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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.

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William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com

William Dietrich’s bio page

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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
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

Discovering While Researching To Write Historical Novels, by Jane Kirkpatrick

Someone once asked physicist Albert Einstein how he worked.  “I grope,” he answered. I like that answer because I feel like I grope too. I write mostly about real people, dead people one might say, and “groping dead people” doesn’t seem like a good way to spend one’s time, but it’s my way.

I have a process.  I read everything I can find about the person.  I answer my three questions before I begin about intention, attitude and purpose.  I make my timeline of events known about the character and the historical period. I read non-fiction written about the period or the place. Since I usually write about real people, women primarily, I’m always trying to find out not just what they were doing, and where, when and why.  I’m always asking as I research, was this the defining event in that woman’s life?  Why did she leave the place where she’d always lived?  Why is she on the census living with only her daughters while her two sons are living with the very person she earlier had great conflict with? What brought about this change?  Sometimes I don’t find the answer until well after I’ve started to write. Sometimes I never find the answer and must speculate.  This feels very awkward, like I’m groping in research.

Writer Katherine Ann Porter says she writes the last page first.  She says if she didn’t know where she was going she couldn’t begin. “I know what my goal is.  And how I get there is God’s grace.”  I’m like that.  I have this general idea of where I’m going but not the last page. This distressed me for a time.

Then I came across this Arthur Miller quote: “He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain.”

So maybe it’s all right that I don’t have all the answers when I begin.  I can be delighted and surprised even as my readers are. In fact, that happened while working on a historical novel about an American communal society in the 1860s.  While visiting with a descendant – yes, I interview descendants if I can locate them, seeking out family stories. Anyway, I picked up a letter that the descendant’s  grandfather received.  The descendant had been slowly having the letters translated from German into English.  One letter came from a great uncle who was an ambassador to France, England and Germany.  Another from a member of the colony they were involved with. But then I picked up a letter signed by Emma, the very woman I’d been researching and writing about!  Her great nephew was as startled as I was as he’d had no idea he had her letter. To see what she’d written and even her post script brought delight all over and I’d merely groped upon it.

I’m inclined to believe that many of my greatest discoveries in researching my historical novels are the results of groping.  As writers we make the commitment to tell the story and then we make discoveries, groping our way toward the story. If Einstein has no trouble with groping (and he discovered the theory or relativity) why should we historical novel writers be chagrined by the occasions when we grope? Who knows what we might discover about the human condition in the process?

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Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com

Jane Kirkpatrick’s bio page

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A Sweetness to the SoulAn Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Where Lilacs Still BloomOne Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a Novel     The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureNecessary Lies

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

Hooking Readers With The Opening Of Your Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

Don’t start your novel at the beginning of your story.

Oh, your historical novel will have an opening, of course. But you want one that really grabs the reader, and that often means advancing into the story to create an effective grabber.

Yes, your pioneer family has an interesting lineage, a noble struggle moving from civilization to the frontier, an exhaustive period of cabin building and crop sowing, and so forth, but the reader imagines all this anyway. Consider starting with the Indian attack at dawn that is going to set the subsequent plot in motion. A blood-curdling howl is a better hook than a judicious discussion of whether to move west.

I open The Emerald Storm with hero Ethan Gage, intending to retire, instead clinging to an icy fortress wall. Then I backtrack. We wonder what the devil he’s doing there, and how he’s going to escape.

In retrospect, I could ramp up the start of some of my novels. I dearly love Hadrian’s Wall but it begins with a historical prologue, which always risks reader impatience: get to the real story! Then there is a Roman inspector trying to piece together the tale of a disaster that has already happened. It works, but I could have jumped into the story with immediate blood and thunder.

You don’t have to dip very far into your tale. My first novel, a Nazi-era thriller called Ice Reich, begins near the beginning, with a flight into an arctic storm. But I didn’t begin with extensive background on my down-on-his-luck hero, or with his takeoff from an airfield, or with explanation of Nazi ambitions. I needed a punchy lead to engage the reader.

The result: “The flying was bad. The corpse made it worse.”

What corpse? That brings us to another effective way to hook the reader. Can you pose a question that your text promises to answer? We humans are curious as cats and will keep turning pages to learn who, what, when, where, how, and why.

When Dickens tells us ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, we want to know why. When Tolstoy claims ‘all happy families are alike but unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way’, we want to know how.

Thriller writer Lee Child suggests, “Pose a question on your first page that you don’t answer until the last.”

Another strategy is surprise. In The Lovely Bones we’re told immediately that the narrator is already dead and in heaven, arousing our curiosity. In Little Big Man, we’re told the narrator is a hitherto unknown white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, again intriguing us.

Grab attention. In The Rosetta Key, Ethan opens by eyeing a thousand musket barrels aimed at his chest. In The Scourge of God, a Roman emperor and Catholic Bishop set out to strangle the lover of the emperor’s sister.

Readers want authors to succeed, but they have limited time and literally millions of choices. If they bite on your hook, don’t let them wriggle off. Snap the pole by making them want to know more.

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William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com

William Dietrich’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Rosetta KeyHadrian's Wall: A NovelScourge of God: A Novel     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Fortress of Spears (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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