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Friday, September 17, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 10 Practicum

One of the readers of this blog asked these questions after reading the previous posts.  He kindly allowed me to quote him and answer the questions here.  I think this will be very helpful.  I will give my answers in italics to set them off.

"Enjoyed your 'Zen of Writing'; particularly the (5) rules thus far. Curious, how many primary sources, and how strictly do you adhere to primary source docs, when developing story outline & details? Almost exclusively where they exist.  For example, my yet unpublished Civil War/Civil Rights novel Antebellum, is almost completely based in letters and correspondence from two periods 1860 to 1865 and 1965.  I supplemented it with personal accounts of soldiers from the 1860s.  Only to get the locations and the architecture right did I use modern information and other tertiary source documents.  The elements of the secondary source documents are very strong in the novel as well.  I actually wove them into the storyline.  And, how much 'knowledge' do you a......ssume your audience has, when you're trying to provide sufficient historic context, events, culture,etc, to help bring out both the historic, cultural & descriptive authenticity (& consistency) in your writing? I actually assume my readers know nothing about the period, culture, and times.  I think this is obvious in Centurion where I lead the reader just as I lead Abenadar into the knowledge of the Legions.  In that book, I had a convenient means to introduce the readers--the main character was learning along with them.  Plus, the contrast between Abenadar's culture and the culture of the Romans made both easy to convey--it gave a reason to explain them.  In spite of this, many times only the details of a culture are shown, but when they are important, they are explained--they are necessary to be explained so you don't confuse your readers (one of the rules).

I explained much of this above, but I will answer in the context of the example below, because I think it is a good one and helpful.  For example, let's say, you're writing a military adventure, in sub-Roman Britain, early fifth century, detailing the Romans leaving Britain. Would you assume, the reader is a student of Roman history, or not?  Not at all. And, if not, how would you go about communicating the historic context, in a subtle but cohesive manner? For example, let's say, your goal is to communicate the following:

1. The Roman Empire legions are leaving Britain because the Romans needed troops to face increasing barbarian attacks on the Rhine and Danubian.  Most likely a conversation between two characters who would be in the know.  I could also use a letter to or from a major character.  Even more exciting a battle scene that transitions to an interrogation of a Roman or a Germanic soldier and results in a letter requesting more troops in Germania.

2. Say, you hint at signs of decay in Roman rule in Britain. And, you're in the forth quarter of 4th century; urban and villa life had grown less intense; decline of military Roman culture, maybe hint at rarity of Roman coins, culture, etc. (minted past 402 AD.  Have the lady of a house or a slave make a comment about the fact the markets won't take Roman coins any more--perhaps part of a scene in the marketplace.  Or show the contempt the Britons have in the marketplace for a Roman slave, children, or lady.

What literary vehicle or scene, would you use, to set up such a story?  That depends on the plot and the theme. Would you choose a high ranking Roman soldier in a Garrison, in formal military correspondence w/ his Superiors in Rome, communicating the state of affairs, the Roman strategy, garrison efforts, difficulty at obtaining supplies, etc; or, avoid giving (broad) historic context, and instead, use private dialogue w/ a peer at the military garrison to (simply) hint at decay in Roman rule, or maybe, private letter back home to wife, to convey the above?  The choice of theme and plot determines specifically these details.  For example, if I was writing about the redemption of the Britons, I would choose a young man who had lost everything to the Romans and wanted to remove them from his land.  The plot might be one where he learns to pity the Romans more than hate them--that would drive the entire plot.  On the other hand, if I wanted the theme to be about the Britons' lack of culture and society, I might pick a Roman and his Briton bride whose lives would contrast as he had to leave her.

And, however you do it, precisely how do you outline, map or track the storyline 'facts' that are being revealed, over various pages of the novel, to confirm you've provided sufficient info, and ensure both historic & storyline consistency?  For the non-historical parts, my prepub readers are critical. Stated another way, what writing tools (spreadsheets, word documents, reader boards, white boards, character or journey maps) might you use, to track how well you are developing or convey (authentic) info to the reader in the most precise, but subtle "immersing yourself in the world you're creating"?  You can see some of the examples of the documents I use in the secret pages for each book on my website  In fact, many of them have pictures and data that I mined for the novels in them and that I hope will be in the final published books.  These aren't comprehensive, but they are what I put up from my base files.  I could put up Megs of data if I were to put up the whole of the info and notes from one novel.  I use four basic files to keep everything straight:
1.  A file of the names, places, descriptions, and basic knowledge from the time.  This includes the characters I made up as well.
2.  A file of in depth knowledge I mined and need for parts of the novel.  Includes quotes and sections of books as well as pictures, maps, and charts.
3.  A file of notes for inconsistencies and issues that need to be addressed in the novel.  Especially those further on.
4.  An outline of the scenes in the novel."

I hope this answers these questions in sufficient detail.  In the next post, I will give some examples from my books.

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