My Favorites

Monday, September 27, 2010

Writing Science Fiction, part 5 Showing

Last time, I established that the choice of the use of science fiction to put forward a theme is a cognizant choice by an author--or it should be.  This is similar to the choice of the use of first, second, or third person in writing.  Because I think this is an important topic, and I haven't written about it before, I'll mention it before I transition to my main subject.  An author should choose the point of view of the novel based on the main character of the novel.  Usually, the third person (he, she) is appropriate for characters and novels about normal people or where the focus of the novel is not about a certain person's eyewitness view of events.  On the other hand, if the focus of a novel is a special person or a special person's specific eyewitness view, then a first person (I) point of view  is appropriate.  I begin with a first person point of view in my novel The End of Honor,  The main character is Lyral Neuterra, she dies in the first page of the book, and the rest of the first half of the novel is a recollected view of the events that led to her death.  At that point the novel switches to third person and concludes sans Lyral (she's dead).  The reason I wrote the novel like this is that I was trying some advanced techniques with my series The Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox,  I chose to make Lyral and her story the main focus of the novel.  This worked well because she was a critically important character and the entire work revolved around her and the the revenge her dead caused.  She was the telic (beginning and end) cause of the plot.  She was one of the most important persons in the universe and the created world of the Dragon and the Fox.  This made the use of the first person until her ultimate death very appropriate.  You saw the world revealed through the eyes of Lyral and this gave you the ability to understand both the horror of her death (a loss of honor) and the horror of the revenge (a loss of honor) made in her name.  Thus, in The End of Honor, I used the first person as an intentional means to draw your eye to Lyral and keep it there.  Your world was her world, and so you saw her view.  This is where the use of showing in revealing the scientific background of the novel becomes the subject point.  Her view was your view; therefore, when she says this:

"I was the Duke of Neuterra’s eldest daughter, his only daughter, his only child. He and his dame, my mother, could not bear another child. Though they tried, their vitality was gone, and the Codes of the Noble Accords forbade them from any artificial means of increasing their fertility.
They were stuck with me, and the only hope for our House was an alliance marriage. With this in mind, my father groomed me to attract the attention of another great House, one that would willingly accept the Duchy and the name. With the approval of the Landsritters, the Emperor would be forced to accept the new House Neuterra descended through me.
I was well prepared to fill this position. I was made to be a Princess. I was educated to be a scientist of political solutions and ventures—an advisor, steward, mother, ruler, lover, and I was all of these and more. My heritage and intelligence allowed me to excel in these studies as if I was truly born to them, which I was. But I was not the Princess my Father hoped I would be."

We begin to understand the focus of her world.  You had no idea about The Codes.  Now you know a little.  You didn't know about Lyral's problem, now you begin to see it.  The undergirding of the issues and the science of this world become clear.  Later, in one of my favorite scenes, she reveals:

"He was kind to the last. “My lady, I’m at your service. Until you decide, I am obliged to you.”
In spite of my tears, I turned. “Obliged?”
He looked directly at me. “Yes, obliged.” He took off the sash that marked his rank as an Imperial Prince and thrust it at me.
Unconsciously, I put my hands behind my back. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I dare, and I have.” He thrust the sash toward me again.
“No, I can’t accept that. You put yourself under my complete authority. How can you justify placing your very self under my control? Already, you intend to reveal your plans in their entirety to me.”
“I pray they would become your plans also, and you would safeguard them and my honor just as I would.”
“You know I can’t make that commitment.”
“...but you will protect my interests. Don’t shame me, Lady Lyral, take my oblige. I will protect you and your House. I will be yours until you decide my honor and my arms no longer defend you.”
I know he could see the tears that glistened on my cheeks, but he took no notice of them. I didn’t want to soften to his proposal. I wasn’t sure where I stood, but I could not lightly dismiss the offer of oblige, especially from the son of the Emperor. I reached gingerly for the sash, and he relinquished it with a look of relief. I curtsied to him and backed away."

The concept of "oblige" might have been foreign to you before, but now through Lyral's eyes you should have some understanding.  This "oblige" isn't a science fiction concept.  It is an Anglo-Saxon concept that later we recognize as the chivalric idea of a woman or man carrying a token of honor for their knight or lady.  In this exchange we see the deeper overtones of what "oblige" means to the inhabitants of the universe of the Dragon and the Fox.

