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Posts tagged ‘Gary Worthington’

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss, by Gary Worthington

In a current literary climate that tends to emphasize the latest works, it can be easy to forget that so many good historical novels were published years ago. They may no longer be prominently displayed in your local bookstore but they’re still definitely worth seeking out and reading.

This is likely my last posting in this series, so I wish you the best of luck. I’m always on the lookout for additional unique, well done historical fiction, so I look forward to seeing your own published work!

Here are a few historical novels that have inspired me over the years. I learned something about writing from each, and I’d bet that you will too.

Balogh, Mary. Truly. 1996. An historical romance set in 1840s Wales. The hero returns after a ten year absence to claim his estate but finds that his tenants hate him because of his ruthless managers. He takes up the cause of the tenants and the poor in general by assuming the disguised role of “Rebecca,” who leads the peasantry in various acts of rebellion against the power of the gentry. The romantic details and complications are sometimes from stock romance fiction, but those flaws are more than compensated for by an exciting plot with plenty of suspense.

Barber, Noel. Sakkara. 1984. A novel of 20th Century Egypt, narrated by the son of a wealthy  British envoy growing up in Cairo and in love with an Egyptian neighbor’s daughter who is promised to his brother. Impressive for the detail and flavor of the times and Egypt’s struggle for independence.

Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. 2001. Realistic-feeling experiences of the inhabitants of an English village that quarantines itself during a period of bubonic plague in 1665. Narrated by a young widow and mother, the challenges and suffering of the residents result in compelling reading with an added dimension of religious conflict.

de Bernieres, Louis. Birds Without Wings. 2004. Outstanding depictions of villagers and their daily lives in Turkey during a challenging period of change at the beginning of the 20th Century and World War I. A remarkable cast of strong characters, all very different, with encounters between ethnic Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks.

Grieseman, John. Signal & Noise. 2003. Epic in scope, depicting influential engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs during major events in the 1850-60s such as laying the first trans-Atlantic cable and solving London’s “Great Stink” with drainage and sewers. Some minor flaws in that characters’ motivations aren’t always entirely clear and shifting points of views can slow momentum. But still impressively done.

Harris, Robert. Pompeii. 2003. A young roman aqueduct engineer goes to Pompeii in AD 79 to try to restore water flow to the nearby cities, where he faces mystery and danger culminating in the massive eruption of the volcano. A romance element and the excessive power of a newly wealthy man seem somewhat improbable, but on the whole the work is suspenseful and intriguing.

Mackin, Jeane. Dreams of Empire. 1996. Mystery novel of the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, with a French woman artist heroine and her philanderer husband accused of trying to poison Napoleon. The pursuit of a major artifact from the time of Alexander the Great adds to the adventure. Excellent for the flavor of the time and romance and intrigue.

Michener, James A. The Source. 1965. This huge tome, a bestseller in its time, firmly established the template (similar to that of Michener’s earlier Hawaii) for that author’s later historical novels and for those of James Rutherfurd. It also was the inspiration for the format of my own India Treasures and India Fortunes. A series of novellas set in various historical periods let the reader experience an overview of the historical evolution of the land that is now Israel. The stories are focused especially on the site of the ruins of a fictional ancient town, and the excavations of the various layers by an archaeological team in the 20th Century tie together the tales from the earlier eras. Not a fast read, but well worth the investment of time for an understanding of the roots of this area of the Middle East.

Rufin, Jean-Christophe. The Abyssinian. 1999. Translated from French. In 1699 the young hero is sent on a mission from Egypt to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to establish a French mission there despite the ruler being hostile to Westerners. The lowborn hero also hopes for success so he can win the hand of the French consul’s daughter. Though somewhat heavy on narrative, the extensive details of caravan life and of sights on the route and in the capital are impressive.

Wood, Barbara. Virgins of Paradise. 1993. Novel of women in a wealthy Egyptian family living in a huge joint family house and gardens in Cairo. Excellent for the details of life in a Muslim household from the women’s perspective, and how the changing political climate severely impacts the family over half a century.

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

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     The Sultan's WifeA Secret AlchemyTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelBetrayal

Writing Historical Novels
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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

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Writing Historical Novels
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Avoiding Anachronisms And Cliches In Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Nothing can be more jarring when reading historical fiction than encountering a scene or event that’s obviously from a later time period or is just clearly inappropriate to the era involved.

