Where Dreams Meet the Business of Writing

Posts tagged ‘writing historical fiction’

Memories and Recollections

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Today, introduces the letter M.

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Memories and Recollections

The excerpt below doesn’t deal specifically with writing historical fiction. It’s from a workbook I created for a class I was teaching on writing your family stories. However, since we often refer to people’s memories of a time past when we’re researching for writing historical fiction, I thought the topic would apply to our roles as historical fiction authors.

Memory

Whether we are writing memoir, historic documentation of a family history, or creating a fictional tale based on true beginnings, we rely heavily on memory – which has been proven to be imperfect.

Our own memories, even though we think we have perfect recall, may err drastically from the truth of what actually happened. The family members that we interview may be spot on in the memories they think of to tell you. Or, those moments may have been distorted by the passage of time and the many experiences that have occurred since.

A lot may vary just because of our own individual perceptions of an event. I was talking to a co-worker about this subject one day. There were three of us in the room discussing some now-forgotten work drama and how another employee’s version of what happened differed so drastically from theirs.

I commented that even if someone came in immediately after our conversation and recorded details about what happened – they’d get three different stories. There may be much in common, but we all pay attention to different details. One will recall the conversation with more accuracy. Another may not remember much at all because their mind was far away, dwelling on one of their own problems and they weren’t paying attention. Another may remember the clothing that was worn, or the perfume that filled the room, while with someone else the clothing or its color may not have even registered.

Next, add ten, twenty, or sixty years to the timeline. How accurate is that memory going to be?

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach tells a story that his sister likes to frequently re-tell. It involves a younger brother, sucking on a blue toy bolt until it stuck to his lip. The sister finally wrestled it off and when it came loose the younger brother’s lip swelled to tremendous proportions and everyone freaked.

Except…the author claims that his sister wasn’t there. He was. The bolt was yellow, not blue. And he and his mother both laughed about it. He writes,

“Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memory. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying.”

He also writes,

“Even facts distort: What’s remembered, recorded, is never the event itself, no matter how precise the measurement…”

Just be aware that our individual perceptions and the passage of time may alter what we try to convey as historical fact. Sometimes a bit of a disclaimer worked into the narrative may help smooth over some of the possible differences in account.

  • As far as I recollect…
  • The conversation went something like…
  • My ex – let’s call him Doofus James…
  • The story of how he got his first job bootlegging may be lost, but one can assume…
  • Though the details have been lost through the years, it most likely…

All in all, since we’re most likely not out looking for journalistic awards for this work, the important thing to know is that recording our family’s legacy is what’s important. As Carol Lachappelle, in Finding Your Voice Telling Your Stories, shares: The poet Anne Sexton wrote, “It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”

Killers of the Stealthy Kind

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter K.

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Killers of the Stealthy Kind

I made my list of A to Z topics in January, way ahead of when I needed them so I could be working on my posts slowly. Looking for a difficult K word, I came up with this title – intending the post to be about smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis in a historical sense, since we are thinking about topics in the contest of writing historical fiction.

I did NOT expect to be quarantined under Stay at Home orders because of the Coronavirus by the time I needed to post this K blog! A topic that seemed to be historical in nature is now current daily news.

Jude Knight writes about smallpox on a post entitled: The Greatest Killer

For at least 3,000 and perhaps as much as 6,000 years, smallpox was one of the world’s deadliest diseases. In countries where it was endemic, it was a disease of childhood, killing up to 80% of children infected. A person fortunate to escape infection in childhood who then caught the virus as an adult, had a 30% chance of dying. Either way, those who survived the disease were left with lifelong scars but also with lifelong immunity, so they could neither catch the disease nor transmit it to others.

Transmission was from person to person, including from droplets in the air from sneezing, coughing, or even breathing. Worse, body fluids on things like clothing or bedding could carry live viruses.

Tuberculosis had its own reign as a killer to be feared. Fortunately, for those of us living today, although the disease does still exist, it is rare and mostly treatable.