So, I gave you examples.  Perhaps not the best examples, but ones I thought might begin to show how to bring the evidence of culture and scientific background into your science fiction writing.  Plus I wove into it an explaination on how to choose the point of view of your novel (tricky, tricky).  I'll try to put some more examples together next time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing Science Fiction, part 4 Without Telling

I do like to present some deep descriptions of technology in my science fiction. Since I design aircraft, wrote a dissertation on insect flight, and have a patent for a winglet, I think I have some basis for giving my readers a degree of scientific explanation and excitement. I teach classes and write technical papers about this stuff, so I should be able to get it right. In my mind, that is the brilliance of science fiction. That is, to be able to express a new technology or a new idea within the context of a story or novel and make that new technology alive and reasonable to the reader. That, of course, isn't the primary purpose of science fiction, but it is one of the primary building blocks of science fiction. So then, what is the purpose of science fiction? And what does this discussion have to do with what I left you with last time--"how to get across the framework without telling about it." Let's go back to the basics of writing. I already made the point that writing is about storyline, plot, and theme. All three have to support each other and all three are critical to any writing. There must always be a reason for your choice of writing genre and style. The choice shouldn't be just to sell books, what you like, or whatever. You chose the style and genre to get across the theme. A science fiction theme is well suited by the exposition of an idea that can't be conveyed by a modern novel. My series, The Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox, is a great example of this. I wanted to write a series of novels about honor as a theme. I wanted to reflect on ideas that in the modern world are not as black and white as they were in the past. I could have chosen to write a set of historical fiction novels, but the ideas I wanted to express were timeless and I wanted to put them like a gem in the center of a black velvet cushion. That cushion was the science fiction world I created to set off the theme of the novel. This wasn't a backdoor choice; it was a cognizant choice to express a theme that would otherwise not have a mode of expression. And that's the point. The choice of the genre and style and person (first, second, third) are not choices of convenience, they are choices of expression for the theme.

That comes full circle back to the point from last time--"how to get across the framework without telling about it." The choice of the plotline is derived from the theme. The storyline flows from the plotline. When I set up the universe of the Dragon and the Fox, my theme was honor (you can see the details in the secret pages about each book). I needed a means to set up a culture that was driven by honor. The basis for this culture was genetic manipulation that developed leaders. Those leaders became eventually feudal style aristocrats. They fulfilled their functions too well, but they were a society ordered and controlled by honor. Against this background, this framework, I could write a set of novels about honor. Broadly, since one of my uhmm...hobbies is ancient Anglo-Saxon, I could make a world like that of the ancient Anglo-Saxons, driven by honor, but set in a future to make the concepts as timeless as possible. The undergirding of the culture was gene manipulation to make leaders; the outcome was a feudal based society and hierarchy. The framework was critical, but it is hidden and known by the characters--the unspoken truth, the 800 pound gorilla in the corner. I used a prolog in each novel to convey and build on the basis of the culture. This was an old Jack Vance technique that I loved in his novels. He usually used it throughout. I only build the prologs to convey the background. The prologs in Dragon and Fox are short, simple, to the point and written as though they were encyclopedia entries by a verbose and pompous academian. The point is to give a little humor. You can read the books without reading the prologs--you'll still get every point, but the prologs set the stage for each novel. They give hints and flashes about the culture and universe you are about to enter. Still, they are not completely necessary. I use other methods to convey the depth of the issues in the culture, but I'll show you some of those next time. The main points here--the theme chooses the genre. The purpose of style, genre, and person are to forward the theme and for no other reason. Writers shouldn't pick science fiction as their style just because they just like it--they need to have something to say and chose the best means to say it. That is the ultimate point!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writing Science Fiction, part 3 Extrapolation

First, I want to be very clear.  I am not a metrosexual.  I am perhaps a modern hedonist (tongue in cheek).  Any time you get to have a great beer before twelve is a positive.  When my wife thinks my hair needs to be cut, she sends me to CAs in Wichita.  At CAs I get a head and neck massage, a hot towel, a hair cut and style, a manicure, my shoes shined, a beer, and all by beautiful young women.  My wife tells me to go see my girlfriends, and to get back into full grooming shape.  I think of it as providing jobs in the economy.  This is not science fiction--it's just life.  But about science fiction...

