Remembering the Joys of Writing Historical Fiction

I found myself in need of a reminder about why I love to write historical fiction. Lately, with everything else I have to do, I’ve come to realize how much more work writing historical fiction is than other genres. As I’ve been digging myself out from under books and articles about Victorian England for my new novel, I realized that this is my first foray into writing a completely historical story in ten years. That can’t be right, I thought. I write historical fiction. It’s in my tag-line, isn’t it? Then I remembered that I added the word (Usually) so I felt better. After counting on my fingers, I saw that, yes indeed, it has been ten years since I wrote a novel that was completely set in the past.

I began writing historical fiction in 1994 with my first novel, the American Civil War story My Brother’s Battle, which I worked on until 2000 (with massive rewrites in 2012). I wrote my second novel, Victory Garden, about the woman’s suffrage movement and World War I, between 2001 and 2003. From 2003 to 2005 I wrote Woman of Stones, a Biblical novella. Then, starting somewhere around 2005, I underwent a period of writer’s remorse. I was getting a few pieces published here and there in literary magazines, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with my novels and I was frustrated. The truth is, I didn’t write much except for journaling and grocery lists until 2009, and four years of not writing for me is a sad time, indeed. I floundered a bit during those years, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing with myself. If I’m not supposed to be writing, then what?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle

Here it is–the cover for my new novel due out this fall.

The writing muse returned in 2009 when I came up with the idea for a 300 year old vampire mourning his lost human wife. The spark that became the Loving Husband Trilogy reminded me how important writing was to me, and it was a fortunate coincidence that the indie author revolution had taken off by the time Her Dear & Loving Husband was ready to be published in 2011. I spent four years working on the Loving Husband Trilogy, and while the history of the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese-American internments during World War II are an important part of the stories, the main story between James and Sarah was set in the present day. My following novel, That You Are Here, is set entirely in present-day Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t surprised when I knew that my next novel would be set in Victorian England. It’s based on an idea I’ve been kicking around for about 15 years. What I am surprised to find is that writing historical fiction is a little harder these days. I still love it, but I found I needed to give myself a little pep talk about why I love writing historical fiction.

My love for writing historical fiction stems from the simple fact that I love history. I think my interest started in high school when I had a cute young guy as my history teacher—I made sure to pay extra special attention in class. But my interest in history outlasted my 10th grade year, and in college I even considered becoming a history major. I’m fascinated by history because, though we can look back to see how the pieces fit together to create the picture of who we are today, there is also a sense of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m always amazed to learn about these people from the past who on the surface seem so different from us today—in their dress, their speech, their beliefs, their scientific knowledge—and yet they aren’t at all different in their hopes and dreams.

There is something fulfilling about writing historical fiction that I haven’t found in any other genre. First because I get to indulge in my own interest and learn about different periods that caught my attention, and second because historical fiction helps to make history more palatable for those who might be bored by nonfiction accounts. In these fictional snapshots, I can take one moment in time and flesh it out, add characters, both real and imagined, show their dress, their manners, and the events that happened then. Through writing historical fiction, I have been able to imagine life in Salem during the witch hunts, Tennessee during the Cherokee removal, California in the Manzanar Relocation Camp, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City in the 1910s, and now Victorian England. For someone who loves history as much as I do, the opportunity to write about these different periods, or any historical period, is a blessing. It is fun, after all, to discover interesting little details to share with readers, and it’s even more fun to immerse myself in the period through television, movies, documentaries, books, museums, and music. When I write historical fiction I feel like a time traveler with one foot in the present and another in the past.

Yes, that’s right. Writing historical fiction is fun above all else. I remember now that whatever time it takes to complete the research is set off by the enjoyment of finding a special fact or tidbit that adds life to the story. I had forgotten. Sharing these snapshots in time with others is one of my great joys, and through historical fiction I hope to help others develop their own love for history. If I can prompt someone’s interest in a certain time period, then I’ve done my job.

Have I said how much I love writing historical fiction?

How Do You Handle Negative Book Reviews? You Trust, That’s What You Do.

