Monday, October 31, 2011

Water-weak or Invincible?

My recently christened editor, Henry B. Baxter, was kind enough to forward some of your questions to me this morning. I was so pleased at his report of the response to a question-and-answer post so far. You can add your questions for me here: A Grand and Glorious Thingamajigger. :) I decided that I had better start answering some of these questions as they come, so as not to overwhelm the public with answering them all at once. That being stated, Henry B. Baxter tells me londongirl was first with her questions:
If someone was to write a Historical novel, what advice would you give them? (and) Is there any books or websites that you have found useful?

Let me start by answering the first question, as that has several points to it. The first piece of advice I would give a budding author in this genre is: "Do your research." It sounds dull, it sounds prosy (especially when the fantastic plot is swirling around your brain and the last thing you want to do is read up on the politics of the day) but in the end it will make the difference between water-weak literature and a book worthy of a Newbery Medal. I had to learn this lesson the hard way with my Victorian-era novel, A Mother for the Seasonings. My critique group partners told me (and none too gently) that they could not picture my setting in their minds. The characters and plot were happening in a void. It could have occurred any time, anywhere and been changed not a bit. Sure, hearing that hurt. But it was one of the best things for my writing experience. It taught me just how important suitable descriptions and correct information are.
I hate to say it this bluntly, (and I'm facing this daunting wall in Puddleby Lane) but it doesn't matter how amazing your plot and characters are--if you tell the reader your story is set in, say the Great Depression, if that setting does not influence your character and the events in the story, you've lost the whole point of historical fiction. I like to think of Historical Fiction as a way to learn history through literature. That being said, your facts need to be strong and true, and presented in a masterful way so that the reader doesn't feel like they are reading an encyclopedia. They are learning something as they live the story alongside your character. You must hide the pills of reality in the jam of fiction in such a way that the reader craves the pills and will go on from your book with an enhanced desire to learn about the time period. You can't achieve this by bending the plot. I'm sorry, but it's true. It isn't enough that you tell the reader your tale is set in a certain era. Timely descriptions of dress, speech, culture, will be your best friend when it comes to making the historic world come alive. There is so much potential in book set in times past. Do not be content with informing your reader of facts. Bring your Public through the trenches with German bombs whistling overhead. Shove them in the midst of the whirling mob storming the Bastille. Lock them in the Tower of London with Mary, Queen of Scots. It'll make all the difference in the world.

As for the second question: Is there any books or websites that you have found useful? I would have to answer: The internet in general. I can't tell you how helpful it is to be able to bring up a page of 2,000 French women's names, or an entire archive dedicated to fashions of the day. With a click of my mouse I can read up on whatever historical event I am writing about. It's amazing. As for writing help in general, I have found that the best way to get a hold on what good writing is, is to read good writing. As Benjamin Franklin said, "If you want to write things worth reading, read things worth writing." It's simple, but it's profound. Fill your mind with quality writing, and your pen will unconsciously learn. But we all need a little further instruction now and then, and for that, I must concede that I have found James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing priceless. Seriously, it's a must-have for any aspiring writer.
Beyond these resources, I will tell you that if you are brave enough, hand a copy of your manuscript to a person you know to be a good judge of literature, and have them tell you exactly what they think of it. It will not be easy to hear them picking your brain-child to pieces. But you know what? A lot of the time, they'll be right. And then sometimes they will be wrong, and you can put your little "baby" back together and move on. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that an unbiased opinion is worth a whole lot more than any timid changes you would choose on your own to make in your novel. :)
I hope this answered your questions, londongirl, and thank you so much for asking them! Mr. Baxter, I would appreciate your continued assistance in collecting the queries. Thank you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you very much!! You have been very helpful!! Thanks again for answering my questions.