Tag Archives: Writing Tips

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?