Writing InspirationLike everything else with writing and publishing, there are a lot of opinions about how to handle negative book reviews. Here’s one from Digital Book World, one from Write to Done, and my personal favorite from Joe Konrath. I love Konrath’s advice of just ignore them. In my case, I don’t read them at all.

You read that correctly. I don’t read negative reviews of my books. I don’t argue with anyone’s right to dislike my work, and I don’t argue with anyone’s right to share their dislike. I certainly don’t like every book I read. As an author, I have the right to choose what kind of energy I want to take in, and I choose to surround myself with positive energy that supports my vision. Yes, I know…that’s a little on the woo woo side. Let me try to be more practical.

First of all, negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing, and there’s truth to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I think the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a great example. I’ve never seen a book with so many negative reviews (there are thousands of them), and yet it’s become one of the best selling books of all time. If anything, the negativity fueled the phenomenon rather than quelled it because it made people curious. There was a time when writers were told that negative reviews were the kiss of death for their books, and maybe some people still believe that, but I’ve seen many books sell well after negative reviews.

It’s not only the number of reviews you have that matter, but the type of reviews. Not all reviews are created equal. A five star review that says “Great Book!” is okay, but a five star review where readers go into some detail about why they liked the book can be very helpful. It’s the same with one star reviews. One star reviews where readers state why they didn’t like the book are fine. Really, they’re fine. It’s not realistic to expect that everyone who reads your book will like it. People have different tastes, that’s all. Then there are the one star reviews that come from a desire to be snarky. I blame Simon Cowell and the Real Housewives for making insolence something people aspire to. Still, I trust readers, and I believe they can tell the difference between honest reviews and mean-spirited reviews. They can tell if someone is simply sharing their dislike of a book or being mean for the fun of it. And don’t forget those entertaining reviews that comment on the timeliness of the shipping or the condition of the product. Just the other day I was scanning the reviews for a book I wanted to buy and there was a one star review because the book arrived in four days instead of two. I bought the book, in case you were wondering.

I understand why writers feel so hurt when they read criticism of their work. I used to be hypersensitive about such criticism myself. Creative writing classes in college were hard for me because there was an unnecessary sting in the feedback from other students. I thought the point of writers workshop was to help each other, not to hurt each other, and I didn’t understand the meanness in the other students’ critiques and I didn’t find those classes useful. Then when I began The Copperfield Review nearly 15 years ago, I received a number of anonymous e-mails that put down the stories Copperfield published. I guessed at the time that the e-mails were from disgruntled writers we had chosen not to publish, but I still let the negativity bother me. Around the same time my first novel, My Brother’s Battle, was published through Xlibris (don’t ask), and someone, also anonymous, asked how I could put such drivel into the world. Again, most likely a disgruntled submitter, or maybe even a legitimate naysayer, who knows, but it got to me.

When Her Dear & Loving Husband was published in 2011, I was known by exactly zero people. I read every review that popped up because I was fascinated by these total strangers who took the time to say things about my book. After a while, I began to realize that the reviews—both good and bad—weren’t about me or even my book. I know that sounds odd, but I believe that reviews have more to do with the reviewer than the reviewed. The Write to Done article says as much. If you give two people the same book and one loves it and one hates it, is that about the book or about the people reading the book? When we read, all we have is ourselves—our personalities, our perspectives, our likes, our dislikes, our interests, our emotions, our imaginations—and all of those traits come into play when we read. Sometimes that works in favor of our books and sometimes it doesn’t. Besides, haven’t you noticed how whenever someone writes negative reviews online, whether it’s for books, restaurants, or whatever, it’s almost always done anonymously under a false name like PookieICU or TinyTom789? Are you going to let Pookie get to you because he (or she) is venting about whatever is actually bothering him (or her)? Very rarely do people own up to their meanness (unless they’re the afore mentioned Simon Cowell or the Real Housewives). What does their negativity have to do with you or your book? Really? Haters gonna hate. Why let them pull you down?