History of TB in the 17th Century

Although Tuberculosis was present in Europe in the middle Ages, it was in the seventeenth century that the disease reached astounding epidemic proportions. By the mid seventeenth century it was recorded in the London Bills of Mortality that one in five of the deaths in the city was due to consumption. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in England, like the other great towns and cities of Europe and America, it swept on in a continuing epidemic of such monstrous proportion, the disease was called the White Plague of Europe. But the history of TB is that in the later part of the 17th century Tuberculosis mortality slowly decreased.

In 1650 doubts had been expressed as to the contagiousness of phthisis, by the faculty of Paris. Soon TB spread over Northern Europe. Northern physicians seem to have been led to believe that the disease was due to a constitutional hereditary defect rather than due to contagion by the fact that it was particularly common and severe in certain families.10

In 1679 Sylvius de la Boe, an Amsterdam physician, in his work Opera Medica, was probably the first to use the term tubercles in phthisis of the lung which he called tubercula glandulosa. In addition Sylvius described the association between phthisis and a disease of the lymph glands of the neck called scrofula.

When I was researching for Fat and Sassy, I found where the flu epidemic in 1918 closed churches, schools, and libraries. In Glendora, California, all library books returned from infected homes were wrapped and stored for one year without being touched. I thought this was fascinating. I wanted to include it in my book, but my timeline was more 1940s, not 1918. So, I created a scene where my mom’s class took a trip to the library. (The joys of the fictional part of historical fiction!) The librarian then mentioned these facts in the talk she gave to the class. (You can read that snippet on a blog post here.)

I have since discovered that while reading about this situation several years ago was fascinating, I’d much rather READ about something like this than to LIVE it.

Getting the Details Right

Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter G.

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Getting the Details Right

One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction is getting the details right. Not simply ‘right’ as in accurate, but right as in the amount of detail that you include in your manuscript also.

This is always the challenge. It’s like walking a balance beam between two points. We need to include enough details to bring a sense of the setting and the time into the story. We need enough to make the reader feel that they’re seeing the story unfold before their eyes. We need to make the story authentic and believable.

But we also don’t need to include so much detail that it’s as if we’re writing a non-fictional narrative about the time, including every piece of information that we’ve learned in our marvelous foray into the researching rabbit hole.

Juggling between these two is the where the art of historical fiction lies.

I can’t claim to be an expert on this. I’m learning more. Day by day. Week by week. Year by year. But I am far from the ultimate source of knowledge. Probably twenty years from now I’ll still be in a learning curve.

To explain better, here are some words from Elizabeth Crook that sums up the predicament perfectly. They’re from her article, Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction.

Rule #2: Dump the Ballast.
In order to write authentic historical fiction you must know a period of time well enough to disappear daily through a wormhole to the past and arrive at the location of your story. There you must understand the customs and use the manners perfectly enough to be accepted by people walking the streets (if there are streets) and to dress yourself, and make a living. This said, the major trick of writing good historical fiction is not in compiling research or knowing the details, but in knowing the details to leave out. Try to avoid overwriting. Keep perspective on what will interest the reader. Historical fiction writers tend to be overly conscientious and excited by minutia: if you succumb to excess, and put in too much detail, then go back later and take some of it out. Think of your novel as a boat that is about to sink from having too much weight on board: some of the loved items will have to go. Toss them over with impunity! Throw them out! If a rare, surprising statistic, or a moving anecdote, or an obscure reference you saw to an interesting thing that happened in the county adjacent to the one where your story takes place, does not advance your plot or provide your reader with important information about your characters, then it is irrelevant to your story and must go overboard.

Keep in mind that the care, and time, it took to assemble all that you have just thrown out has not been wasted. It was necessary to gather these facts and assess their worth in order to know which ones to save.

One step at a time. One rule at a time. One lesson at a time. Coupled with practice, practice, practice – write, write, write. And we get better with each paragraph, with each page. Our stories become more polished. The details we include become so seamlessly interwoven into our tales and our readers beg us for more. Then…we’ll know we’ve gotten the details right.

Fightin’ Forties – Rationing

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter F.

Fightin’ Forties – Rationing

rationing

Wessel’s Living History Farm’s web site is chock full of information and video recordings about farming life in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Here are some snippets of what they have to say about rationing, a wartime part of life that our country had to live with for many years.

If you have internet access, check out their page at:
http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/life_08.html

Just a word of warning, you’ll probably get lost there for several hours reading up on the fascinating tidbits and listening to the live interviews they have on a vast variety of old-time subjects.