Fortunately most serious writers are conscientious enough to do thorough research on the relevant time period. My own historical fiction to date has been set in India, and I’ve been meticulous about cultural and historical accuracy, sometimes almost to the point of obsession.

It’s fairly rare that I encounter something really significant in the work of other writers that’s clearly out of place, but it happens. The worse example I’ve seen personally was in a novel about the building of the Taj Mahal published a few years ago. The book had such major inaccuracies that I eventually had to stop reading it. The writer depicted an architect unrelated to the ruling families traveling on horseback around the Indian countryside alone with a Mughal princess, with a romance developing between the two. This was a major theme of the novel, and it absolutely could never have happened. In actuality, the Mughal rulers were Muslims and the women in their family were in purdah, strictly confined to separate living quarters and seen only by a very few men, who were close family members. If the women ever did travel outside the palaces, they were heavily guarded and were in curtained conveyances to keep them hidden from the eyes of others. Their seclusion was so strict that there are no known actual portraits of the women, only a relatively few imaginary depictions, unlike the male royalty whose likenesses were often shown in paintings.

Even the most minimal research by reading popular non-fiction books about the time period would have made these facts obvious, so there is no excuse for the extreme sloppiness in devising such a story and passing it off as historical fiction. There were other inaccuracies in the novel that could have easily been avoided with only slightly more research in readily available books about the building of the Taj.

If you’re tempted to take shortcuts in your research and think that no one will notice, you’re wrong. There are many readers who will spot even small inaccuracies and will call you on it. Now that it’s so easy to post reviews online, it’s even likely that your errors will be pointed out on Web sites and could well discourage others from reading the book.

In addition to avoiding factual inaccuracies, of course, there is the need to try to avoid word choices and stylistic choices that could be jarring to the reader and break the spell that you hope will be cast to draw the reader into your fictional world.

I think the easiest way to do this is to keep the language fairly “time-neutral” in terms of word choices. If a word or phrase sounds out of place in the narrative it should be avoided. Some actual examples from a story set in the 1700s that are clearly inappropriate: “The next item on the agenda…” and “What planet was your father living on?”

Obviously, never use modern slang. If you’re sure a slang word was actually in common use in the time period you’re writing about, it’s probably all right to incorporate it into your writing if it seems to fit the scene. Just be careful not to overuse it to the extent that the modern reader finds it jarring.

Writers naturally want to avoid cliches, but it’s amazing how easy it is for overused phrases to creep into a manuscript. I’ve found that in my own case it’s usually laziness that results in trite wording. Sometimes the scenes almost seem to be writing themselves, with the words flowing quickly onto the screen. This can be wonderful when it occurs, but it’s also a time when, rather than choosing language carefully, it’s easy to use phrases that we might speak without conscious thought in our typical every day conversations. A couple of examples from a story set in another culture the 1800s are, “like banging his head against a wall” and “the scene was something to behold.”

Another example in a tale set in the 1700s in an Asian country: “[The main character] had the good fortune…” That isn’t an extreme case, but it’s a little anachronistic sounding and stale wording. The same with the following in a 1700s story set in another culture: “And this was the second mortal blow.”

Sometimes even a word choice that’s factually “right” may not seem so to the reader. This is one of the many areas in which it’s crucial to have someone else read your work to give you unbiased feedback. I strongly recommend participating in a writing group that meets often, one in which the other members are knowledgeable about the basics of good writing and are mutually supportive in giving well-meant, helpful criticism on each other’s current work.

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

Gary Worthington’s bio page

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     The Sultan's WifeA Secret AlchemyTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelBetrayal

Writing Historical Novels
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Location Research For Writing Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Often the settings for historical fiction are far away and expensive to travel to. When your stories are set centuries ago, as are many of mine, should you still visit the locales?

While it’s certainly possible to accomplish realism without ever visiting the locales, I firmly believe that you should go if it is feasible.

I live near Seattle but, since most of my tales are set in India, my wife Sandra and I have travelled there six times over the years on lengthy trips (four times during the actual writing) and I’ve  personally visited almost every area I depicted. On one trip we took our ten year old son Shaun with us, and experiencing how Indians welcomed him and were attentive to him added an additional perspective on the society.

Visiting an area adds a depth of detail, authenticity and a feel for the unique spirit of a place that I think would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Importantly, if you don’t go you’ll almost certainly miss out on serendipitous happenings that can later be used to impart liveliness to your stories.