I was talking about extrapolation and knowledge of science.  The point is, it is impossible to extrapolate from a position of ignorance.  You must have some level of detailed knowledge about science to extrapolate from a basis.  That level doesn't have to be super detailed.  You do need to know the basics of science or you might have your space ships banking in space.  Or you might hear explosions in space.  Or some other stupid impossibility.  Science is not about impossibilities, but about possibilities.  So, even though A.C. Clark told us that science looks like magic to the ignorant--there is still a whole lot of stuff that is impossible.  You have to know what is not in reality before you can write about future realities.

So, knowledge is critical in writing science fiction.  If you don't have some strong science background or education or knowledge, don't do it or go get it.  Once you have the knowledge, the next step is extrapolation.  If you visit my website or,  under the educator section, I have a whole series of lectures on extrapolating technology.  This is a great place to get some ideas about extrapolation.  The trick is, to extrapolate, you must know the linage of science and technology.  Extrapolation assumes you have a line (figuratively) to extrapolate from.  The more points on your line, the better your extrapolation.  If you want to write about genetic theory, you need to delve into the details of early genes and knowledge about genetic theory.  To extrapolate, you don't just need to know current theory, but past ideas as well--otherwise, where is your line of thought.  In my Dragon and Fox Novels, the future society was genetically manipulated to create humans who could conquer the galaxy.  That is the main premise of the technological extrapolation.  I built this premise from extensive study about genetic manipulation from the beginnings of human science.  I folded in the idea that human colonization of space could only be made possible by humans selectively breed and made for certain skills.  This was the basis of technological extrapolation for the books.  Everything that ensued from this technological basis drove the culture and societies of the future world I developed in the novels.  You can see in these novels that this is the driving framework of all of them.  The political system, the cultural system, the social system are all driven by the technological framework that was the basis of the novels.  Everything revolves around these ideas of genetic manipulation, but they are almost not spoken about in the novels themselves.  You see, as in the past and the present, the framework of the future is not expressed by the people in it--it just exists.  It is assumed--the writer must express that framework to his readers.  That makes great science fiction, and that's what I'll discuss next time--how to get across the framework without telling about it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing Science Fiction, part 2 Science

I do science, and you can't take the science out of science fiction.  If you do, you no longer have science fiction.  You might ask, can't I write about the future without worrying about science.  The simple answer is no.  Recently, I wrote that you have to immerse your readers into the world of your writing.  The world of the future is a world defined by technology.  If you can predict technology, you can predict the future.  You can tell what the world will look like.  The biggest problem is that most science fiction writers never got the future very right.  A few, like John Brunner, predicted what the world might look like, but most weren't even close.  Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein still had their galaxy roaming characters using slide rules when computers were a reality.  Talk about missing the point of computers, but when computers fill a room, I guess it is hard to see what they might become.  I mentioned yesterday, you have to extrapolate to write science fiction.  You have to be able to predict what future technology will look like and build a world based on that future technology.  You can't write science fiction without the science, and you can't begin to think about the future without thinking about technology.  So, to be a good science fiction writer, you need to know a lot about science.  Did you hear me.  It does no good to be ignorant about advanced science and try to write science fiction.  You will fail every time.  No one expects a science fiction writer to get the nuances of future science perfectly right, but don't you see, knowledge of science is the basis for science fiction--you can't extrapolate from a position of ignorance.  This means that if you want to write science fiction, you better start studying.  That's the rub, by the way.  I meet all kinds of people who think they want to write historical fiction, but they haven't and they will not spend the years of study required to know the world they want to write about.  On the other hand, many who want to write science fiction, think they can simply pick up a pen and write any old piece about the future and magically, that is science fiction.  No pain.  No work.  Just a story about the future and it is magically science fiction.  I would like to let you know, there is more work involved in studying to develop the world of a science fiction novel than any piece of historical fiction.  You have to build enough knowledge to extrapolate the future.  To do that requires you to know a lot about science in the the past.  Your extrapolation is only as good as the data that makes up your basis.  The line you build your extrapolation from must be well grounded.  The grounding is in the past--the science of the past.  If you can understand how the technology got to the point it is today, then and only then can you begin to extrapolate a future world.  Tomorrow, the how in building a basis for extrapolation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Writing Science Fiction, part 1 Introduction

I'm back!  The first couple of days of my week are packed, and I don't have time or inclination to do any more writing.  I'm wiped right now from writing technical stuff all day.  But that might be the proper frame of mind to begin to approach science fiction.  In fact, it is exactly the frame of mind to wander into the realm of science fiction.  If you remember my personal rules of writing:
1. Don't confuse your readers.