“During the Depression of the 1930s, Americans “did without” because they didn’t have jobs to buy food and clothing. During World War II, Americans again “did without,” this time because of the war effort. Rationing affected rural America particularly.

The federal government set up a rationing system in 1942 and limited purchases of sugar, coffee, meat, fish, butter, eggs, cheese, shoes, rubber and gasoline. Silk and newly invented nylon were used to produce parachutes, and so women around the world found it hard to get fashion stockings.

Other commodities were in short supply because trade routes were disrupted. Shellac, for instance, was produced in India and was used for building products and music record discs. Because of the war in Asia, trade with India was disrupted, and so new records were hard to come by.”

“Farm production, however, was vital to the war effort, so farmers got extra rations of gasoline and other staples. Yet, it was hard to get new machinery as factories were retooled to produce tanks rather than tractors.”

“Here’s how rationing worked: Each member of the household got a ration booklet, usually distributed at the local school. Each booklet had stamps in it that translated into a certain amount of the commodity being rationed. For instance, there were only enough stamps for one person to buy 28 ounces of meat per week, 4 ounces per day. Merchants collected the stamps when you bought something, and when the stamps were gone so was the item for that week.”

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Edwardian Era

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter E.

Edwardian Era

As historical fiction authors, many of us are drawn to certain eras or decades to set our tales in. And some hop about in time, effortlessly moving from one period to another without a hitch. In looking at different time periods, and as today is an ‘E’ day, we’re taking a peek at the Edwardian Era.

While a shorter time period, and not as well known as the Victorian Era, the changes that took place in this time are necessary to know if you’re going to set a story here. The Victorian period covered a longer span of time – from 1837 to 1901, the years Queen Victoria was on the throne. The Edwardian Era, the time her son King Edward VII reigned, was from 1901 to 1910, sometimes extending to the start of The Great War (WWI).

So, what was different between these two eras? Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian Era as “a leisurely time when women wore picture hands and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.”

During this time, women still wore very tight corsets, or bodices, and dressed in long skirts. However, this was the last time when women wore corsets in everyday life. When more afternoon tea parties began being held, especially in the upper classes, corsets fell out of fashion and flowing feminine gowns decorated with lace, tulle and feather boas became the rage. Long kid gloves, flat pancake hats- bigger in size and decorated with feathers and plumes- and lace embellished parasols were more popular than the heavier, ankle-length, dark velvet gowns of the Victorian Era.

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A cartoon in Punch (1911) compares changes in fashion between 1901 and 1911. “The dowdy voluminous clothes of the earlier date, making the grandmother an old lady and the mother seem plain, had been replaced by much simpler looser wear producing a sense of release for all three females. (From Wikipedia)

Women’s suffrage societies and marches saw a proliferation during these years. The campaigning became more noticeable and large parades were common, despite women often being arrested at these events. The visibility of the cause seemed to energize the movement, which is a whole entire topic on its own.

Literature began to change during these years. Novels and short stories proliferated and popular genres seemed to morph from ‘highbrow literature’ to popular fiction. Many authors that wrote during this time are still popular and well known names today, such as Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, James Joyce, Beatrix Potter, George Bernard Shaw, and others.

One site, Two Worlds, posted a piece about ‘A look at the Edwardian Era and World War I.’ Their take of how the Edwardian Era was different from the Victorian Era sums it up as this:

“So the difference between the Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era in its strictest meaning, is that the Victorian Era was the time in which Victoria was on the throne (1837-1901) and the Edwardian Era was the time in which her son, Edward VII was on the throne (1901-1910). But as history tells us, the spirit of the age is what defines an era, not just the monarch. There are some things that both eras have in common, but there are some major differences. The Edwardian Era was different in its morals, having a more lax standard in its code of conduct, compared to Victorian society, which was incredibly conservative. Furthermore, the Edwardian Era is when we start to see more and more implementation of the standard inventions used in our modern world today. By the late 1890’s it became more common for homes of the middle to upper class to have electricity, phones, indoor plumbing, and even a car. These are but just a few examples of course, but the Edwardian Era is one of the finest examples in modern history of an era truly in the crux of two very different worlds.”

