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Posts from the ‘Sunday Times bestselling historical novelist’ Category

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.

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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

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

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

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Writing Historical Novels
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Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters, by Michael White

For almost all historical fiction there are two types of character populating the novel or short story. First there is the ‘real life’ person, a character who once lived. The other type is the purely fictional figure you have blended into a plot. Together they will entwine the retelling of real events with imaginary scenarios.

If you have decided to portray your historically real figures as close as possible to the facts, a lot of the work in painting them convincingly will depend on research and your skills of interpretation. The building of fictional characters to interplay with those who once lived is an entirely different matter.

In writing any form of fiction, the author needs to create convincing and believable characters, but when drawing a fictional hero or villain who interacts intimately with ‘real-life’ people from a previous time the task is a little harder than it is when creating a modern person in a modern setting. This is because the fictional figures must work seamlessly with the historical figures in the plot.

One way to ensure that your characters are as consistent, believable and as realistic as possible is to produce what I call a ‘character profile’.

As with the design of the ‘scene collections’ I mentioned in a previous post, you will need to make a trip to the local stationers, but this time you need some notebooks and a set of coloured pens.

To write a character profile you have to put down as much as you can about the lead fictional characters in your story, so have ready a notebook for each of these major characters.

Begin by writing down the basics – their name, where they were born, the names of their parents, what their parents did, how the character was educated, what job they do…

Once the basics are in place and they make sense and fit with the larger scheme of the story, you can start to fill in the details. What was their favourite subject at school? Do they have siblings? What do they do? Where do they live? Extend the family connections to uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and so on. Who are your characters’ close friends? Who are their enemies?

Soon you will have the notebooks filled with information.  Use the coloured pens to segregate information. Perhaps black for information about the character themselves, red for family connections, blue for friends and green for enemies.

When I come to write the book I find that no more than about five percent of this data filling my notebooks appears on the page.

So what’s the point of the exercise?

The reason for creating character profiles is so that you can get to know the people you are writing about – I call it: ‘meeting the new cast’. It is similar to the process the reader goes through when they begin a new novel. They have to learn about the characters, they need to get to know them. For the creator of the book, the experience is exponentially more intense than it is for the reader receiving a diluted version of what you go through in building your characters.

There is one other very important reason why a writer should spend the time and the energy to create a set of character profiles such as the ones I have described. By writing reams of background detail, the author will know how the character will behave in any given situation. They can ensure that the character reacts to whatever befalls them in a believable and consistent way. If the writer loses consistency, in other words, if the character they have created does not behave within the confines of their personality then that character loses credibility (unless of course there is a very good, carefully explained reason for their sudden personality change). This is a cardinal sin on the part of the writer and it is punished in the most severe way. The reader gives up and closes your book.

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Michael White’s author website: www.michaelwhite.com.au

Michael White’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

EquinoxThe Medici SecretThe Art of MurderThe Kennedy Conspiracy     Acceptable LossA Secret AlchemyPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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

Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net

Ben Kane’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

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

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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

I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation.  But in what sort of language will your characters speak?  Will it be correct to the time and place of your story?  Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.

The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time?  Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries.  And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries.  And what do you do if your characters travel?

The choice is between being accurate and being understandable.  My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them.  Writing is, above all, an art of communication.  Some meanings can be guessed at.  In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story.  This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character.  The same can be true of accent.  I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference.  You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is.  Never break the spell, if you can help it.

Actually that just about sums it up.  If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work.  You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care.  You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship.  If you want to do that, write a text book.

You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another.  Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me.  Some people use few words, some many.  People have favourite expressions, and so on.  (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’  or such phrases.  Did anybody ever say that?  With a straight face?)

The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.

I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to.  I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.

My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase.  It happens now and then.  They are in my thoughts.  There is also the issue of modern grammar.  (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’.  (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)

They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour.  It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write.  Polishing, tidying up can be fun.  Make it the best it can be.