2. Entertain your readers.
3. Ground your readers in the writing.
4. Don't show (or tell) everything.
5. Immerse yourself in the world of your writing - colliery: immerse your readers in the world of your writing.
If you haven't been paying attention, I've spent almost a month developing these rules for you.  Since I am a scientist and an engineer by trade, I have built up my understanding of writing like the engineering community solves problems.  First you bound the problem, then you solve it.  As long as you can properly bound the problem, you can usually solve it.  The same is true of writing and this is especially true in writing science fiction.  Perhaps the first bounding question should be just what is science fiction?  Let me give my own answer.  Science fiction is writing that presumes and interacts with a future.  Writing, broadly focuses on three general periods of interest: writing that interacts with the past (historical fiction), writing that interacts with the present (fiction), writing that interacts with the future (science fiction).  There you have past, present, and future.  Really simple, right?  The complexity becomes developing the worlds that you will immerse your readers within.  In every case of each period of interest, the overall point must be to immerse the reader into the world of your writing--rule number five.  I wrote at length about developing this world in historical fiction.  In engineering terms what we were talking about there is interpolation.  We were taking data from the past and interpolating, that is building the world from the data we had.  Interpolation is relatively easy and it is really very accurate.  The world a writer of historical fiction can build is easy to get right as long as the writer's data is good and plentiful.  In looking at the future, you can't interpolate, you must extrapolate.  Extrapolation means to take your data points outside the maximum bounds of your equations or data.  It means to move beyond current knowledge.  Notice, I didn't say you toss out current knowledge--that's fantasy, and I'm not writing about fantasy here.  In science fiction, we move beyond the knowledge we have now.  We extrapolate beyond our solution sets and equations, but we can never lose our grounding in those bounds.  If we do, we aren't writing science fiction, but rather fantasy.  There is more to come.  Tomorrow, I'll expand on this idea of extrapolation and begin to explain how you do it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 12 Conclusions (for now)

I decided that it is time to conclude this series about writing historical fiction and turn to writing science fiction.  I do write in both genres.  I hope you discovered that all fiction writing requires immersion in the world you are writing about.  Historical fiction isn't as much a special genre of fiction as much as it is a special discipline of fiction.  The author must be disciplined enough to become steeped in the culture and history of the times he writes about, and he must be able to communicate that past world to his readers.  Further, the author must not compromise the ideas and cultures of the past to make feel-good with modern mores.  When an author does this due to lack of discipline or knowledge, then he aren't writing historical fiction anymore.  Plus, it is kind of stupid to write about the past with the blinders of the present.  Such writing cannot stand the test of time and such writing can't enlighten the next generation that really wishes to know what the world was like.  Such writing is like an Oliver Stone movie--a docudrama about a time that never was and never could be.

So my five personal rules of writing I have articulated thus far:  
1. Don't confuse your readers.

2. Entertain your readers.
3. Ground your readers in the writing.
4. Don't show (or tell) everything.
5. Immerse yourself in the world of your writing - colliery: immerse your readers in the world of your writing.
The fifth "rule" was my main concern in these twelve short articles.  This rule is pertinent to all writing.  It is critical to historical fiction, but in historical fiction, the "world" must reflect some strong degree of reality.  What I want to do next is move to the next obvious point--about worlds that reflect little reality to the past or the modern world.  The how to of science fiction.  We will expand on this concept of immersion there.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 11 more Examples

Applicable to all writing, I offer my five basic rules again, and I will show you some examples of how to immerse your readers in your writing.
1. Don't confuse your readers.

2. Entertain your readers.
3. Ground your readers in the writing.
4. Don't show (or tell) everything.
5. Immerse yourself in the world of your writing - colliery: immerse your readers in the world of your writing.
If you noticed, I added a colliery.  The point here and the point of the question I answered yesterday was, how do you immerse your readers in a completely different world than their own.  I have a foot up because one of my day jobs is to teach people, and in those classes, I try to get them to experience the cultures we are talking about.  Writing however is very different than technical writing or teaching.  You can't immerse your readers by suddenly giving them a treatise on a culture or history.  So I'll provide some examples from my writing.

