Historical Fiction Freak-Out

This could be you if you watched Hidden Figures or Dunkirk, had your socks knocked off after reading Crystal King’s Feast of Sorrow or Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light, or managed to keep pace with the 166 ghosts in George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. You finish and say to yourself, I could do that. I could definitely write that.

If there’s any There there, the That means writing a historical fiction novel to entertain, enlighten, and enlarge minds. Shine a light on old prejudices and contexts. Make palpable what it felt like to storm Normandy’s beaches. Give voice to the innumerable dead watching a president grieve the death of his son.

Full disclosure: I am that person. I heard the story of a first-century slave who became a bishop and became convinced it was my moral imperative to write it. Three years and 200 purchased books later, I ask myself (sincerely, mind you) What the heck was I thinking?

Allow me to diagnose the perquisites and pitfalls of my affliction. The advantages for me writing that story include having the basic story outline and much of my protagonists’s world handed to me on a platter. Disadvantages include my paltry knowledge of said time period, the people, and what their lives were like. My story traverses four continents, converses in four languages, and spotlights four religions. To sharpen the point, I have no formal training in antiquities—I’m an engineer!

Good luck with that.

But the story seemed so captivating I felt compelled to tackle it head-on. Here’s what I did:

#1 – Take A Deep Breath

Once I decided to write the novel those 166 voices from the Bardo rushed me to augur why I couldn’t: I had no grasp of the material. I hadn’t published a novel before. I had no relevant academic credentials.

As an engineer, I once led a team to invent a machine in six months. At our first meeting, two PhDs insisted that was impossible. Rather than freak out, I asked what we would need to accomplish each week to get it done. We drafted weekly goals and set out to achieve them. We achieved almost every weekly goal and delivered the new machine on schedule.

Lesson: Evaluate what you need to do to reach your goal, formulate a written plan, then work your darnedest. And start writing. Just as my team discovered, as you proceed you’ll develop a more precise understanding of what you lack.

“In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.” – David McCullough

#2 – Get In The Know

The knowledge necessary to tell my story was mind-boggling. I needed to learn about ancient Rome, Greece, Britain, and Turkey. I needed to learn everything about that world: customs, food, clothing, shelter, historical events, travel by land and sea. I had to study dozens of people, many of whom were thinly mentioned in historical records. I had to learn ancient technology, geography, geology, medical practices, music, and religions. I kid you not: I was scared witless.

I started listing what I needed to learn, then began googling to find information sources. I purchased books and made thick binders full of background information. I visited libraries. My personal library became so extensive I can answer almost any question without leaving the house.

“The thing about growing up with Fred and George,” said Ginny thoughtfully, “is that you sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” – JK Rowling

#3 – Buckle Down

Discipline yourself to write a certain number of hours or pages each week or each day. There are many aspects of the publishing process you can’t control. Control what you can: how much time you dedicate to your craft. With historical fiction, much of your time will be devoted to research. Feel free to count that against your target. Just don’t become so enamored of research that you fail to push on to the actual writing.

“I wrote in the mornings, often in cafes, on the way to the office. I gave myself a daily word minimum, usually 750. I tried to save revision for the weekends, when I had more consecutive hours to string together.” – Christopher Castellani

I was rejected the first time I applied to an advanced novel writing class at Grubstreet. I went into a funk, where I loitered for several days, until my wife reminded me there was an entire world full of writing classes. I workshopped my book first at an online class with Writers.com. Later, I was admitted to Grubstreet’s Novel Generator and Novel Incubator classes because I kept moving forward.

Here’s a quote I’m happy to offer you free of charge: It takes a village to craft a great book. There’s simply no substitute for getting feedback from other writers. I’ve honed my story by working with three workshop classes, an editor, and my Saturday writing group. My book’s publication is probably three years away, but I’m no longer freaking out. I’m anticipating how much readers will be freaking out to get their hands on my book.

“Sharing your art, your work, is the only way to have fun with it.” – Annie Hartnett

5 comments

  1. Deborah H Good

    Love this, Cameron. As another lover of historical fiction, I agree that feeling a moral imperative is the gas in the tank. “Wait, no one else has told this story? I guess I have to then.”

  2. It seems to me the big problem with writing good historical fiction is the TIME. As you mentioned there’s the research if you want to get it right. Then there’s the narrative itself which may or may not take a lot of time, depending on the author. And then there is the revision, editing, cutting out all that data you so spent so much time and energy on accumulating, and polishing. Then one reads how you should start promoting/marketing a year in advance. One really has to love one’s product, and be determined to make it WONDERFUL…and get it KNOWN. Are we crazy?

  3. There was also a former slave who became Pope! I *think* we discovered different people, since Saint Calixtus was 3rd-century. I discuss Calixtus in my novel about a priest with African ancestry who’s “passing” as white in antebellum Charleston, SC. I look forward to your novel!

  4. Pingback: Historical Fiction Freak-Out – Cameron Dryden's OriGenes, where stories come from, and where they go

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