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Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk

Anne Perry’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

On Form And Medium For Creative Works, by Emma Darwin

Thanks to the ease and speed of digital – and the particular advantages it offers, while analogue has other advantages – the industry for analogue film is dying. And so film itself is going the way of… well, can you think of any other creative medium that has ever just plain, vanished? So there’s a campaign, of which the likes of Martin Scorsese are only the most visible parts, to get cinematic and photographic film named a UNESCO World Heritage… um, thing.

Recently I found myself at a campaigning celebration of Tacita Dean’s work Film, at Tate Modern, which not so long ago was Bankside Power Station: a cathedral of the early twentieth century, the era of the electrical age, with big, grubby power stations in the middle of big, grubby cities. We stood in the soft dark to watch the colours and forms in Film that flowed and flowered where the east window is. There’s a west window, too, and it gets a starring moment in Film, so there’s a metaphysical but also physical link of light and form that runs the full length of the nave. Then we turned aside, to where the speakers were spotlit on the platform on one of the long sides of the hall, and heard each of them make a call to arms.

Suddenly I saw us all as the ordinary folk of that Reformation world that turned the space inside a great, Gothic cathedral on its axis, so that the people no longer knelt before an altar to witness an event, but gathered round a pulpit to hear an argument. Tacita Dean says that she ‘needs film as an artist needs paint’ – the real, physical substance of art. I heard what was said as something akin to the Protestant argument: that we should keep hold of the raw, analogue, temporal business of making art and being human, so that we can take it with us as we also grasp the new opportunities of the new age.

Those people in the Grote Kerk of 1673, were the first generation who could go home and read what we’d recognise as a novel. Tacita Dean’s form and medium are a product of the electrical age as mine are of that humanist age. If ever there was a moment when the past was present to me and yet, by being so present, filled me with the knowledge of how immeasurably distant it is, it was that evening in the Turbine Hall. Dean makes her art by running the film through the camera again and again, masking different layers, layering different colours and lights, stacking up images or leaving them alone. Historical novels get written in rather the same way.

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Emma Darwin’s author website: www.emmadarwin.com

Emma Darwin’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     AuslanderAcceptable LossThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

My Novel Writing Habits, by Anthony Riches

The creative  process is a bit of a strange thing for yours truly. I’m the sort of writer who writes to empty the cistern of words that build up in his head, then waits for it to fill up again (often overnight) as the subconscious does its thing and invents the next bit of plot. I never have that (I guess) luxurious feeling of having the whole book plotted out to the last twist in my head – I’m far more likely to sit back and slap my forehead when I’m 9/10ths of the way through a story, with the revelation that should have been blindingly obvious from very early on. I am, on the whole, a bit slow on the uptake, although I usually get there in the end. Of course those revelations tend to require something of a re-write to make the twist/revelation/thingamajiggy make sense, and for the reader to be able to either spot it from the breadcrumbs I lay for them or, if they’re like me, to slap their foreheads as they realise what it was I ‘had in mind all the way through the book’ but was too mean to share with them. My daily progress, when I’m at it full time, tends to be of the 1,500-2,000 words a day variety, which is OK but hardly stunning, as I sit, scratch my head and generally noodle off into la-la land for portions of the day.

Sometimes the muse bats me round the head, says ‘you have been a good boy, Tony Riches, so here’s a juicy idea to play with’, and, like all those sci-fi moments in the films when the spaceship goes to ‘jump speed/warp/circumventing the laws of physics drive power’, my mind leaps into frenetic word on word action as if it’s been cattle prodded. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…

Case in point. I sat down to write on Saturday morning after the first few days in my new job (I have to work for a living you know, I have a house full of children and dogs to feed), musing on an idea that you and I shall call ‘The Centurion’ for the time being, regarding a character in the Empire series. Intrigued by this line of thought, I put fingers to keyboard in a tentative manner – and dropped 6,938 shiny new words out of my brain (and I’m still surprised and gratified by that number, having just gone back to check it) in about five hours. Now, to be honest, I did spend the rest of the weekend working on it – editing, tweaking… gloating… mostly gloating – but the creative process was done in an afternoon. To put it in context, if I could write at that speed routinely I could absolutely nail a novel in three weeks, no sweat. Which I clearly cannot. Where it came from, I have no idea. Should I be getting on with book eight, rather than mucking around with side projects? Yes I should. Could I have resisted it’s siren call, once the seed was planted by something I read about a certain year in history? Not likely.