The first example is description from the novel Aegypt,
"Paul signaled his men to remount. His horse, l’Orage, was skittish and danced back a step as Paul hauled his aching frame into the saddle. Her muscles rippled like silk under her black coat, and Paul touched her gently to soothe her. l’Orage had been his steed for nearly three years, almost half the time he had been in Tunisia.

He had bought her from a Berber’s market on the coast. She was the most beautiful horse he had ever seen. Feral and full of fire, she was uncontrollable in the hands of her merchant owners and stood blindfolded and hobbled in the market horse pen. A demon in the guise of a horse, she was black as charcoal without a trace of lighter markings. Paul knew she was stolen the minute his eyes lit upon her.

He paid in cash—francs, and few of those, because of her temperament. When he entered the pen to claim her, Berbers, Arabs, and Tunisians lined the enclosure to watch the black fiend trample the foolish Lieutenant. Paul walked quietly up to her, and when the laughing merchant stripped off the blindfold and hobbles, Paul spoke a single word. l’Orage calmed immediately and let him stroke her face.

Contemptuously, he led her on a light field-lead out of the marketsquare. The marketplace had turned into a frenzy of babbling men, women, and children. The native peoples sidled out of Paul’s way as if he were himself a demon from the pit. At the edge of the market, to the amazement of the spectators, Paul leapt upon l’Orage bareback and rode off at a gallop. He laughed all the way back to the garrison.

l’Orage was a horse trained for war. She was an Arabian, bred and drilled to the battlefield. She was trained to kill and to the tactics of combat. She was a European’s horse. Paul could tell by her carriage and by the saddle scars on her flanks. Only one type of European warrior had found his way into the wilds of Tunisia: l’Orage had to be a Frenchman’s horse. Paul guessed that, but his confirmation came when he first stood before her, wondering himself if she would strike him before he could speak. His single word was French, and with that single word, he knew she answered to only one tongue—French. Not to the Tunisian or Berber or Arabic her previous masters unsuccessfully tried, only to French. In combat after combat, she proved herself to be, by far, one of the finest horses in the Legion stables."

Right from the beginning of the novel, you have a very short description of how Lt. Bolang bought his horse l'Orage.  The description itself tells you a lot about the times, place, and people.  It gives you a small window into Lt. Bolang and tells you about the languages and the problem of language in Tunisia.  It lets you know the feeling of the people for the Foreign Legion and the fact that horses are still used in warfare at this time and in this place.  This is a method of using description to immerse the reader into the times and place and to let them taste the culture and society.  By the way, l'Orage means tempest or thunderstorm in French and the description takes place right after a thunderstorm in the desert and a tempest-like attack on Tunisian bandits.

Now an example of using conversation to immerse your reader in the times and place.  This is from Centurion,

“Where are you from, youngster?” Portius asked Abenadar.

“I came from Natzeret in the Galil.”
“From Natzeret?” said Euodus. “Is the Primus now accepting trash from the provinces?” Euodus was as fancy a man as Abenadar had ever seen. His short hair was carefully shaped to form oiled ringlets in the style of a Persian warrior. His face was angular but well made. He wore a colorful tunic with pins and decorations all over it.
“No, I’m a Roman citizen,” answered Abenadar.
Euodus smiled. “Another bastard child of Rome. You are well placed in this century. We are all bastards of one type or another.”
Portius laughed out loud, but Lupus protested, “I, for one, have a family in Italia.”
“Yes, but does your family claim you?” riposted Euodus.
“They will welcome me back when I am released from service.”
“If your throat is not cut first by these rebels, you may see Italia again.”
Lupus rubbed his throat and made a face. “I wish you wouldn’t put it like that, Euobus.”
“Don’t get carried away, Lupus,” said Portius. “The people fear us.”
“Yes, they fear our blood will splatter their clothing when they slit our throats.”
“Shut up, Euobus,” said Portius. “Come, Abenadar. Don’t listen to his rambling. It is meaningless. As long as we stay together, we are in little danger, and we’re always safe while in camp.”
Without waiting for Abenadar, Portius walked out the door. Abenadar quickly followed behind him. As Portius exited the barracks, Abenadar hurried to catch up. “The camp is huge. How many legions does it hold?”
Portius chuckled. “It doesn’t hold even one.”
Abenadar was shocked.
Portius noted Abenadar’s look and laughed again. “That’s right. This camp holds only two cohorts: the I Cohort, Primus and the X Cohort, Decimus—the first and the last in the III Gallica. Admittedly, the Primus Cohort is the largest and best, but the Decimus isn’t a training cohort. It isn’t made up of inexperienced recruits.” Portius glanced at Abenadar. “You excepted. You will get along well if you can translate in the marketplace, especially if you can speak with the barmaids and whores. I predict you will be a very popular man in the Decimus Cohort.”
“How many men are in our cohort?” asked Abenadar.
“During your training, you will learn how the legion is organized, but I guess I can start your education early. The Decimus Cohort is formed of six centuries. They are called the Pilus Prior, the Pilus Posterior, the Princeps Prior, the Princeps Posterior, the Hastatus Prior, and the Hastatus Posterior. We are part of the Hastatus Posterior, the Lion Century. Each century contains about 80 men. The men are organized into 10 columns of eight each. All the other cohorts from the second to the tenth are put together the same way, but the Primus Cohort is different.”
Here you can see in conversation, I give you many details about the place, times, people, and the Roman Legion.  In conversation, Portius goes on to give Abenadar a host of information about the Legions that the reader likely doesn't know and that Abenadar doesn't know.  The character and the reader both learn from the experience and the tones and conversation tells you a lot about the fears of the Roman soldiers and their concerns.
Tomorrow, I'll conclude this series on writing Historical Fiction and move to science fiction.