And if someone is writing an honest review and they didn’t like your book, it’s okay. I promise—both you and your book will be fine. It just means that person isn’t meant to be your reader. Focus on the readers who like what you do. They’re the ones who are going to buy your future books. Why make yourself crazy over someone else’s opinion? That is, unless you have a mother like mine. When Her Dear & Loving Husband was first released and the reviews were popping up on Amazon, I was so happy because the majority of reviews were five stars. At the time there was something like 20 five-star reviews and one one-star review. My mother said, the way only a Jewish mother can, “Did you read that one star review?”

Despite my mother, I had grown in fortitude in the 11 years between My Brother’s Battle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I had such faith in Her Dear & Loving Husband, and I felt in my gut there was an audience for it. As a result, the negative reviews didn’t sting because I had a sense that if that person didn’t like the book, there would be others who did. After reading reviews, both good and bad, I realized I believed in what I was doing, and that was enough. That’s when I stopped reading reviews. It’s not that I don’t care if people like my work, and I don’t completely ignore reviews. When I do check my books on Amazon or iTunes, I don’t look at individual reviews, though I do look to see the average star count. I look at it this way—as long as I have more good reviews than bad, it’s all good.

Am I missing out on some feedback? Perhaps. But I have beta readers who help me through the review process, and I have editors, so I feel I’m getting the necessary outside point of view (as in outside my own head). The fact is there’s no one tougher on my own work than I am. That’s why I only publish one book a year. If there’s a book out there with my name on it, then it has passed the test of the toughest reader of all—me. And even though I’m proud of my books, I know not everyone will like them. That’s okay. Like I said, different people have different tastes. I keep writing and publishing books. I keep finding ways to grow my audience. And I keep trusting the readers. That’s what this all boils down to—trust. Trusting yourself, your talent, and your vision, and trusting the readers who want to find good books to read.

Baking Time: Giving Your Story Time to Breathe

When the indie author revolution started several years ago, there was a lot of advice about how authors must do things in order to be successful. One piece of sage advice still making the rounds is how authors must write and publish books as fast as they can—story-time assembly line writing, if you will. The rationale behind this is simple: the more books you have to sell, the more money you’ll make. Makes sense, right? As a result, I felt bad about myself for not writing faster. I kept hearing about these authors who write, edit, and publish a book every few months, sometimes every few weeks, and I thought I should do that too. I felt like I worked at a snail’s pace compared to others. Then, just as I had to do with social media and marketing, I had to find what works for me, not what works for others.

I write and publish exactly one book a year. I’m not writing the entire year, mind you. I find that my stories need time to bake. I need time to roll them, knead them, push them this way and make them round, press them there while they roll. I always start out with a general idea of what the story is about, who the characters are, what happens to them, that sort of thing. First, I write a general outline of what I think will happen in the story. Then I write my first draft, which is always a painful experience for me (you can see my thoughts on writing a first draft here). As I’ve said before, I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but mainly I love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts” since mine are the shittiest shitty first drafts anywhere. I know that most of what I write in the first draft will either be changed, rearranged, or deleted. When I’m writing a first draft I write the story in its most basic form with hardly any description, not much dialogue, and no thought to theme or foreshadowing. I’ve been writing long enough to understand my writing process, and for whatever reason the shitty first draft is my brain’s way of working through the first layer of the story so that when I’m done I can dig a little deeper to see what’s really tasty there. When I can write “The End” on my first draft I sigh with relief because I know the hardest part is over.

After I finish my first draft, I put it aside, usually for 2-3 months—sometimes more, sometimes less. That might seem like a long time to some people, especially those of the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” variety, but I find that time between drafts, what I call the baking time, is important for me. Even though I’m not working on the manuscript during this time, this is when I let my mind wander through different scenes, putting the characters in different situations, playing the “What will happen if…” game that fiction writers are so fond of.

