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Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels, by William Dietrich

As a journalist, I had to go to the place I was writing about.

It works for fiction, too.

When I write historical novels, I want to feel the heat and cold, smell the markets and sea, walk the old parapets, caress the iron of the cannon, heft the slave chains, finger the sword hilt and even sample the food. There’s a restaurant in Trier, Germany, which serves ancient Roman recipes.

I enjoy travel. Research takes me places I wouldn’t otherwise go, and forces me to notice things I might otherwise miss.

Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. I arrived near Newcastle, England, to research the story of a young Roman woman on Hadrian’s Wall… only to learn there was a university lecture that very evening about that very subject.

A livestock disease meant there were pyres of burning animals as I explored, lending a grisly March mood to Hadrian’s Wall.

I took a guided tourist jaunt in the hills above a Tibetan town, only to have a Himalayan squall drive us into a Buddhist nunnery – which inspired a new location for my thriller Blood of the Reich.

I was pleasantly surprised to find signs in Israel pointing out that Napoleon marched this way and that, a useful aid in exploring for The Rosetta Key.

While I didn’t like the lack of air conditioning in a humid summer stay at Antigua’s English Harbor, a colonial British naval base, it did give me a feel for the humidity that my hero experiences in The Emerald Storm.

Everything is potentially useful. A urinal at a Portsmouth naval museum had a poster above it on historic sailor alternatives to toilet paper.

Unless you have unlimited time and money, research travel should be carefully planned. I usually have an outline of my novel. I buy guidebooks and plot out forts, castles, palaces, historical neighborhoods, museums, and battlefields. This often requires driving. Nowadays I bring along a GPS, but I’ve had plenty of misadventures in the past, like trying to reach a Crusader castle and finding myself the wrong way in a Jordanian town with goat herds, market stalls, and swarms of curious children surrounding me.

I read ahead to gain direction, and buy more histories when I’m there. Guides and maps are easy to buy on site and almost impossible to find at home. Museum bookstores are goldmines. I look not just for historical first-person accounts, but guides to local plants and animals that my characters might encounter.

Local guides can provide wit, color, and insight. That quaint Irish harbor? No longer a seaport because overharvesting of oak trees for warships started erosion that silted it up. History becomes not just political, but environmental and social.

Stop and stroll. What does the place feel like? How does the light reflect? How turgid is the water, what size is the old tree, what do cobblestones sound like (rolling suitcases are a substitute for wagon wheels and horseshoes) and how about wood smoke, beer halls, and garden plantings? How dim is the lighting?

That lovely dress weighs forty-five pounds? That musket is as clumsy as a two-by-four? I interviewed a historical re-enactor in Britain who described being run over by a horse in a mock battle.

Can you find a night sky away from electric lights? Or walk a battlefield instead of drive it to get a sense of its size?

Your impressions will worm into your book.


William Dietrich’s author website:

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The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the ReichHadrian's Wall: A NovelNapoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)     The Leopard Sword (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels


On Receiving Feedback As An Aspiring Novelist, by Gary Worthington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gary Worthington’s author website:

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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