Tag Archives: Writing Fiction

The Past in the Present

I’m an author of fiction. Political thrillers. Historical fiction. It sometimes strikes me as odd to write a scene set in the 1960s in which one of my characters opens a metal can of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding or spoons Sanka Coffee into a percolator coffee pot, only to finish writing my scene and then pop a K-Cup into my Keurig, or warm a pastry in my microwave. This odd juxtaposition of the past and the present may fill my days, but it cannot fill—or even momentarily appear in—my stories.

It’s crucial for a writer of historical fiction to perform due diligence in research. Given that the World Wide Web is a click away, and Internet search engines put facts at our fingertips, there really is no excuse for sloppy errors of misinformation in our work. (Always verify information found on the internet with at least two sources, as inaccuracies abound on the Web). Your local library is a fantastic source for reference books, and most librarians make wonderful research liaisons.

Accurate portrayal of pop culture icons can anchor a scene in a specific year or era, as can the popular slang and the music of a particular decade. You may also want to include references to the social climate of the year in which your story is set. For example, the novel I’m currently writing is set in early 1960s America, and racism was a hot-button issue of the day. I may include in my story references to Martin Luther King, Jr’s powerful speech, or to the racially motivated murder of Medgar Evers. These events are vivid memories in the minds of many readers who lived through them, and it’s crucial that I depict and refer to them accurately.

Take care when adding historical facts to your story that you do not slip into a history lesson. If a reader wants that, she’ll pick up a textbook, not a novel. Allow your characters to make a brief, natural comment in dialogue about a current event during their time, but don’t force it. Reference the history, but don’t slip into it, because doing that removes the reader from the action at hand.

Your story must move forward. Action is crucial. Active voice is critical. However, with attention to detail, accurate portrayal of historical facts, and authentic references to social, economic and cultural happenings, your readers can move forward while traveling through the past.

Do you have any tips on researching historical details for your fiction? Share with us here, and let’s compare notes.

My (First) First Draft

 

I’m currently hard at work revising my third novel and outlining my fourth. Lately, when I’ve told anyone I’m a writer it seems every other person asks me, “Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?”

I have to admit, I feel a bit guilty when I tell them No. I go on to explain that, before I wrote three novels, I wrote a history book that took me several years to write, and each of my novels requires about a year of my time to complete. Some find that remarkable, perhaps because they’re surprised that a geologist by day creates fictional characters at night, or perhaps it’s because I don’t do it in thirty days.

Anyone who completes—or even gives a wholehearted attempt toward writing—the first draft of a book-length manuscript deserves resounding applause. It’s a difficult task to develop important story questions that pique a reader’s interest, create a rounded character, instill voice, set a visual scene and build tension—and that’s just what’s required on the first page of a good story!

As we roll into November, the chatter among writers about the growing phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo can put undue pressure on those of us who have a slower first-draft writing process. NaNoWriMo, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a challenge in which participants strive to complete the first draft of a novel during the thirty days of November. As impressive and lofty as the challenge sounds, it’s something in which you won’t find me participating.

Why?

Let me tell you about my first draft process—specifically, my first first draft—and you’ll understand my reasons.

After I spent considerable time (years) researching material for my history book, the next logical step (in my mind) was to place all that research into a reasonable format: a Microsoft Word document. I sat surrounded by notebooks, computer printouts, articles, and scraps of paper with scribbled (sometimes indiscernible) quotations I’d copied. It hit me then that I would need to cite these resources.  “Where did I read that?” became a familiar wail coming from my office.

As I researched the sources of these quotes and snippets of information, I came across new information, and my mind would springboard to a different idea or topic that required more research. Can you guess where this led me? It led me to more than 1,000 pages of typed information. Single-spaced.

Yes, my first draft—ever—ended up clocking in at over 500,000 words. Five hundred thousand!