So, 7,000 words of standalone short story now sit proudly in my Dropbox account. Those words don’t easily fit into book eight, so their value to the ongoing process is low. I am prouder of the result than you can imagine. I’m sure I’ll find something to do with it. That’s not actually the point of today’s observations on writing (it’s mainly gloating, as it happens). The point (or the question) is this:

I write full time on occasion, for weeks or even months, while prospective employers look at my cv and laugh. I average 1,500 words a day, do a lot of dog walking and cooking, and generally have a lovely, relaxed time.

I then get a job, in London, involving two hours travel a day and ten hours of fairly intense thinking, on subjects a million miles away from ancient Rome. At the end of the first week, I bang out 7,000 words in an afternoon. Some weird accelerated subconscious creative process seems to be at work, beneath the surface of all that professionally focused thought. Question: I would like to ‘retire’ to a life of full time writing – but, if I can afford to do so, should I?

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Anthony Riches’s author website: www.anthonyriches.com

Anthony Riches’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Arrows of Fury (Empire)Fortress of Spears (Empire)The Leopard Sword (Empire)     EquinoxThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

Why Care About Characters In Historical Novels? by Anne Perry

Why should anyone care about characters in historical novels?  It all happened to other people, a long time ago, and very likely somewhere else.  The people involved are possibly not even ancestors of mine.  Plus, I live in the here and now.  So do you – but, at the very least, you stand on the shoulders of all those who went before.  You reap the harvest they sowed, physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, politically and artistically.

Does it have to be about you to be interesting?  The world is infinitely bigger and more beautiful than any one person’s horizon.  As Shylock, a fictional Jewish money-lender in Italy, written about by a 16th – early 17th century Englishman, asks: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?”  The most powerful experiences of humanity are common to us all.  That is what you want to build on in your stories.

By all means, get the history right.  For heaven’s sake, avoid major errors.  They will destroy people’s ‘suspension of disbelief’.  But keep your history lesson discreet.  The reader should feel: ‘I am there!  I feel it and taste it!’, not ‘I could pass an exam on this period if I wanted to!’

In all the books I have read on writing fiction of any sort, the instructors say that all kinds of error can be mended, except a lack of passion.  Setting, dialogue, character and even plot can be remedied with hard work.  Not lack of passion – that is a disease to death.

We need to know who we are rooting for, what they want and why it matters to them so much – then it will matter to us also.  We need to know what stands in the way of them getting it, therefore we need some common ground:

“I’m tired and cold and my feet hurt.  I can’t go another step!”

“I’m alone and I’m lost.  I’m scared stiff.  There’s somebody pursuing me!”

“I stare at the sunset and it is so beautiful, the last light on the fields tears at my heart, what will I do when it passes?  How do I hold on to glory?”

“How do I deal with grief, failure, the fear of death?”

“I look at the stars, countless even in the imagination.  How do they come into being?  Did somebody make them? If so, who am I to them?”

“I’m hungry.  Who will feed me?”

These could be anybody, anywhere and any time since the dawn of human life.  Tell me a story about them and I care.  It could be me.

Make the setting real, urgent and different.  Make it belong to a time and place where other things were expected.  But keep the heart the same.  The things that change are interesting and fun.  It is the things that are the same that make us care.

Enjoy the time travel – and take us with you!

Bon Voyage!

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Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk

Anne Perry’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelA Christmas HomecomingThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three NovelsAcceptable Loss     AuslanderClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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