For example, unless your stories involve civilizations or societies that vanished long ago, you can meet local people who may be distant descendants of residents of the time you’re writing about. Try to get to know them and what they’re like. If you can, stay in local households, or at least in small family-owned hotels or guesthouses. You may be able to arrange homestays or meet locals through the non-profit organizations Servas or CouchSurfing. Many of my own best contacts and friendships came from Servas visits. These people you spend time with can answer many of your questions about their local area, such as “What’s that tree called? How is it used?” or “Why are those people doing that?” or “How do you live with such hot summers?” or “What was it like when you lived through that event?”

While the visits are fresh in your mind, make notes about the people you see or meet. With some modifications, you may be able to base your characters at least in part on actual residents of the locale. As mentioned in one of my posts on creating characters, I’ve taken notes on several hundred people I’ve encountered in India on various trips, and they provide a wealth of inspiration for devising people in my stories.

I also take detailed notes on vegetation, topography, farming activities, what people are doing in the streets, animals I see, weather events and anything else that may be of interest, including sounds and odours. These can provide background details later to add realism.

For example, as background research for a story depicting a major battle fought by the army of the famous Indian emperor Ashoka, around 265 BCE, I hired a car and driver to take my wife and me to the actual area where the fighting occurred. Almost nothing is known of that long ago war other than that it occurred and that huge numbers of people died or were taken captive, and that remorse over the battle influenced Ashoka to become a convert to Buddhism and devote the rest of his long reign to peace. Even though there were no obvious remnants of that ancient battle, I took detailed notes about the landscape. I sketched a rough map, including the locations of a prominent ridge and the major nearby river. I also shot numerous photos. Later, when I did the actual writing, I found that my imagination created a likely scenario for the placements of the opposing armies and my storyline about the course of the battle made crucial use of the ridge and the river. Those scenes are in my novella ‘Elephant Driver’, which is in my book India Treasures.

Once I even made a point to visit a place again that I’d already published a story about – the amazing, immense fortress of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan state – just to make sure I’d indeed gotten some important details right. Long after my initial visit, my ideas for the story changed during the actual writing. I ended up depicting an actual major siege and attack by troops of the Mughal emperor Akbar at the northern gate in my novella ‘Saffron Robes’ in India Treasures. The fortress encompasses a three mile long fortified table top ridge, and the  spot I focused on in the story was one I’d paid little attention to on my original visit. Fortunately, I found that what I’d written earlier was just fine.

Architecture is one of my keen interests. For my writing, I created the detailed fictional fortress palace of Mangarh, which is a major setting for a long treasure hunt and other events. In preparation, I visited numerous actual fortresses, photographing them and noting numerous architectural details as well as the feel of the buildings, the odours, and the effects of sunlight shining through latticework and stained glass. I eventually made a pen and ink drawing of the Mangarh fortress and an aerial view of the surrounding area, which I’ve included in my books. I think the illustrations aid the reader in visualizing the setting and help make it seem more real. More importantly, the depictions in the writing itself are richer from my visits to so many actual forts and palaces.

A key element in some of my stories is the hunt through my fortress of Mangarh for a hugely valuable trove of hidden treasure. On a visit to the interesting fortress palace of Bundi with an Indian friend, I noted a detail that later, when transferred to Mangarh, became the main clue to the location of the fictional treasure.

In anticipation of a novella in India Fortunes about the construction of the Taj Mahal titled ‘Master Builder’, I spent time at the Taj itself six times over four trips to India. I concentrated not only on the spectacular architectural details but on the feel of the building and its garden setting by the river at various times during the day, from mornings, to afternoons, sunsets and even with my wife and an Indian friend on a moonlit, foggy Christmas eve night. I also visited four of the earlier buildings in India that were likely inspirations for the Taj Mahal, all of which made it into the story. I made drawings of all these structures and included the illustrations in the book as an aid to the reader.

Not all visits to a site are productive. Over many years, I’ve been working at various times on a novel set in Elizabethan England featuring Sir Francis Bacon. I went to some effort to visit the site of Bacon’s ancestral country home of Gorhambury. Although the landscape of rolling hills, woods and fields was evocative, I was disappointed that 400 years after his time almost nothing of Bacon’s original house remained. I realized I needed to rely on what little is mentioned in writings of the time and on a single contemporary drawing of the house. However,  most visits are useful in some way, even just to file away in the subconscious for later inspiration.

What if you just can’t manage to get to the locales? Then read everything you can find about the area, both in print and on the Web. During your reading, take notes about anything that might be useful. There are often descriptions by early and recent travellers to the region that contain a wealth of useful details, including sensory details.

