treat it as a nine to five job – albeit one with a lot more flexibility.  Computer monitors are pretty good these days, but it still is not a good idea to stare at one for too many hours.  I work in sessions of an hour and a half, and then take a half an hour off before the next one.  Sometimes it is easy and the words simply flow faster than you can type.  At other times it is painful, and you write nothing or dreadful rubbish that you know you will change.  The key thing is to stick to it and stay until the end of the session.  If you do that, then the odds are that over time you get far more good sessions than bad.

Setting yourself deadlines is a good idea – a chapter finished by a certain day, the whole thing ready by the end of a certain month.  Smaller ones also help.  With non fiction my rule of thumb is that if I write one thousand words of good text in a day then I will finish the book on time.  On the good days I will write much more.  With fiction I would always hope to write two or three thousand in a day.  Starting a chapter well can be difficult, and starting a book can be a bit of a nightmare.  That is one big advantage of sticking strictly to your planned writing sessions even if it takes days or even weeks before you really get going.  In time the momentum will come.

That is my routine, and inevitably it is a personal one that might not be practical or effective for others.  The trick is to find your own method and then have the discipline to stick to it.  Another friend took a Masters in Creative Writing not because she especially needed the teaching, but because she found a formal course helped her to structure writing her historical novel as part of the coursework for her studies.

Find a routine that suits you. Also try to remember that you are not likely to write a good novel in a day or two.  Make sure that your routine allows you to take breaks and relax. Getting out in the fresh air and exercising can calm your mind wonderfully and help you write when you return to it.  When your story really starts going it can seem that it is writing itself and you do not want to stop, but you need to force yourself because if you are exhausted then you will not write as well.


Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website:

Adrian Goldsworthy’s bio page


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True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     A Christmas HomecomingAuslanderClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Writing Historical Novels

On Receiving Feedback As An Aspiring Novelist, by Gary Worthington

The best thing that happened to me at the beginning of my writing career was being asked to join a local writer’s group. I was lucky in that I was asked to join at just the right stage when I had been writing seriously for a short time and that the group was a good one.

I doubt anyone has the ability to write first or even second drafts of stories that are so perfect they can’t be made better. Usually there are numerous possibilities for improvement, especially if the writer is a beginner. I can’t emphasize enough that you need unbiased, constructive feedback from people who are knowledgeable enough to tell you exactly what’s wrong and give you suggestions on how to improve it.

My wife, who is an English literature teacher, typically reads my initial drafts and provides detailed comments. I’m lucky to have this type of “in-house” help. For most writers it’s not a good idea to have your relatives provide your editorial help. They’re likely biased in that they don’t want to say anything that might hurt your feelings, and even if they read a lot of books, they probably won’t be able to tell you precisely what you need to do to make improvements.

It’s best to join a good writers’ group, either in person or online. It’s crucial that the participants be supportive of each other, and that their critiques be well meant. I’ve heard of groups where the members were competitive with each other and some of the comments tended to be devastating put-downs. You want people who are not only knowledgeable about the basics of writing, but who also genuinely care about each other and sincerely try to be helpful.

At the time I started writing historical fiction, online groups weren’t yet available. Our own group rotated the venue among the members’ homes, usually meeting weekly. Some of the authors wrote fiction and some wrote nonfiction. We took turns reading our current work aloud. When a person finished reading, the others would offer comments and suggestions on the piece.

There were usually anywhere from three to six people at a session, though four was the typical number. The membership changed somewhat over the years, largely because one of the permanent members was an English literature professor who occasionally invited one or two of his more promising students to join us. All of the participants had enough knowledge of the craft of writing to offer constructive suggestions on the others’ work. Almost all, within a few years at the most, found outside publishers for their books, at least one received a significant literary award,and another was later published regularly in the New Yorker.

