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Posts tagged ‘author of novels set in Mughal India’

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.

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Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com

Gary Worthington’s bio page

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

Writing Historical Novels
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Writing Villain Characters In Historical Novels, by Gary Worthington

Some of my favorite characters are ones most of us would think are bad people. Each of us is a mixture of virtues and faults but the so-called villains usually have flaws that outweigh the good points.

Often no motivation is given in fiction for why bad people behave the way they do. Frequently there’s an implicit assumption that they’re just born that way. Although that may be true for many evildoers or bullies, it certainly isn’t true in all cases. With exceptions I’ll discuss later, I personally feel it usually makes for a more satisfying story if the reader understands, at least a little, just why the villain is such an unsavory character.

As with an honorable main character, it can help to use a checklist such as the one I outlined in the previous post for inspiration in developing the motivations of your villain and making him or her more multidimensional.

In my own historical novels set in India, readers usually intensely dislike Dev Batra, who plays key roles in my tale of a search for a maharaja’s hidden treasure during Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” in 1970s India. Batra and his two violent and somewhat creepy henchmen do dirty work for prominent politicians. He loves both the power he wields and the wealth it has brought him.

As in so many countries, corruption and influence peddling are widespread among the governmental leadership in India. I envisioned Dev Batra as symbolic of this serious and pervasive problem. Batra’s appearances in the story add conflict and frustration for the hero Vijay Singh, who is often exasperated by Batra’s interference. And Batra’s unwanted lusty attentions dismay the lovely princess Kaushalya, who urgently needs his help to get her unjustly imprisoned father out of jail.

Batra’s main motivation isn’t revealed until near the end of the second of my two India novels, when he says to the princess Kaushalya, “I will tell you what evil is. It was in ’47 [during the horrific widespread violence at the partition of India and Pakistan] when our neighbors, people we’d known all our lives… came and killed my father and raped my sister. Because we weren’t the same religion, and because they wanted to steal our farm and decided they could get away with driving us off.” Batra goes on to say that he’s worked so hard to acquire a farm to replace the one stolen from his family.

While I’m sure most readers still would not feel that Batra is justified in acting the way he does, at least they can now understand him to some degree. And Batra isn’t a hundred percent bad. He can be loyal to those who have helped him. Many months after the protagonist Vijay Singh saves Batra’s life, Batra – despite some reluctance – honors Vijay’s plea to help one of Vijay’s employees whose home is about to be demolished in an ill-conceived urban redevelopment scheme.

A favorite character of mine in another of my tales has some distasteful major traits, but many readers find him intriguing. Madho Singh is a fat Rajput (warrior caste) prince from Mangarh who loves to eat constantly. He is also greedy for wealth and will go to almost any length to seize it, whether by looting a city or betraying an ally. The novella featuring him in India Fortunes is set in the 1660s and portrays his interactions over a number of years with the famous Hindu warrior hero Shivaji.

Despite his gluttony and greed, Madho is exceedingly loyal to the men of the cavalry troop he leads, even to the extent of risking his life and much of a looted fortune to ensure the safe return of one of his men from a mission in a city overrun by the enemy.

Madho also has a passion for art. Much of his craving for wealth is because he wants to acquire paintings for his collection and even to be a patron of the arts with his own workshop of painters. Although this obviously doesn’t justify his willingness in the pursuit of fortune to manipulate and betray those who trust him (after all, Hitler and many of his Nazi hierarchy were also obsessed with art to the point of confiscating it from Jews and looting it from conquered cities), it humanizes Madho and helps readers understand him.

I do believe that some bad people actually exist without an obvious explanation for why they’re bad, and sometimes you may feel such a person fits well in a particular story you’re writing. One of my favorite villains I’ve created is a warrior called The Mugger, meaning “The Crocodile”, in my novel Elephant Driver (also published as one of the tales in India Treasures in America and in The Mangarh Chronicles in India). The character got his nickname from the villagers he oppressed because a crocodile is an animal that torments its prey before killing it. The Mugger continually threatens the young hero of the story and even the hero’s family.

Although I would never want to encounter The Mugger in real life, I’m fond of him as a story character mainly because he is so extreme in not having any obvious redeeming virtues. He’s evil and he loves it. He adds a continuing element of suspense – not just for the menace, but because we also wonder if our young hero will ever somehow be able to nullify The Mugger’s threat even though that seems almost impossible. I never saw the need to justify why The Mugger is so vicious. Certainly the protagonist and the others who have to placate him don’t concern themselves with why he’s like he is. They just want to avoid being maimed or killed by him.

A memorable villain with no apparent redeeming virtues created by another writer is Obadiah Hakeswill, the protagonist’s nemesis in some of Bernard Cornwell’s novels about British soldier Richard Sharpe set during the Napoleonic Wars. The depraved Hakeswill is a larger than life character in many ways. While still a child he was wrongly sentenced to death but survived the hanging. This leads him to believe he cannot die, and indeed he survives numerous episodes that would kill most men. He hates the hero Sharpe obsessively and betrays him and tries to murder him numerous times over the course of several military campaigns. Again, I wouldn’t want to ever meet Obadiah Hakeswill, but his menacing presence adds immensely to the protagonist’s perils and to the liveliness of the tales.