Does all of this give us all we need to know to go write a story set in Edwardian times? No, definitely not. There’s still a lot of research needed. But hopefully this gives you a few clues about pieces you’ll need to research and know to incorporate tidbits into your tale, making for a believable and enjoyable story.

Happy writing – in whatever era you choose to write about!

 

If you want to know more about what it was like living in these years, there’s a video segment on YouTube, filmed in 1973, where Mary Parkinson chats with three ladies who grew up at the turn of the century as they discuss what Christmas’ were just after the turn of the century. Christmas in early times

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Characters from Real Life

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduce the letter C.

Characters from Real Life

characters

As authors, this is a common procedure. The characters in our tales often inherit some semblance of traits from those in our real-life sphere. It may only be in bits and pieces – one quality from one person, the persona of another, the looks of still another. We whip the fragments together as if in an authorly blender and, voila. Presto! A new person exists.

Sometimes the attributes of our fictional – or not so fictional – characters are even less disguised.

This practice of borrowing snippets from our everyday life to infuse our writing with realistic people or places is not a new occurrence. Charles Dickens also ‘borrowed’ parts of his real-life experience for his stories and books.

In Shmoop’s study guide on Charles Dickens, they report that Dickens met Maria Beadnell in 1830 and fell in love. Apparently, Maria’s parents were well-to-do and weren’t enamored with the barely 18-year old young Dickens who was working as a freelance reporter at that time. They sent Maria off to school in Paris in their attempt to discourage the young couple. Their efforts succeeded and the relationship ended in 1833. However, it appears that Maria appeared again twenty years later “in Dickens’s thinly-veiled, not-so-nice portrayal of her in Little Dorrit.”

However, according to Wikipedia, it reports that “…his first love, Maria Beadnell, thought to have been the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield.”

Not having read either work, I’m not qualified to agree or dispute either claim. But, now I’m intrigued and may look both works up to see if the characters in both books are similar or not.

In The Life of Charles Dickens, he does admit to using a real name in Oliver Twist. “One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and typing the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”

Another young woman showed up in several of Dickens’ characters. After he married Catherine Hogarth (Kate) and they started their family, Dickens’ brother, Frederick, and Catherine’s sister, Mary, moved in with them. Dickens was fond of his 17-year old sister-in-law, and grieved for her after she died in his arms after a brief illness in 1837.

“Dickens idealized Mary – the character he fashioned after her, Rose Maylie, he found he could not now kill, as he had planned, in his fiction, and, according to Ackroyd, he drew on memories of her for his later descriptions of Little Nell and Florence Dombey.”

If Dickens can do it, so can we. Although, I have a feeling we authors are already ‘borrowing’ from real life without Dickens’ permission. Maybe we shouldn’t give away our trade secrets though. Now, the people we know will be reading our works with a closer eye and wondering…Hmmmm, is this me?

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Building a Log Cabin

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduce the letter B.

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Building a Log Cabin

We’re historical fiction authors. We don’t need to know how to build a log cabin.

That’s what I thought. Until I started plotting out my next book. Goss Hollow is loosely set around my great-great-great-great-Grandma, Martha “Patsy” Goss. She, along with her husband, Benjamin Franklin Goss, and several grown children and grandchildren, left Georgia in a wagon train in 1851 and moved to Big Fork, Arkansas.

Building a log cabin is not necessarily part of the overall plot – but, it is part of their everyday life. As the wagon train arrived at the 40 acres B.F. Goss’s father, Thomas Goss, won in a land lottery in 1832, this activity would have been one of their primary first duties. They needed to build shelter for their families in these dense, wooded Ozark hills.

I discovered that while I didn’t need to learn every aspect about building a log cabin, there were some features that I needed to find out so in order to create a believable story.

  • How long did it take?
  • How did they cut the logs?
  • How were they put together?
  • Were some logs preferred over others?
  • What kind of structure did it make for the family to live in?
  • How did living in a log cabin (few windows, large chinks between the logs, drafty, cold in severe winters etc.) affect their day-today life?

I’m still researching and don’t have all the answers I want to have yet. But it’s okay. I’m only about 2,000 words into the story and the family is still living in Georgia. But I did discover some fun pieces of information. So, if you’re an author writing a pioneer type story, or will have a character building a log cabin, here’s a few snippets and links for you.

