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Posts from the ‘United Kingdom historical fiction writer’ Category

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!

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

Julian Stockwin’s bio page

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

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

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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.

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Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website: www.adriangoldsworthy.com

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
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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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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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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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

Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

A few years ago I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 about historical fiction. They interviewed Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and sundry other big sellers, and Bernard Cornwell, author of the hugely successful Sharpe series.

Philippa Gregory, who prides herself on historical accuracy, said ‘You go up to the point where we know and then what we don’t know you make up.’ Bernard Cornwell was more casual about it. ‘I’m a storyteller not a historian,’ he said. ‘In the end you sacrifice the history for the story.’

Bernard Cornwell has a valid point, but I’m with Philippa Gregory on the historical accuracy – I think you owe it to your readers to tell the story with due regard to the events, practicalities, mores and all the rest of it, of the times. But I also write for teens and I’m keen to produce the most readable and accessible book I can. I certainly don’t want to bog my reader down with additional historical minutiae.

I’ve recently finished a novel set in Soviet Russia, over the summer of 1941, and I made a few compromises to produce a story that a 14 year-old completely new to the subject would find accessible.

The first was cultural rather than historical. I did follow the tradition of using pet names, depending on the degree of familiarity between my characters. My main character is known variously as Mihail and Misha, and his friend Valentina is also known as Valya. But along with this, people in Russia have three official names – a first or Christian name, a patronymic (the father’s name), and a family name or surname. Also, most Russian surnames have an ‘a’ at the end when the person is female – Mr Petrov and Mrs Petrova. (They don’t have ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ either.) For the sake of clarity I just gave my characters a first name, and a surname regardless of gender.

I based this decision on my own frustration when reading a book, when you think ‘Who the hell is THIS?’ and I reckoned my reader would have enough on their plate already, with unfamiliar first names and surnames. (I love Russian sounding names but I feel the reader has to take on a lot with a succession of Barikadys, Leonids, Svetlanas and Yelenas. The last names are quite a mouthful too, especially if you live in a country where Russian names are unusual: Durchenko, Dyatlov, Dumanovsky, Dobrolubov…)

I also had a problem with what to call the NKVD, Lavretiy Beria’s repugnant secret police. The story is set in 1941 when they were variously known as the NKVD (Jan/Feb) the NKGB (Feb to July) and then the NKVD again (July to December). Call me slack, but I didn’t feel the reader needed to know that. If you’re doing a degree level paper you do, but not for historical fiction written for a core readership of teens.

The biggest liberty I took was with the structure and personnel of Stalin’s clerical staff. My main character is called Misha Petrov and his dad Yegor works on Stalin’s secretarial staff, performing some of the duties of Stalin’s actual secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev. Yegor Petrov has a fairly central role in the story and I didn’t want to get caught up in fictionalising the life of Poskrebyshev. It wouldn’t be fair on him or his family, and most of all it would have got in the way of the story I wanted to tell – which was what it was like to be a 16 year old boy at the heart of Stalin’s murderous, paranoid regime.

I did point out several of the things I mention here at the end of my novel. I do think historical fiction is a really useful way into real history – certainly as valuable supplementary reading for anyone studying a period in depth, so I do think it’s important to let your reader know what’s real and what isn’t.

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

Paul Dowswel’s bio page

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United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

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AuslanderSektion 20Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Blood of the ReichA Secret AlchemyAcceptable Loss

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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