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.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 9 Into the Future

I just came home from my new work--it's a lot of work.  Mostly all brain kind and writing.  Right now, the thunderclouds outside are delivering rain and hail in equal measure against my basement window.  I'd like a drink.  I need some wine, but the future beacons.  It brays out its clarion call from a different direction--so why is it a topic in writing historical fiction?  Because all writing whether it is historical fiction, science fiction, or modern fiction requires the same approach.  I didn't trick you, I showed you what it takes to write historical fiction.  I hope those who might take a slipshod approach to writing historical fiction might be reformed, but more than that, I hope all authors would at least think about the concept of immersion when they write.  Perhaps this is normal for most authors--I've never met an author who was normal, so I don't know.  I just know that a lot of historical fiction is crippled because the author never grasped the voice of the times.  Equally, a lot of fiction is crippled because the author never grasped the voice of the story.  You might ask, how could that happen?  It happens because the writer was not immersed in the background of the writing and never fully understood his storyline, plot, or theme.  How can you write a historical fiction novel?  You must be immersed in the times.  How can you write a modern novel?  You must be immersed in the times.  How can you write a science fiction novel?  You must be immersed in the times.  This is the very difficult concept an author must grasp--you must live the life and in the world of your characters.  You must understand the forces that move them.  You must have the tools in hand to make their motivations and their lives real to your readers.  This is a new rule for you in my personal rules of writing:
1. Don't confuse your readers.
2. Entertain your readers.
3. Ground your readers in the writing.
4. Don't show (or tell) everything.
new rule 5. Immerse yourself in the world of your writing.
How trite, but true.  If you imagine you are writing a simple story, you will produce a simple story.  If you know you are creating a world, you will create a world.  Your characters act within that world and the depth of your immersion in the development of it, is the size and reality of the world you create.  I will wrap up this subject next time.  I intend to write about writing science fiction next.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back to Work

I am not stopping this blog, but I can't maintain it every day like I did.  I will attempt to get out a good posting every other day or so--when I have the time.  Please check often, and I will FB post and tweet when a new post goes up.  Don't despair.  I just took on a new consulting job until December.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 8 Into the Present