Ducksters, an education site geared towards children has these fun facts.

Interesting Facts about the Log Cabin

  • The first log cabins in the Americas were built by emigrants from Sweden and Finland. Log cabins had been built in these countries for thousands of years.
  • One man working alone could build a small log cabin in a few weeks. It went much faster if he had help.
  • If the roof was high enough, the pioneers often built a loft where someone could sleep.
  • A flat stone was often placed at each corner of the log cabin to give the cabin a firm foundation.
  • The doors to log cabins were usually built facing the south. This allowed the sun to shine into the cabin during the day.

Judith Flanders wrote an excellent article, Log Cabin History: The Secrets of Making a Home. In it, she shares a more detailed history about the log cabin styled homes and also about the earlier days of America. For instance, she tells that only one home in six owned a spinning wheel, which was interesting to me. Somehow, I pictured every early American woman sitting around in the evening working on her wheel.

She also tells that Lincoln Logs, the children’s building blocks we children spent many an hour creating magnificent structures with, were first produced in 1916. I had no idea they’d been around for so long. I also didn’t know that they were designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s son. The things one can discover when they’re not in search of that specific information!

What I was most excited to find was this description of log cabin living, written in 1822. National Center posted it. Here’s an excerpt:

…We had a window, if it could be called a window, when, perhaps, it was the largest spot in the top, bottom, or sides of the cabin at which the wind could not enter. It was made by sawing out a log, and placing sticks across; and then, by pasting an old newspaper over the hole, and applying some hog’s lard, we had a kind of glazing which shed a most beautiful and mellow light across the cabin when the sun shone on it. All other light entered at the doors, cracks, and chimney.

Our cabin was twenty-four feet by eighteen. The west end was occupied by two beds, the center of each side by a door, and here our symmetry had to stop, for on the side opposite the window were our shelves, made of clapboards, supported on pins driven into the logs. Upon these shelves my sister displayed, in ample order, a host of pewter plates, basins, dishes, and spoons, scoured and bright. It was none of your new-fangled pewter made of lead, but the best of London pewter, which our father himself bought of the manufacturer. These were the plates upon which you could hold your meat so as to cut it without slipping and without dulling your knife. But, alas! the days of pewter plates and sharp dinner knives have passed away.

To return to our internal arrangements. A ladder of five rounds occupied the corner near the window. By this, when we got a floor above, we could ascend. Our chimney occupied most of the east end; there were pots and kettles opposite the window under the shelves, a gun on hooks over the north door, four split-bottom chairs, three three-legged stools, and a small eight by ten looking-glass sloped from the wall over a large towel and combcase. Our list of furniture was increased by a clumsy shovel and a pair of tongs, made with one shank straight, which was a certain source of pinches and blood blisters. We had also a spinning-wheel and such things as were necessary to work it. It was absolutely necessary to have three-legged stools, as four legs of anything could not all touch the floor at the same time…

Although by now I’ve probably share more than you’ll ever want to know about building a log cabin, here’s a fun little video to watch. It’s a short 5-minute time lapse video that shows one man building a log cabin by himself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmYCUljsrDg

Now the test begins, to see if I’ll be able to take this new-found knowledge and incorporate the snippets into Goss Hollow in a realistic manner. We’ll find out at the end of the year when I finish the book.

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Living in the Past

iwsg

Today I’m writing for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s blog hop. The first Wednesday of each month, we write in inspiration to a question posed by the group’s administrators. We don’t need to write in response to the question posed, but I like to use their query as the springboard for the monthly post.

This month the OPTIONAL IWSG Day Question is: Of all the genres you read and write, which is your favorite to write in and why?

The awesome co-hosts for the June 5 posting of the IWSG are Diane Burton, Kim Lajevardi, Sylvia Ney, Sarah Foster, Jennifer Hawes, and Madeline Mora-Summonte!

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Living in the Past

In true Gemini eclectic fashion, I read and write in many genres. A little children’s. A little contemporary. I dabbled with some romance that didn’t go too far. I plotted out a mystery – or rather, started plotting out a mystery. Lots of nonfiction and magazine articles get their share of keyboard time. But my all-time favorite genre? The one that sings its siren song, luring me to its shores?