I’m not only imagining my way through the story during this time. I read, a lot, particularly books written during or about the time my story takes place. My latest project is set in Victorian England, so you’ve already guessed that I’ve reread a number of Dickens’ novels—most recently Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, both of which touch on the same themes I want to address. I’ve also read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is set in New York, but since one of my main characters is a young American woman from New York, the novel has been a great read, giving me insight into New York society. If I’ve got you thinking of Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey, no, my book isn’t about American heiresses in London—not quite, anyway. In addition to my reading, I’ve been watching a lot of television about the Victorian period. The BBC is a master at recreating classic works of literature, many of which are set in the Victorian era. I’ve also been watching a number of documentaries about the period. The journey back to the Victorian era is mainly review for me since I studied that period for my Master’s degree (my thesis was on Dickens, the Big D himself). One thing I’m doing this time that I haven’t done before is I created a board on Pinterest where I’m pinning clothing from the Victorian era, as well as furniture, houses, art, gardens, books—anything I can find to give me a feel for the period. Right now the board is private because I don’t want to bombard people with the 40 pins a day I put on my research board, but soon I’ll make a public version so others can see what I’ve found.

This is where the fun of writing fiction begins for me—immersing myself in the time period. Reading other authors, learning new information, seeing the clothing and the furniture, listening to the music, watching the movies and documentaries, it all gives me an abundance of ideas to use in my own story. Of course, not everything I read or see will end up in the novel, but it doesn’t matter. It gives me a framework from which to build the world in which my characters inhabit. If it takes time for the ideas to meld together to form a cohesive story, that’s fine. I’ve learned to be content with my writing process.

How do I know it’s time to start writing again? It hits me out of the blue, like an oven timer letting me know the baking is done and my story is ready. This happened to me just last week. Suddenly, I saw a new opening scene for my novel playing before me as though it were on a movie reel behind my eyes. As an opening chapter it works better than the one I had before because it introduces us to the main characters, to the main setting of the story, and yet there’s enough action in it so it isn’t all exposition. So far so good. As I continued thinking about it, I realized that I could see the story through to its new conclusion, along with a few twists and turns I hadn’t thought of when I was writing the first draft. I wrote a new outline, and now I can begin writing the second draft, which is where all the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. Really, I know it’s time to start writing again when the pain from not getting back to the story is stronger than the pain of writing—though, to be fair, this second draft isn’t painful the way the first draft is. In fact, the second draft isn’t painful at all. This break between first and second draft costs me a few months, but I find it’s a fun time for me and it’s time well spent.

It took some time, but I did finally realize that I’m not on anyone’s time frame but my own. For authors who write more quickly than I do, that’s great. My point is only to say that it’s up to authors to find out what works for them, and everyone’s process is different. Don’t fall into the trap, as I nearly did, of being dictated to about how often you should write or publish books. If you can write more quickly, go for it. If you need a year, two years, take it. Do your own thing. Write your own way. I would rather publish one book a year and put out something I was happy with, something I was proud to have my name on, than put out something I wasn’t satisfied with because I felt like I had to publish something. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with my “baking time.” Bringing stories to life is what I love most about writing, and the baking time allows me to do that in a richer, fuller way.

A Trail of Breadcrumbs…Otherwise Known as Foreshadowing

gilcrease orchard

I managed to take some time to see Gilcrease Orchard, a real-live farm right here in the desert in Las Vegas.

I’m very nearly finished with my first semester as a doc student. While I seem to have survived relatively unscathed, I wonder if I’ll have as much luck next term when I’ll be taking a research statistics class. Let me put this in proper perspective–I haven’t taken a math class (that’s maths for my British friends) in 25 years. That’s not an exaggeration. I counted. You Doctor Who fans out there will know what I mean when I refer to the Ood–some space alien thingamajigs that carry their (what is it they carry? I can’t remember…was it their hearts? Their voices?) around in their hands. Well, I’ll be carrying my brain around in my hands next term while I look around, perplexed, saying, “I don’t know what happened. It just fell out…”

On a lighter note, I’ve come across some interesting studies about how our identities as writers are formed and how teachers play a big role in shaping those identities. For those of you out there who are writers (and you know who you are), how much of your self-identity as a writer was shaped by your teachers? Have an answer? Good. Remember it because I may need you for research purposes.

For now, here’s an oldie but goodie with some thoughts about one of my favorite aspects of writing fiction–the breadcrumbs, also known as foreshadowing. I wrote this while I was writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, Book Two of the Loving Husband Trilogy.