Well, not quite into the present, but let's move our analysis into the modern period.  As a reader of this blog commented, immersion for more modern eras is both easier and more difficult.  It is more difficult because of the amount of data available.  It is easier because of the amount of data available.  In modern eras, the author must become a data miner and sifter where in the more ancient historical periods, the author is just a data miner.  The good ore from the past is so rare, an author should be familiar with almost all the writing from a period.  The ore is so available from the modern eras, the author must discard everything but the best nuggets.  The question is how do you do that?  I'll use my book Aegypt as an example.  To study the French Foreign Legion and Tunisia in 1926, I found as many French Foreign Legion first person accounts as I could and first person accounts about Tunisia during the period.  There are a few--so the nuggets were available in the ore.  I listened to music from that period and studied French fashion and Tunisian dress and customs.  I found traveler's reports from the times and travel books.  I read old papers and tried to glean as much information about the place and subjects from them.  I had to delve into WWI because the main character of Aegypt, Paul Bolang, participated in that war.  I tried to get broadcasts and decipher the political and culturally important issues of the times.  As I tell my classes, history is like an iceberg, you see the small bit above the water, but 90 percent of it is out of sight.  In a great historical fiction novel, you only see the tip of the author's research, the rest is buried deep within the novel.  If you visit the website for Aegypt, you can review the slides for the classes I have taught on the history in the novel.  Through these, you can begin to see the depth of information assumed in the final novel.  Many of the facts and figures I show in the slides is nowhere in the book, because Aegypt is not a history text, it is historical fiction.  To describe all the tailings of research in the novel would just bore the reader--the point is that all the history described in the class slides is apparent in the novel whether it is directly said or not.  The characters, events, and places revolve around the historicity of the novel, and this gives it its historical authenticity.  So, like in your general writing, don't show everything, likewise, in your historical fiction, there is no need for you regurgitate all you learned onto the page.  You only need show your readers what is important to drive the storyline, plot, and theme.  Everything else should come out as a result of your self immersion and therefore your voice of the times and culture.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 7 Into the Past

All right, we are moving into the realm of esoterics.  The question is what is the point of historical fiction?  To answer this question we need to look at the three aspects of a novel: storyline, plot, and theme.  Obviously, the storyline has to convey some degree of adventure or mystery--entertainment, remember entertain your readers.  In a historical fiction novel, the storyline must convey the entertaining aspects of the life or portion of the life of your characters in a way that is entertaining to your readers.  Therefore, the storyline must be steeped in the times.  This is where the true voice of the times and culture come out.  This is where you must be completely true to the historical times and place.  The storyline may be contrived, but not the setting and thinking of your characters.  The historical view is contained within the storyline.  So what about the plot?  The plot is the pattern of events that make up the larger narrative.  In the plot, you must also hold to the basic historical view of the times that is conveyed in the storyline, but there is a larger point in it.  The storyline must be made up of real elements, elements that are not out of place in the times of your novel.  The plot may not stray from historical accuracy, but the pattern of events may not be from history at all.  You might follow a character little known in the history of the world or who is a complete fabrication.  The events of the storyline are real in terms of the past, the plot may deviate, not in history, but in the overall pattern of events, because, ultimately, your theme will hopefully not be the same as any other novel.  In fact, your theme will hopefully be unique to your time and views.  That is the point of the theme and that is the point of a historical novel.  You convey to your readers a theme that is wholly yours and wholly your time, but that is wrapped perfectly in a historical plot and storyline. 

Let's be very clear, your theme cannot be a convenient fiction to get across your personal message.  For example, historical fiction is likely not the best means to get across an anti-religious theme.  To do so would compromise the storyline and plot.  Historical fiction is likely not the best way to get across many modern ideas--they are too foreign to the past.  Many themes have been plumbed a little too much in historical fiction, and some are just trite.  For example, an anti-slavery theme would be great for the 1800s but a little overwrought today.  An anti-patriarchal theme would fit in the early 1900s, but not so much in the 21st century.  A closer novel to today would better convey these themes.  The most powerful themes for historical fiction are comparative themes.  Those that draw comparisons from the past and lure the reader into the past to then spit them back up into the real world with a piece of the golden fleece or a golden apple in their hands.  The greater the differences and the greater the comparisons, the more powerfully the theme can draw and affect your readers.  So, examples...

Dana-ana is a historical fiction themed novel in a modern setting--it likely would not count as historical fiction.  It pulls a character from the past into the modern world and allows the readers to see, by comparison, the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon culture.  Especially, the religious fervor of Dana-ana becomes apparent.  The direct comparison is to the view of religion in the modern world.  The difference is the way Dana-ana goes about her experience of life, love, and religion.  The theme is about redemption.

Aegypt is a historical fiction novel in a historical setting--1926.  Its theme asks ultimate questions about what might be true.  It puts up four competing arguments.  First, is truth only in what we believe?  Second, is truth only in what we perceive?  Third, is truth only in what we know?  Fourth, is truth only in what we can understand?  This is the theme, the storyline and the plot are very different because it is not a philosophical treatise, it is a fiction novel.  The point of the novel is to use historical comparisons to bring up and answer these questions in the mind of the reader.

