Writing Historical Fiction

I finished the first draft of Making Bombs For Hitler in February and I’ve gone through two substantive edits since then. It is scheduled to be published by Scholastic in 2012. That first draft took four intense months. The edits were easier, thanks to SB, my fabulous editor!

Many people are daunted at the prospect of writing historical fiction. Here are some suggestions on how to begin:

Do preliminary research of the era you want to write about and try to imagine yourself living in that time. Non-fiction children’s books are a great preliminary research tool. Also encyclopedias and textbooks. At this stage you just want to gather enough background to get the general lay of the land.

In order to come up with a premise for a novel, ask yourself: What would happen if…

Think in terms of a dilemma for a person in your historical era.

As an example, for my 2008 Armenian genocide novel Daughter of War, the question was: If you were pregnant by rape but survived a genocide, would you want your fiance to find you?

If you can’t boil your novel idea down into a question like that, it’s too unwieldy a concept.

Do an outline. I hate outlines, but it is amazing what you can pre-organize by doing a one or two page point form plotting of your entire novel.

Try writing a sample chapter or two. This will help you narrow down the point of view, as well as voice and tone.

After you’ve done the outline and initial chapters, do more research.

Do read memoirs, diaries, newspaper articles, recordings, interviews, maps, city directories of your era. Look at photographs. If people are still alive, talk to them.

Do not read novels set during your era. If you do that, you may unconsciously pick up inaccurate bits, or you could unwittingly copy the author’s style or turns of phrase.

Try to get opposing points of view of the same situation. As an example, when I was researching Daughter of War, I consulted both Armenian and Turkish memoirs, as well as those of missionaries and medical personnel of the time. Inter-library loan and abebooks.com are great resources for this sort of item.

Over-researching is great procrastination technique. Not only do you waste time, but you’ll also be tempted to use everything you learn, which makes for a very boring novel.

I like to do commando research — ie — only as much as I’ll need for the next 20 pages or so. When I dry out, I do more research.

Now start writing!

Think in terms of scenes. You don’t have to write the story in order. I like to start with the scene that is most vivid in my imagination. As I write each scene, I decide whether it comes before or after that first one. As the writing continues, the story develops like raindrops forming a puddle. Don’t worry about sticking to your outline. Let your characters take you to new places.

Goal one is to get the first draft finished.

Set yourself a schedule. It might be to write one new page a day, or maybe to write just one new paragraph a day. I like to write one scene a day. Butt in chair (or feet under tread desk) and get those words out. Don’t get up (or get off) til your goal is achieved.

Don’t give in to excuses. The most lame one is that you’re too busy to write. Writing can be done in a steno pad while waiting in line at the grocery store or watching your kids play baseball, or on the subway. My favourite writing place is at an airport.

Do not keep going back to page one in an attempt to make it perfect. That is just a procrastination technique. First drafts aren’t supposed to be perfect.

Once you finish your first draft reward yourself!

It is a huge achievement to be able to write The End. Go to the movies, Eat chocolate. Drink wine.

Let that first draft cool off for a couple of days before looking at it again. Once you’ve given your brain a chance to clear, print your draft and read it aloud, carefully, a few pages at a time. You will be amazed at what you can catch when you speak your words and read them on paper instead of the screen.

There are many more steps to revision, but that’s another post.