If you can find people in your own country who have emigrated from the area you’re writing about, interview them for details they remember from their childhoods. If it seems appropriate, have them review your writing before it’s published. To make your depictions as authentic as they can be, it’s desirable to do all these things in addition to traveling to your settings.

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

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Developing Original Plots From Historical Events, by Gary Worthington

Of course, historical novels do not need to be based on actual events or people. The plots and characters can be entirely imaginative, so long as the author strives to be as true as feasible to the details of the time period and the general setting.

Often we want to use a known historical person or actual events in our fictional tale. Sometimes the historical person may only appear briefly in the story, or an event may be in the background of a tale that is only peripherally related. Other times we want the historical person to be a major character in our story or even the protagonist, and we want our plot as a whole to be based on the historical events as they occurred in reality.

I’ve taken all of these approaches in various stories, but here I’ll focus mainly on using actual historical persons and events as main elements in the tales, since that can be the most challenging approach for a writer.

Sometimes, to the extent that the actual facts are known, they may not lend themselves easily to a straightforward sequence in a plot. Maybe the happenings are spread over too long a time period for the tale you want to tell (the Hundred Years War may be an obvious example). In some of my tales I’ve simply made a break between time periods by starting a new chapter, but I make it clear just how many years have passed since the end of the last chapter.

For example, part of my novel India Fortunes is a long tale featuring the famous Hindu warrior king Shivaji. I used a fictional prince as the protagonist who has a peripheral but important relationship with Shivaji during some known major historical episodes. The beginning of the tale is set in 1663-1664. The next events I wanted to use occurred in 1666 in another part of India. Rather than padding the story to fill in a gap of over two years, I started another chapter with the later scene and wove in mentions of some of the intervening events to bring the reader up to date on how the characters ended up in the new locale.

Often,  the historical person you want as your main character was never known to actually be present at some of the events you want to use as dramatic elements in your plot. A generally agreed upon rule in writing historical fiction, and one that I’ve always adhered to, is to not contravene any known significant facts. If the real life person was known to be elsewhere at the time of an event and could not possibly have been physically present, then you shouldn’t put him or her there.

On the other hand, maybe it just isn’t known where the person was at the time. In that case, barring any other major inconsistencies, you can feel reasonably comfortable in writing the person into the scene. Or if the character was thought to be elsewhere in the general time period but you can come up with a reasonable theory on how he could also have been at your scene, go ahead and use the plot device.

As an example, the first Prime Minister of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, tirelessly worked for decades to bring about his country’s independence from rule by the British. His travels and activities are well documented, typically down to the specific dates for each locale he visited. In my novella “Reformers in Mangarh” in India Fortunes, I wanted to have him give a speech before a crowd in the fictional town that appears throughout my India tales. Clearly he was never there, since the town never existed. But I found some dates when he was touring the general region, and he often traveled by train. So I had him and his daughter, the future prime minister Indira Gandhi, make a short stopover in 1939 at a fictitious railway junction outside my fictional town, where they were met by local residents with a motor car. The words that he spoke at the event in my story were taken from actual speeches he gave elsewhere.

Naturally, unless you can use an historical figure’s actual words as recorded, you should ensure you know enough about the person to feel confident he or she reasonably could have said the words you’re having them speak.

Typically, the farther back in time you’ve placed your story, the less is known about details of what historical figures did and said. In my young adult novel Elephant Driver, set during the time of the Mauryan Empire around 265 BCE, very little is known about the chronology of the activities of the emperor Ashoka. Our only records of what he said come from his messages to his people in the form of inscriptions on rocks and pillars. I felt free to have him say anything consistent with his personality as revealed to a limited extent in those inscriptions, and to place him wherever needed for the purposes of the tale.

What if you’ve thought about it extensively, but you just can’t make a character appear when and where you want him without violating known facts? You may just need to write around the event by leaving it out of your story, much as you might dislike doing that.  Assuming the luxury of a number of days to do the writing, my favorite approach is to let my subconscious work on this type of problem, as well as on other plot conundrums. Set the matter aside at least overnight, much longer if you can. Write another part of the tale or work on a different story. There are no guarantees, but it’s quite possible you may wake up one morning suddenly knowing how to solve the dilemma in your plot. I’m glad to say it’s worked numerous times for me, and often the stories are much better as a result.

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

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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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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

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

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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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Writing Historical Novels
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