My supportive wife—an angel if ever there was one—read every page. She marked typos, pointed out redundancies and offered suggestions. When she returned the tome to me, I was frustrated beyond measure. I’d spent what felt like a lifetime on this project, and now it was covered in red ink!

I needed help. Professional help.

What does a researcher do when they need help? They research a solution, of course, which led me to Inspiration for Writers, Inc., a professional editing service that placed my baby (my first draft) into a caring editor’s arms, and that editor whittled and nurtured and revised my history book into a manageable manuscript that’s currently making the rounds with university presses.

Since then, I’ve branched into fiction, writing a series of political thrillers that make excellent use of all that historical data I spent years collecting. While I still don’t work from an outline, I do work from a focus statement. Writing a focus statement before I begin a novel keeps me centered on the main plot, and keeps my researcher’s brain from straying down a rabbit hole. And yes, I still place each first draft into the arms of my Inspirations For Writers, Inc. team of professional editors.

If you’d told me when I sat down to write that (first) first draft that soon I’d have finished not only a history book worthy of university publication, but that I’d also be the author of a fiction series, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am. And it’s only because I did what all writers must do: I sat down, and I wrote.

What is your first-draft process? Do you work from an outline? Do you refer to a focus statement to stay on track? How long does it take you to complete a first draft? And, since it’s November, you know I’m going to ask: are you participating in NaNoWriMo?

That Ghostly Image in the Rearview Mirror May Be Real

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would tell you about a real ghost. Several years ago, when I set out to research my assignment regarding the heritage of some gold, it led me into a fascinating world of very real characters. The gold I sought was once in located in the Philippines. Naturally, my research led immediately to Ferdinand Marcos; however, there was another shadowy character who continually jumped out at me. His name was Santa Romana, and he also lived in the Philippines. At first, my research on Santa Romana turned up little information, almost as if the man didn’t exist.

Determined, I continued to pursue this mysterious man. I discovered that he was a deep CIA operative, working with individuals at the highest level of our government. But another fact jumped out, even more shocking. He had been a Roman Catholic priest and went by the alias Father Antonio Diaz. Before World War II, I have been told Father Diaz had been given the responsibility, by Pope Piux XII, to protect and move gold from Europe to the Philippines, because everyone feared Hitler would take the gold. Father Diaz, a.k.a Santa Romana, I believe supervised this move. This massive quantity of gold not only belonged to the Church, but some of it belonged to many of the wealthy families of Europe. I have even heard that, if successful in protecting the gold, Father Diaz was promised he’d be elevated to the rank of a Bishop. At the beginning of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese took the islands of the Philippines and thus the gold. So instead of Germany getting the gold, it fell to the Japanese.

Throughout the remainder of Santa Romana’s life, he worked with first with the Army OSS (Office of Strategic Services), then later its successor, the CIA.  He led many lives under many alias. He worked behind the scenes with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos; however, he  always maintained his religious convictions or his priestly persona. Over the next several decades following World War II, Santa Romana’s primary black ops was to recover gold both for his own benefit and for that of those for whom he worked.

It was this research, plus the encouragement of my supporters, that led me to write the historical/political thriller The President’s Gold around living characters, such as Santa Romana. There were things about their lives that you could not make up—things so out there that they felt impossible to believe, though they were very real. Santa Romana was practically a ghost; there is very little official record of his existence or his work.

As an author of fiction, I found it quite a task to figure out how to keep my real characters interacting with my fictional characters, all the while maintaining accuracy with the historical research I’d completed on those real-life characters. Sometimes, such as in the case of Santa Romana, this becomes a difficult task, especially when there is little information available on that historical person. Therefore, I worked to compose a profile similar to how the police or FBI profiles an individual when a crime is committed with miniscule evidence. I sought (and fortunately, found) individuals who knew Santa Romana, which allowed my profile to expand.

What about you? Have you researched a living (or once living) character for your fictional writing? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Share your experience here, so that I, and other fellow writers, can learn more.

How Much Romance is Too Much Romance?

