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Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's All In The Details, Part 2: Research Tips from Heather B. Moore

I'll have to be honest, I'm not a ancient history type person, so although I knew about Heather and that she was a good writer, I never picked up one of her books -- until the Timeless Romance Anthology came along. Heather's short story, set in New York in 1901 hooked me from the moment I read 1901. I love -- adore -- that era. I've set one book in San Francisco around that time and I'm working on a novella set in 1894.

Heather has just released HEART OF THE OCEAN, available on Amazon for a mere $3.99. So I asked Heather to drop by the blog and give some tips on writing historical fiction:

From FreeDigitalPhotos.net (c) imagerymajestic
Writing historical novels can be exciting because they continue to sell well, primarily because we want to learn from the past, we want to know where we came from, and we want to know why and how things happened. The key ingredient in writing historical fiction is research. Yeah, it’s a hefty word, but I’m going to break it down so that it can be educational and exciting at the same time. Readers expect MORE out of a historical novel. They expect to be transported to another place and time. They want to learn. So, yes, this becomes your job when writing historical novels.
1. Choose your time period.
My advice: “Write what you enjoy reading about.” Then the research will be interesting to you. Please know that most successful historical novels are connected to a major historical event. Think A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, etc. Why? Because readers have an easier time visualizing a time period if they are already familiar with it. And a known historical event provides a non-fiction platform for your book.
2.  Build a historical world & integrate your research. 
Writing a historical novel can be compared to writing a fantasy or science fiction book in which you are creating a “new world”—but of course, your “new world” has be true. This can be an even greater challenge since you are writing within more confining parameters than most authors. In fact, you might even have a semblance of a built-in outline/plot which you must follow. Your job then becomes filling in all the empty spaces and answering all the questions to make it a plausible story that flows as well as maintains a tight pace. Make sure you avoid information dumps. You should sprinkle in your research and make sure every scene moves the plot forward.
3. Things to include in your historical setting/descriptions:
*weather, climate, topography
*religious culture
*social structure
*traditions, holidays, festivals
*occupations & industry
*food & agriculture
*travel methods
4. Dialog & dialect choices
We know that dialog is a character-building tool. Not only does word choice create and form a character, it can also emphasize a time period. Have you ever read a book where the dialect slows the reading down? Dialect should be moderate and sprinkled in. Today, editors advise that dialect be lighter. I had this happen to me when I started shopping Heart of the Ocean that includes characters who are Puritan. The response I received back from editors was that the Puritan dialect was very heavy-handed. At first I was stunned. “Well, they’re Puritans . . . they have to talk like that!” I made an effort to lighten up the Puritan dialect so that it would be more readable.
5. Characterizing historical figures
Emotions and reactions to situations are the same today as they would have been any period in history. A mother losing a child 2,000 years ago would go through the same grief if that happened today to your character. The emotions of anger and revenge in the 15th century are no different than those same emotions today—although the motivation behind those emotions may change depending on the time period, the character, and the plot—you can still write emotion.
6. Expanding historical facts into plot arcs
The history SUPPORTS the story. Remember that the STORY comes first. NEVER drop in a historical detail or event just to show off your research, unless it ties to the plot and the conflict in some significant way. This will pull the reader right out of the story and reminds them they are reading a history textbook. You will lose the readers' attention, and they'll skim the page to find the next dialogue or action. The main thing to always ask yourself WHY did something happen? What motivated a war, a historical figure, or other event?
7. Focusing on the right conflicts
When I’m trying to decide how much of historical event/time period I want to cover—weeks, years—I look for the most compelling conflict in the event. Also, what hasn’t been done over and over? Can you find a new angle in a re-told story?
8. Why you don’t have to be an expert.
You don't have to be the expert. And you certainly don't have time to be. Let someone else spend ten years researching a topic and then use their hard work (who you will then acknowledge). Indexes are wonderful things. You can look up a word or a topic and go to the referenced pages to find the information. Google is a wonderful thing. Email is great as well. You can email experts and get their opinion. I’ve emailed historians to find out how an ancient ship was constructed. For one of my books, I interviewed a metallurgist to understand how ancient tools were forged. I read a book about ancient sea-faring and took note of the weather patterns as well. Don’t forget documentaries.
9. Bibliographies, chapter notes, maps, endorsements
You only need to research one or two credible sources to find out a research detail. Something like Wikipedia is good as a step in getting general information or an overview of a topic, but it’s not considered an entirely reliable or expert source. Children’s books and magazines can be really great to get basic information, such as a timeline.Keep track of the sources you use so that you can refer back to them if necessary. And if you are writing historical fiction, your publisher might require a bibliography, or a selected bibliography, or you can make it more casual and call it “Further Reading”. I love to look up further reading, or just browse the titles that the author based their research on to see what else is out there.
10.  Don’t be intimidated. 
It does take longer to write a historical novel because of the research involved. But if you are interested in the event, then your writing journey will be fantastic.

Did I mention you can buy HEART OF THE OCEAN on Amazon? Go get it, I know you'll love it. And while you're at it, buy A TIMELESS ROMANCE ANTHOLOGY: WINTER COLLECTION or maybe ... my Regency era novella, CONTEMPTIBLE AFFECTION. ;)

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About Me!

I've been writing since I was old enough to grasp a crayon--my grandma even has an early copy of a "book" I made her. I have a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Wyoming and will (hopefully) soon be starting a graduate program in English. When I'm not breaking up impromptu UFC fights in the living room or losing miserably to my boys at Uno, I'm ... well, writing or editing, of course! I'm married to my best friend, and we have three rambunctious but simply amazing little boys.


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