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Researching The Trojan War For My Novels, by Glyn Iliffe

Research is all about getting a feel for the period, place and people you are writing about. Get the research right and not only will you convince your reader they’re in Byzantine Rome, Napoleonic France or the middle of the Korean War, you’ll convince yourself. As a writer, there are few feelings more uncomfortable than writing out of your depth, so having confidence in the characters and scenes you’re creating is essential.

It helps, when choosing the period you want to write about, to have a passion for it. This makes researching it a joy rather than a chore. If you love Jacobean Scotland reading about it will be easy and you’ll hoover up the facts; if you don’t, it’ll be hard work and the little details won’t stick. It’ll show in your writing. That isn’t to say you can only write about eras you’re familiar with. A basic fascination with history should be enough to drive research for a book about the past.

There’s also the old adage write what you know. If you intend to pen a novel set during a specific period in history, having a baseline to build on will serve you well. This can be a simple interest fuelled by years of reading around the subject. Such interests are often sparked in childhood, perhaps from listening to granddad’s war stories or watching films on TV. My love of the ancient world started with Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus, and re-enacting the battles with my Airfix Romans.

The single greatest advantage I had in writing books about the Trojan War was studying Classics at university. Being steeped in a topic for three years is invaluable. You feed off the knowledge of others – from lectures, seminars, books and commentaries – and are surrounded by people who share your passion. All that exposure to a single topic gives you more than just head knowledge. It leaves you with an instinct for your subject. The same deep appreciation is gained by those in re-enacting societies or other historical focus groups.

Whether you have a deep knowledge of the period you want to write about, or just plenty of enthusiasm for a new era in history, you’ll need to establish that feel for period, place and people that I mentioned at the start. When I planned my series of books on the Trojan War, as seen through the experiences of Odysseus, I had already studied Homer and Greek mythology in detail at university. So, from the perspective of retelling the Trojan myths in a single narrative, I re-read many of the texts I was familiar with and tried to come up with ways of bringing the disparate sources together. I also looked at modern summaries of the legends – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths was particularly useful for this – to give me an overview.

This helped me to form the structure of the story and plan all six books in the series. Next came my research about the Bronze Age itself. This was not something I had studied in detail as part of my degree course, so the first thing I did was to look for books that would provide a good historical outline of the period. The best was Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War: a well-written, readily digestible introduction to the available information about the era. From here I was able to follow threads into specific areas of importance for the story I wanted to tell, such as details about sailing, agriculture, religious practice etc.

One point of note here is my reliance on books, rather than the internet, for research. Personally, I think that taking the time to read a book pays dividends in increasing your understanding of a subject or period. This is because books form structured arguments that explore topics in depth, usually backing themselves up with references and evidence. Internet research, on the other hand, frequently involves a trawl of different sources, sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and often based on conjecture or personal opinion. Where the internet comes up trumps, I find, is when topping up research that has already been carried out – a quick fact here and there, useful images or just for refreshing something half-forgotten.

Another important – and enjoyable – aspect of research is to travel to the places you are writing about. This isn’t always an affordable luxury, but I think a book benefits hugely if the writer has visited the place he or she is depicting. Although I have taken a few liberties with my depictions of Ithaca, Delphi and the Peloponnese (based partly on the fact they would have looked different three thousand years ago), having been there, smelled the air, felt the warm wind on my cheek and seen the sun setting over the mountains is something that has helped me to fix those places in my imagination.

Finally, despite advocating the benefits of research, there are a few get-out clauses when writing about the Trojan War. The first is mentioned above, namely that the physical geography of places is very different now to then. Second is that historical facts about the Bronze Age are still limited, in spite of the achievements of archaeologists in recent years, so you’re not writing in a strait jacket – there’s room for a bit of imagination. Another is that what we know about the Trojan War comes from myth, which by its nature goes against the factual approaches of history and archaeology. The most celebrated source of these myths is Homer, who is known for being a mismatch of different eras. So if a Classical era temple suits your needs more than a Bronze Age cave, then you can always say you’re just being “Homeric”!

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Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com

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Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’, by Mary Nichols

They say you should write about what you know, especially when you are feeling your way as a writer, but that can be dreadfully restricting and, if you did that, you would never write books with historical backgrounds. Think what opportunities you would be missing!  The story is the thing. As long as your research is thorough, there’s no reason why you can’t attempt something a little more adventurous.

I’ve been fascinated by Russian history ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a schoolgirl – in English, I hasten to add. Then later when Dr Zhivago was made into a film it renewed my interest, especially in the Revolution and the terrible fate of the Tsar and his family, and the rumours that the Grand Duchess Anastasia had survived. A film was made about it and for a long time it was believed, but this has since been disproved with DNA tests. It was a time of such upheaval that people simply disappeared. The idea for a book simmered in my mind for a long time and, though I planned it out, I hesitated to begin writing for fear of biting off more than I could chew.