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 Photo by Graur Codrin

Walking the Tightrope in a Political Thriller

 

When I first started writing my novel The President’s Gold, I had a strong idea of what I wanted to cover in the story: the theft of Chinese war loot by the Japanese (referred to as Yamashita’s gold), and how Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos acquired it and kept it hidden—with US President Truman’s help. I wanted to aid in exposing the role the American government played in the scandal and the fraudulent dealings on which our world banking system is built.

What I didn’t want to do is write a romance novel. And yet, in many ways, I did just that.

Some of the best feedback I have received about my novel comes not only about the exposé of what is arguably the greatest state secret of our lifetime, but about the romantic relationship between my protagonist Franklin Young and his adversary-turned-lover Rosalita Laurel. Women, in particular, love this thread in the story, though I’ve had more than one man confess to having the hots for spicy Rosalita and her sometimes-wicked ways.

But how much romance is too much romance between fictional characters in a story that thrives not on only on action, but also on historic political events? The line is a fine one, indeed.

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) state that two basic elements are involved in a romance: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. The President’s Gold did not have a love story as its central element, nor did it have an optimistic ending for the couple, though Frank and Rosalita’s story certainly does not end with this novel. However, the subplot of the story, which deals with how a man can find love and maintain his ethical beliefs and personal morals while spying on and being manipulated by his government, certainly underscores the risks one will take for true, romantic—perhaps unconditional—love.

Major motion picture movies, from the classic Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart to the more recent Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, have proven the marketability of romance in politics. But is a romantic thread necessary, or even feasible, in a modern-day political thriller? Only if you want to capture a larger share of the market. In 2012, the romance genre raked in nearly $1.5 billion dollars in sales, according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013. What’s not to love about that?

What do you think, readers? Do lovers of historical fiction and political fiction enjoy a scoop of romance atop their thriller? If you’re a romance reader, do you appreciate the suspense and thrill of action—even actual history—that buoys a romantic thread and keeps it moving at a fast pace? Share your opinions here, and let’s examine the tightrope that carries us from the ledge of a thriller to one of romance.

The Flawed Hero or a True Evil Villain?

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Image courtesy of bandrat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Can a good guy in a story really be 100% good? Would we love him as much if he were? Each of us has faults and flaws, and in a powerful work of fiction, it’s important that we have characters in whom we see reflected a tiny bit of ourselves—the good and the bad.

Recent popular series such as Showtime’s Dexter, AMC’s The Walking Dead and AMC’s Breaking Bad star protagonists (good guys) who did terribly bad things—murder-and-cooking-crystal-meth-kind-of-bad things. Yet these stories are hugely popular. If you’ve ever taken a fiction-writing class, you’ve likely been told to give every good guy in your story a flaw, and give every bad guy a redeeming quality. It makes them more human, more relatable to the rest of us.

In my recently published political thriller, The President’s Gold (Book One in the forthcoming Gold novel series), I worked to make each of my main characters walk this tightrope between good and evil, and I believe I succeeded—with one exception. General Fabian Ver, who was actually once a living person and the vicious henchman of the Philippine’s President Ferdinand Marcos, is depicted in the novel as I believe he really was in life; as pure evil. No matter how far and wide I looked for wonderful things this man did for humanity, my research revealed only more and more heinous, brutal acts. He tortured, he maimed and he killed, all in the name of finding hidden war loot stolen from the Japanese. I should also tell you that his methods of torture were the kinds that make Jason Vorhees of the Friday the 13th horror franchise seem like a mischievous kid in a Pittsburgh Penguins mask. In other words, Ver was the epitome of wickedness. Hence, I depicted him as such.

Readers and writers, what do you think? Do you favor antiheroes in a story, or do you prefer knights in shining armor who can do no wrong? And do you believe an antagonist—the baddest of the bad—should be portrayed with redeeming qualities? What was your impression of General Fabian Ver in The President’s Gold? Please leave me a note below. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

–Don Kesterson