Much of what I’ve learned personally about writing historical fiction has come from reading and analyzing the work of other authors. In creating your own villains, you’ll likely find it helpful to read stories such as these and others to see how the writers portrayed the rogues and scoundrels.

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Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com

Gary Worthington’s bio page

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     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeA Secret AlchemyWounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)The Salt Road

Writing Historical Novels
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Writing A Good Main Character For A Historical Novel, by Gary Worthington

Given my own passion for reading historical fiction as well as writing it, over the years I’ve noted both what I’ve liked about other authors’ works and what went wrong with their efforts.

By far the most frequent reason I stop reading a novel early on is that I don’t identify with the main character; the main character is not a person I care about or want to spend my limited time with. Unfortunately it’s an issue that’s too common.

Does a main character need to be “likable”? Not necessarily. But, if not, the main character should be interesting or intriguing enough that the reader wants to learn more about the person or to see how they handle the challenges posed in the plot.

In your tale, the main character should be faced with some crucial threat or dilemma. How he or she responds to the problem will help define the person, who should somehow grow or change during the course of the story as a result of dealing with the challenge.

For example, the main character in the treasure hunt in my novels India Treasures and India Fortunes was born an extremely low caste Untouchable, but through education and hard work he is able to successfully pass himself off to others as a high caste Rajput. However, he lives in constant fear of having his masquerade exposed, and this anxiety colors all aspects of his professional work and his relationships with others.

The minor characters are also important, not only in interactions with the main character but also in creating a sense of reality in the fictional world.

How do we develop appropriate characters who live on in the reader’s mind after the tale is done?

Most of the characters in my own historical novels have been either real or fictional inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. For major Mughal emperors, or for 20th century historical figures, often a large amount of information is available about their personalities and appearance. Typically, the further back in time the less that is known about the characteristics of even famous historical people. Except for a relatively few real kings, queens, and politicians, I’ve had quite a bit of leeway in developing characters.

I’ve made a list of the names and locations of almost every person I’ve met or observed during my visits in India, as well as some people of Indian origin I’ve encountered in America. Sometimes I made a short notation describing the person. There are a few hundred of these people in many walks of life whom I can use for inspiration. I don’t base every detail of a character entirely on an actual person I’ve met, but often I’ve used one or more of the real person’s prominent attributes as a starting point. Doing so helps a character come alive on the page.

It often also aids me initially to use a photograph for inspiration. For many characters in my India tales, I’ve cut out photos from the Indian news magazines to which I subscribe. Each photo preferably gives clues to the subject’s personality – eyes that are lively and hinting at fun, a scowl that indicates irritation, a gaze directed elsewhere indicating boredom, an overall air of arrogance or a pleasant smile.

If you’re writing a tale set during the last half century or so, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it can sometimes be useful to think of a movie or TV actor or some other readily recognizable figure as an inspiration for a character. You might even tell the reader that your character looks like that celebrity as an aid in quickly forming a visual image.

Of course, in writing historical fiction, you have to be careful not to create anachronisms, so any well-known figure you mention in a description should be from the time period of the story. This obviously can get more difficult the farther back in time you go. It might work fairly easily if your tale is set around 1900 and you say, for example, that your character looks like a red haired version of Theodore Roosevelt or Mark Twain.

If you’re writing a tale set in 1700, there probably aren’t many historical figures from that period that can aid the modern reader in forming a mental image. However, you might be able to think of  other possibilities for a comparison, as Oliver Potzsch did in describing a 1660s Bavarian pastor in the recent historical novel The Dark Monk:

“His broad figure completely filled the opening in the church floor. He was more than six feet tall, a bear of a man who, with his long, broad beard and bushy black eyebrows, looked like the personification of an Old Testament God. When Koppmeyer stood before the altar in his black robe and delivered his homilies in a deep, gruff voice, his appearance alone caused his flock to tremble and instilled in them the fear of purgatory.”

Occasionally I have difficulty making a character come to life in my mind. One exercise I’ve found helpful is to write about the character from a different point of view. If the story is being told about the character in the third person, then write a first person episode using the character’s own thoughts. Or write about the character as seen from another person who knows him or is interacting with him.

Another  exercise that can be useful is to imagine putting the character into various situations to see how he or she reacts. Maybe, for example, have the person enter a room and encounter a group of strangers who stare blankly at him. Is he confident enough to be at ease, possibly smiling and seating himself as if he belongs? Or is he so ill at ease he wants to flee?

Keep in mind that readers crave action, not just a character’s thoughts. Readers want to involve themselves with characters acting in response to the challenges posed or doing something else mysterious, puzzling or otherwise intriguing.

I recommend using a checklist of traits as an aid in creating characters, including getting to know their motivations and how they respond as they are tested by events. I developed my own checklist over the years, which I’ll offer in the next post.

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Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com

Gary Worthington’s bio page

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     All Together in One Place: A Novel of Kinship, Courage, and FaithThe Detroit Electric SchemeWe Shall Not SleepThe Medici Secret

Writing Historical Novels
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