When I told my family about it, I began receiving books about Russia for birthday and Christmas presents. That set me collecting books to help with my research, until I had dozens of them. The more I read, the more I became immersed in the history and eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer and The Kirilov Star was born

My aristocratic family, distant relatives of the Tsar, are separated when trying to leave Russia during the civil war in 1920. The only survivor is four-year-old Lydia Kirillova, too young and too traumatised to tell anyone what happened and where she comes from.  She knows her name but the only other clue to her identity is a fabulous jewel sewn into her petticoat. She is taken to a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. He is left wondering what to do with her.

He could send her to a Russian orphanage, but they were notoriously dreadful places and for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock, it would be worse. He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland?

He decides to risk it and Lydia grows up in the privileged background of a stately home and seems content. But Kolya, another Russian émigré, sows the seeds of her discontent and persuades her to marry him and go back to Russia with him to look for her real parents. It is the biggest mistake of her life. Russia under Stalin is a dangerous place for an ex-aristocrat to be. Her husband leaves her for another woman, taking their son, Yuri, with him and she is trying to track him down when the second world war breaks out and her situation becomes desperate. She has left a good home and loving family to chase a dream which turns into a nightmare. She is forced to abandon her search and return to England and only much later when Stalin is dead and it becomes easier to travel is she able to resume her search for her son, helped by the man who has always been in the background of her life and has loved her for years. But when Yuri is finally found, the years apart and the different cultures are not so easy to bridge.

Having written it, I wanted someone who was familiar with the country and the times to look at it before I submitted it to my publisher. I was lucky. Two of the books I had used for my research were Moscow 1941 and Across the Moscow River, both by Sir Rodric Braithwaite who was British Ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and I wrote to him asking if he would take a look at the manuscript. It was a long shot but to my delight he agreed to do so and, besides making some very pertinent comments for which I was very grateful, told me my research had been very thorough and he had no quarrel with it. It just goes to show you should never be afraid to be adventurous. Most people I have approached with queries have been happy to oblige. Taking a chance paid off.

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Mary Nichols’s author website: www.marynichols.co.uk

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The Girl on the BeachEscape by MoonlightThe Summer HouseThe Kirilov Star     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

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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

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A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

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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

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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))

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On The Craft Of Writing A Novel, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing is a craft.  Inspiration and the ability to dream up a story are both essential, but the creation of a good historical novel – or any piece of writing – requires you to use words well.  The only way to hone this skill is to write frequently.  In many ways it does not matter too much what you write about.  Simply try to learn by a willingness to experiment and rewrite any piece of work, honing it gradually to make it better.  I have learned something about the craft of writing from my non fiction histories, and have aimed to make each one an improvement on the last in terms of style and structure.  When I came to try writing fiction, this did give me an established routine, as well as an idea of how to proof read, check and self-edit so that you can send a better prepared manuscript to the publisher.  In turn, writing novels has improved the pace and storytelling style of my non fiction.  Many journalists write novels and often do well because they already have this background of using words and writing to deadlines.

Yet writing a novel is a different thing to either media work or non fiction history, and such experience is a help, but also can be a hindrance.  My first efforts at an historical novel had far too many long passages that boiled down to little more than description of a scene – fine for straight history, but killing off the pace and weakening the story.  Some description is good, but a novel should read like a novel and not a history book.  So sometimes you have to change your approach quite drastically.  In a novel the characters need to do and say a lot more.  You also need to be far clearer about the good old ‘point of view’ – essentially from whose perspective we are ‘seeing’ a scene.

Try to help the reader as much as possible.  At a basic level this is a question of thinking about how easy the book will be to read.  So think about things like the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, and of chapters.  If someone is reading as they commute to work they are more likely to start a new chapter that is ten pages long than one that is thirty or so.  On the whole, keeping things fairly short helps the pace of the story, allowing readers to read more quickly, and so making it more likely that they will become involved with the story and want to read on.  On the other hand it is better not to make it look too regular with everything of the same sort of length.  The look of each page is also important.  Paragraph after paragraph of description can blur into one.  A mixture of short and long sentences and paragraphs, and particularly the insertion of dialogue in and around the description and action will read better.

All of these things you learn by experimentation and experience.  Planning your story is fine and often well worth while, but it is a rare author who will plan absolutely everything before they sit down and start to write.  As the months and years pile up and you are still planning and researching it will become harder and harder to sit down and begin writing.  It is far better to start writing something, even if it is very rough.  It is easy to change it and may even find that you reject the whole thing and start again, but having to think about the story and characters in a concrete way will have helped you to think it all through far more than simply planning and musing over it.

You can also learn from other people’s experience by taking a look at whatever you are reading and looking at how they lay things out and tell the story.  Even more importantly, at some stage get a few people to read your work.  They need to be honest, and you need to be prepared to accept criticism of your cherished work, however much this may – and almost certainly will – sting.  People who come fresh to a story will react to it in a very different way to its creator.  Remember that you have spent a very long time living with this story and it will all seem clear to you.  It is extremely valuable to get a response from someone who does not know who the characters are or what they are doing.  After all, you will always know what you MEANT to say, and that can make it very hard to check your own work and see whether or not this is clear to the reader.  (As an aside, reading the text out loud can be a more effective way of checking your own work than reading it silently because it forces you to pay more attention to each word).