Historical fiction. The days of the past. The eras long gone. Those are the stories that I long to tell.

Sometimes an old vintage photograph kicks off the tale. Many times an old postcard. A name inscribed on the flyleaf of a hundred year old book. Sometimes it’s simply touching an embroidered piece that starts the story unraveling. I touch the threads that an unknown woman touched fifty, eighty, or a hundred years ago. My mind drifts and I wonder…Who made this? What was she like? What were her hopes and dreams? What was her life like?

That’s all it takes. In a flash I’m living in the past. I dropped into 1850, or 1910, or 1934.

Who needs Marty McFly and his time-traveling DeLorean? All I need to teleport me to another time is a dish, a cookbook, a photograph, or some other memorabilia that began its life many years before I drew my first breath.

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Any other historical fiction authors here? In April I started a weekly newsletter – Pages of the Past – celebrating historical fiction. Each week I have an author spotlight on a historical fiction author, along with a Reading Roundup of 2-3 books from different eras. If you’re an author and are interested in being interviewed for an author spotlight, email me at texastrishafaye@yahoo.com. Right now, I’m scheduling authors for July and August. Also, if you have any books you’d like featured, email me and let me know and I’ll get it scheduled into the next newsletter for that era.

If you’d like to take a look to see if you’re interested, here’s a link to the May 31st newsletter.

 

Language and Idioms

Join us in the 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge as we celebrate historical fiction. These posts will also be shared in the weekly newsletter, Pages of the Past, which debuted April 5th.

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Language and Idioms

Was It Even Used Then?

Words and phrase can be something that easily trips up historical fiction authors. Common phrases used today can easily sneak into our period writing. I was caught on this just last week. I brought a snippet from an early 1930’s short story to my writing group. In it, the characters went to one of the just released Shirley Temple movies. One of the members asked, “Would they have called it ‘the movies’? I remember my Grandma always talking about going to the ‘picture shows’.” Yikes! She caught a good one, one that had slipped by me completely.

Granted, some instances are fairly minor and may not raise many issues with readers. But sometimes it can be a glaring problem. I’ve also seen where readers report that an issue was major enough that they shut the book and don’t read any further.

What do you do if you’re unsure? One of my favorite sites is the Online Etymology Dictionary. You can search a word for its earliest known use. For instance, if I type in ‘heebie-jeebies’, I learn:

heebie-jeebies (n.)

1923, said to have been coined by U.S. cartoonist Billy De Beck (1890-1942), creator of “Barney Google.”

So, I can definitely use this in my short story set in 1928. While the word most likely wouldn’t have been used in 1922, if I’m writing a tale set in that year, I can probably still get by with it. It’s going to be close enough to the time period that most readers would still feel as if they’re in the time. However, Mittie Ann, the girl that came to Texas in the 1850’s in a covered wagon definitely wouldn’t have used that phrase.

How Much Period Language to Use

Another part of language that becomes a balancing act is how much period language to use. M.K. Tod, on A Writer of History, speaks of using dialogue in historical fiction. He writes:

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

In ‘7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity’, Susanna Calkins, with a Ph.D. in history, talked about how accurate her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, was going to be. She wrote:

When I was first dreaming about my story, even before I had worked out the plot or characters, I knew one thing for sure: By gum, this novel would be accurate. Every detail, every word, would be accurate. Historians everywhere would use my book in their classes and would revel in my accurate tale.

That idea lasted about two seconds.

Not only would using accurate language make my story unnecessarily pendantic and cumbersome, but many seventeenth-century words and phrases don’t translate readily today. Certainly I could say “The footpad bit the Roger, tipped the cole to Adam Tyler, and then took it to a stauling ken.” But I have a feeling modern readers might not understand that I was saying that a thief has stolen a bag, passed it to a fence, who in turn sold it to a house that receives stolen goods. Unless my editor let me write a companion volume with glossary and explanatory footnotes, this isn’t too feasible.