HLHC_300x450What is foreshadowing? Foreshadowing plants clues for the reader. It drops hints about events to come. It creates suspense. It tells the reader to stay tuned. I like to describe foreshadowing as the writer leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. Readers aren’t sure where the trail leads, but the crumbs sure are tasty so they’re willing to follow along. Then, when they get to their final destination, there’s an “Aha!” moment where they realize that the journey, every step of it, makes sense. They can see how the turns and detours were connected all along.

Foreshadowing shouldn’t be obvious. Sometimes the detail the author is pointing out may seem unimportant in the moment and it’s not until later that we realize that that empty bottle of whiskey on the kitchen floor or those keys left in the ignition in a car in a garage were clues. Sometimes authors like to drop false hints, known as as red herrings, to deliberately mislead readers. This is especially true in mystery and suspense novels.

They way I incorporate foreshadowing into my fiction is fairly simple. Whenever I begin a novel I create a blueprint, a rough outline of what I think will happen in the story. And, as I said before, I must know the ending so I know where I’m heading. Once I begin the first draft I try to work in a few scenes that I know will act as hints about what’s to come. But I don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in the first draft since I’m still feeling out the story and a lot of what I write will change as I understand more about the characters and the plot.

The revising stage is where I go heavy on the foreshadowing. Now I understand the story, the plot is set, so I go back into earlier chapters and find places where I can drop those tasty breadcrumbs I want readers to follow. For example, in Her Dear & Loving Husband there’s the opening scene with Sarah and her landlady where the landlady warns Sarah about the ghosts from the Salem Witch Trials that still haunt Salem. Ghosts in Salem? Sarah dismisses the irrational concern, saying she doesn’t believe in ghosts. What at first seems like an odd conversation between Sarah and her elderly landlady becomes important because this is Sarah’s first hint of the supernatural world she has unknowingly entered in Salem. Sarah has more to do with ghosts than she knows.

And there’s the scene in The Witches Lair where Sarah receives the psychic reading from Olivia, the motherly Wiccan who is also a powerful seer. I wanted the reader to sense that something big is coming for Sarah, and since Salem, Massachusetts really is a center for Wiccans and psychics, I thought Olivia’s prophecy was the way to do it.

In this scene I used dialogue to create the foreshadowing. Here are Olivia’s cryptic words to Sarah: “I can see that he will find you. He is here and he will find you.” When Sarah asks who, Olivia responds, “He will. The one who has been waiting for you. He has been waiting for you for oh so very long.” The phrase “oh so very long” isn’t remarkable in itself until another character says something similar later on. Is there a connection between Olivia’s “oh so very long” and this other character? You’ll need to keep reading to find out.

Keep in mind that if you promise something through foreshadowing, deliver it. If you hint at a connection between characters, then develop that connection. If you bring that empty bottle of whiskey to the reader’s attention, then show why that bottle was important—someone is hiding alcoholism, for example. Otherwise the breadcrumbs become a wasted opportunity on a dead end trail. It’s true that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but if you’re going to make a point of showing that cigar to your readers it should have some purpose. Some writers refer to this plot device as “Chekhov’s Gun.” The playwright Chekhov said that if you put a gun on stage in the first act, then it should be fired in the second act. If you’re not going to fire the gun, then don’t bother with it. Leave it for your next story where one of your characters will have a reason to shoot someone. If you show the gun, the cigar, the bottle of whiskey, whatever it is, and you don’t do anything with it then you’re setting your readers up to be disappointed.

If you’re writing a series then you can carry your foreshadowing through your next books. Does the fact that Olivia is a powerful seer play an important role in books two and three of the Loving Husband Trilogy? You betcha. Will Sarah continue learning about the supernatural world? You know it. Then there’s that nosy reporter determined to reveal James’s secret. Will he cause more problems for our favorite preternatural professor? That’s the beginning of a new trail of breadcrumbs I hope readers will follow through the journey of Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return.

I love foreshadowing. I love the connectedness it brings to a story. It’s an important part of fiction writing, and it’s a great tool to bind a stand-alone story or the books in a series together.