I was privileged not only to benefit from long term constructive feedback from these talented writers, but I was also fortunate in finding good people to read and comment on my completed manuscripts. Since my novels are set in India it was important to have my work read by people from that country so they could point out any errors in background details, any flaws in my understanding of the culture or any inappropriate depictions of how Indians would be likely to act the situations in my scenes. For each of my books I was able to find willing volunteer readers who had grown up in India and who were highly literate in English and therefore able to provide the useful critiques I needed. I’ve also had friends who were glad to proofread sections of the manuscripts to spot typographical and obvious grammatical errors.

Of course, it’s also possible to hire freelance editorial help. If you aren’t able to find suitable volunteers, then if at all possible you should pay for such a service, after checking references from others the editor has helped, to ensure you’ll get your money’s worth in the type of critique you need.

The main point is that it’s an absolute necessity to obtain good quality editorial assistance in some form before offering your work to the wider public. No exceptions.


Gary Worthington’s author website:

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     The Kirilov StarThe Kennedy ConspiracyPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels

Life As A Novelist, by William Dietrich

Here’s my Hollywood version of what a novelist’s life should be.

Limousine delivery to the bookstore, after first class travel.

A window dominated completely by one’s books.

Crowded readings and long lines at signings. If a woman, the men want to marry you. If a man, the women want to sleep with you.

Riches. Fame, but only enough to get a good seat at a restaurant, not to be harassed by strangers. A house in the south of France. Long afternoons of wine drinking in the garden with witty literary companions.

The tedium of actual writing? On the cutting room floor of this film.

Bad reviews? Empty readings? Nay, you’re a genius.

Reality, of course, doesn’t match fantasy. I love the independence of the writing life, but the actual work is often seven days a week of solitary confinement in front of a big blank screen. The secret to writing? Long hours of seat time.


Fame? Try reality TV. Fortune? To only a favored few. Happiness? I read John Sutherland’s excellent Lives of the Novelists and was struck by what a miserable, suicidal, alcoholic and penurious lot the literarily famous were.

So why do it? We humans have a natural instinct to express ourselves, which you can see in every toddler’s determination to speak. Writing is a way to explore oneself. It’s at least a try at literary immortality. It can free one from the conventional workplace and imperious bosses. There’s at least the chance of hitting the bestseller jackpot, while regular jobs promise a raise of a few percentage points. It’s a lottery ticket.

Today’s writer is by necessity a small business person. There’s a budget, taxes, a strategic plan and self-promotion in the form of blogs, tweets, readings, talks and teaching. Oh, and your friends will call you ‘retired’.

Few authors have a big success with their first book. To create and sustain any kind of career, you typically need to write many. Words by the million! Best not to think about that.

While self-publishing has confused the options, the usual path is to write and write, attend conferences, take classes and ultimately pitch to an agent who takes you on. Then comes a contract, you hope, with some portion of the promised advance up front upon signing.

Your new best friend, an editor, is as smitten as you are, but tells you a shocking thing. The manuscript you’ve labored on in secret these many years not only is not perfect but perhaps doesn’t work at all. Rewrite time!

The exquisite descriptions of my first novel? Slows the story, I was told. My plot? Doesn’t work.

It typically takes a year to publication, which can be an anticlimax. Don’t believe your best and worst reviews, and don’t be surprised when there are almost no reviews at all. Can’t get a waiter’s attention? Chances are you won’t get the literary community’s either, unless you’re a prodigy or connected.

The publicist may send you out on a modest schedule of local readings to which few show up. The royalty statement may be embarrassing. The message you so wisely delivered in your masterpiece may be missed.

So what. You write another book, and another. You can’t help yourself, you’re an author! You know you have something to say and an entertaining way of saying it. You have faith that readers will discover you.

Here’s the miracle. They will.


William Dietrich’s author website:

William Dietrich’s bio page


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The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the ReichHadrian's Wall: A NovelThe Dakota Cipher: An Ethan Gage Adventure     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)A Secret AlchemyBeat the Drums Slowly

Writing Historical Novels

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