Practise, think about words and layout, and be prepared to be utterly ruthless in changing your work, rejecting passages if they do not need to be there.  This can be hard, as it is easy to become fond of particular scenes or bits of dialogue.  Constructive criticism is of great value, and a good editor who understands what you are trying to do is priceless.  All of us have to learn, and it is wise to take advantage of advice from others.  That does not mean that you have to accept absolutely every suggested change, only that you should only reject them if you are absolutely convinced that it is vital to leave things as they are.  In the end, it is important to write your book in your way.

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

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True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)The Keeper of SecretsHannibal: Enemy of RomeThe Sultan's Wife

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Month In Review (October 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its tenth month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

Writing Historical Novels contributors Ben Kane, Anthony Riches and Paul Dowswell are each attached to two novel writing retreats in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for October 2013

Losing The Plot When Writing A Novel by Ben Kane

Why I Have Not Yet Set A Novel Where I Live by Stephanie Cowell

On Procrastination As A Writer by Anthony Riches

Writing Dialogue In Historical Novels by Adrian Goldsworthy

Location Research In Morocco To Write A Novel (Part 2) by Jane Johnson

Historical Settings And Novel Writing by Emma Darwin

On Promoting Yourself And Your Books by Julian Stockwin

On Methods Of Travel In History (And Historical Fiction) by Anne Perry

My Favorite Historical Novels by DE Johnson

Mixing Real People And Imaginary Characters In Historical Novels by Michael White

Naming British Characters And Places In Historical Novels by Judith Cutler

On Writing A Historical Novel About Catherine The Great by Eva Stachniak

Life As A Novelist by William Dietrich

Writing Historical Romance Novels For Mills & Boon by Mary Nichols

Avoiding Anachronisms And Cliches In Historical Fiction by Gary Worthington

Writing Characters In Children’s Historical Novels by Kathleen Benner Duble

Why Read Historical Novels? by Paul Dowswell

Rudyard Kipling’s Novel ‘Kim’ by Timeri Murari

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Establishing Time And Place In Novel Scenes, by Anne Perry

The reader needs to know as soon as possible, at least roughly, when and where the story is taking place.  Unless told otherwise, we tend to make assumptions and then are put off if they turn out to be wrong.  If we are drawn into the story, we picture the people and the places, probably drawing on what is familiar to us already, and invest the characters with our own feelings.  It breaks the emotional link if we have to rub it out and start over again.

There are ways of telling the reader.  Some are very unsubtle, like putting up a heading, e.g. Berlin, 9th November, 1938.  That tells you something very precise, but does it make the hair stand up on the back of your neck?  It does if you know that it was a night of horror that has become known in history as ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, a turning point in the persecution of Jews just before World War ll.  We are not all historians, nor do we all have memories with such exact retention.  Anyway, telegraphing it ahead like that is a bit clunky.  It is better to feel it, and there are several ways to achieve that.  We need not only to know, we need to feel it, and to care.

An observation about clothes can help.  Is your hero wearing breeches?  Or a toga?  Chain mail armour?  A military redcoat?  A burnouse?  Has your heroine a puritan collar, a lace ruff, a farthingale, a floor-length gown by Balenciaga?  And so on.  Such things can also give useful information like occupation or social class – not to mention sartorial taste!

Transport can be very telling, particularly the time it takes to get from one place to another.  A car?  What make, and what speed?  A hansom cab?  A post chaise?  A fiacre (you don’t get many of them!)  A sedan chair?  A tumbril (don’t get many of them either, thank goodness!)  Trains – The Flying Scotsman or The Orient Express?  An Aeroplane?  What is the condition of the roads – indeed, are there any?  (Signposts are a bit of an obvious device.)

Street lights?  Gas or electric?  Lanterns?  Rush torches with tar and flames?

What can you hear?  Wind, waves, machinery?  What can you smell?  (You don’t need to be too graphic about that!  We have less tolerance to bad smells than we used to.)

Domestic surroundings can be pretty good, such as furniture, fabrics, lighting and types of fireplace.  Are there windows, and do they have glass in them?  You can use any of these (but not all of them!), without it clogging up your first few paragraphs.  Domestic equipment can be excellent.  Use the flat iron while you are having a vital conversation!  Or stoke the fire, do the laundry, vacuum the floor etc.  Do you turn on the tap for water, or go out to the pump in the yard, or fetch from the well.  That will ground you in the here and now – or the there and then, as the case may be.

Food is good too, it can be very particular to time and place, and social position.  What is for breakfast, and do you make it for yourself?  Porridge, then devilled kidneys, tea, toast and bitter marmalade?  Or pancakes and maple syrup, OJ to drink?  Fresh croissants and a small, strong coffee?  You get the idea.  The reader is informed by tasting, seeing as the characters do.  They are not told where they are, they simply feel it.  Exactness can come later, when it is needed and fits in naturally.  Enjoy your journey.

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Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk

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Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionA Christmas Homecoming     Spartacus: The GladiatorThe Sultan's Wife

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