Just as in life, where sometimes an issue becomes a balancing act, so is it in writing historical fiction. We need to use enough language of the times, to help frame the time period and help the reader feel as if they’re really there in the midst of the tale, without being so accurate that as Susanna Calkins says, it becomes “pendantic and cumbersome.” And, we also want to make sure that the phrases we’re using to help set the tone of the story are accurate and of the period we’re writing.

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Ideas

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Ideas

The elusive story ideas – where do they lay in wait, ready to spring forth and germinate? They surround us. Ideas for historical stories, too. For what is historical fiction but a story that’s set in the past instead of current or future times.

Many writers I talk to have an abundance of story ideas. They complain instead of not having enough time to write the stories they want to. I commiserate with them. I, too, have more ideas in mind than I’ll probably ever finish. About three years ago I finally put them together in a document and named it ‘Backburner Books’. A lady I spoke with last week keeps her ideas on index cards. And the massive pile of cards is threatening to collapse.

But yet, there are times when despite the wealth of ideas that swirls in an eddy around our existence, we have trouble coming up with an idea. Here’s a few places where I find ideas for plots, characters, or settings.

Cemeteries: I love visiting cemeteries. The older the better. Often as I’m wandering through the graves, I’ll spot an intriguing name that leads down the path to a story. I met Mittie Ann at Medlin Cemetery in Trophy Club, Texas. I’ve wanted to write her story since, and I have a notebook full of Medlin research. I’ve written some short stories and articles about her, yet the book remains on my ‘Backburner’ list. Through my research I also discovered other fascinating women that I’d love to write about. Some day.

Vintage Items: A trip to an antique store, museum, or merely perusing all the collectibles and antiques that fill my shelves hands me more story ideas that I can write in a year. I finger the embroidered dishtowels made from feed sacks and wonder about the woman that made them so many years ago. ‘Don’t Call my Handiwork Frivolous’ won first place and got me a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card at our local writer’s conference last year. A name on a flyleaf in a vintage book led to another story. A depression-era milk glass candy dish started off another tale. Old cookbooks – I’ve written more than one story using a vintage cookbook as the jumping off point to start a new tale.

Photographs and Postcards: That’s all I need is a handful of old photographs and postcards and I’m off and running. An added plus, is that they’re in my budget. But with the internet now, you don’t even need to actually purchase them. All you need is for the photos or postcards to spark an idea.

Research: Ah, the rabbit hole of research – so much fun. When I surface sometimes days later, I not only have the research I was after for my current idea (sometimes, often I’m still lacking and need more!), but I come out with another handful of ideas for other stories or books.

Chance or overheard conversations: Sometimes all you need is a chance conversation, or an overheard snippet, and *whammo* you’re off and running. What if….? If he or she said….

Old Publications: Old newspapers or magazines provide awesome story ideas. I had a copy of some 1904 issues of Horticulture magazine. When I was browsing through them, I found a fascinating report of a Mr. Lawson that feigned grief over his wife’s demise to get a floral pillow delivered. Imagine the florist’s surprise when a very much alive Mrs. Lawson opened the door. Mr. Lawson was sentenced to a month in the House of Correction over the charge of the larceny of one bunch of Lawson pinks. I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind and a short story, William’s Blunder, was born.

Television Shows or Movies: Sometimes one scene or one line will prompt a whole scenario in your brain. Not a replica of the show or movie that you’re watching, but an idea can germinate from your entertainment. One of my favorites is Josh Gates in Expedition Unknown. Oh my! The fascinating snippets of information that he unearths and the unique places he visits, and amazing people that he finds. After watching one of his hour long shows I have another few leads to either write about, or work into one of my current works in some way. I often joke that I want his job. Until we reach an episode where he’s eating bugs or other drinking some unimaginable concoction – or diving in frigid water that will kill you in less than a number of minutes if you didn’t have the proper gear. Then, I’m perfectly fine sitting at home behind my computer writing stories about people, places, and items from the past.

 

Here’s a link with some wonderful writing prompts and ideas for historical fiction writers. I haven’t used any of these yet, but there’s easily a half dozen photographs that I’m dying to use in some way.

https://thejohnfox.com/2016/06/historical-fiction-writing-prompts-and-ideas/

Ana Howard wrote a nice article – 5 Tips: Gathering Ideas for Historical Fiction

https://www.editing-writing.com/5-tips-historical-fiction-writing/

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