Centurion is a historical fiction novel that follows the life of a known historical person, the Centurion who executed Christ.  It posits a very historically based theme about the difference between belief and truth.  The point it asks of the reader is why would the Centurion at the foot of the cross say, "Surely this was the son of God."  This is the theme of the novel.

So in historical fiction, the theme may be historically based, or not.  The storyline and plot must be.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 6 The Voice of the Times and Culture

I'm not certain there is any writing that is easy.  All writing is difficult, but I think historical fiction may be the most difficult.  First, it requires a lot of research and especially primary and secondary source research (real research) that is if you intend to write good historical fiction.  Second, you must immerse yourself in the culture and understand it from the point of a participant.  Third, you have to be able to find the voice of the times and culture.  The voice of the times and culture is the point of immersion and research.  Fourth, you have to be able to write well.  The fourth point is beyond the scope of this series, but is is a critical point.  Many of us have read literature today that is crippled by the inability of the author to write well.  Many popular books are missing the spark of good writing and makes you wonder why they were published to begin with.  But back to the third point...if you can't capture the voice of the times and culture, your historical fiction will not be historical fiction, it will be a modern novel set in a historical period.  That simple observation has been my greatest experience with writing that claims to be historical fiction today.  Most is not historical at all, but rather modern fiction set in a historical period.  When you find modern issues and modern ideas along with historical infidelity in a historical novel, that writer has not taken the three required steps to write about the times.  So how do you find the voice of the times?  That is a function of immersion and knowledge, but the precise point is that you have to subjugate your mind to the mind of the times.  Now comes the difficult point.  To have the voice of the times and culture means the ability to convey that time and culture to your readers in the modern world.  I personally use many genre crossing techniques to allow a modern person to see the times and culture through the eyes of the modern world.  The normal technique in historical fiction is the one from my novel Centurion uses the typical model of simply a novel from the viewpoint of the people of the times.  There are no tricks and there is no ability or basis for comparison with the modern world.  The novel unfolds as a normal piece of historical fiction writing.  In The Second Mission, I use time travel as a technique to move the reader into the past.  This method allows the writer to make comparisons and to convey the period through the eyes of a modern person.  It also allows comparisons with a future world or ideas.  This is a complex method and requires the author to be strongly consistent in immersion and research.  If the comparisons aren't there, then their is no purpose in using this technique.  The third method I have used (by no means the last) is using a fantastic means to pull people from the past into the present.  Aegypt takes place in 1926 and pulls a being from the 18th Egyptian dynasty (1539 to 1295 BC) into that place and time.  The comparisons here and the power in the novel is the ability to see the world in the French Foreign Legion in Tunisia in 1926, the period of great archaeological discoveries in Egypt, plus the comparison of the world from the eyes of a person from classical Egypt.  And that ultimately is the power of historical fiction.  It allows the author to present the past as it was and lets the reader see the differences in the times and culture.  Tomorrow, I'll expand on this.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Editing and Proofing

I just completed my 20th novel, and I've been putting together novels in the 100K range pretty quickly lately. I can write a novel of this size in about 1 month. This is working from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm a day.

Step one is getting the words on the page. As each chapter is finished, I review it and rewrite. I make notes at the bottom of the chapter about the next steps in the plot/story line. This means when the novel is first completed, it has been through a first draft and a full rewrite. I always use spelling and grammar checking in Word, and I note every suggestion--even if I don't take it! (This is true of readers too. If you don't like their suggestion don't take it, or better yet, fix the passage, sentence, paragraph using your own style--never ignore your reader's comments. You are free to ignore computer grammar checker comments--they usually can't handle most dialog etc.)

Step two is a full rewrite. This is the big fix it stage.

Step three is to hand the manuscript to my readers. I usually have two at this stage. They give me lots of help with punctuation, words, etc. and that is great--what I really want is continuity in plot and theme. I want to know where the work needs tightening and where it doesn't make sense. I usually get these comments/ideas from discussions with my readers.

Step four is incorporating readers' comments and fixes and a total rewrite. I usually have had a while to think about the work and recognize where it might need help. Look especially for missing descriptions and incomplete or illogical incidents or inappropriately foreshadowed events etc.

Every time I go over the work from that point on, I will make changes. Key things to look for are overused words, expressions, trite constructions, spelling, grammar, punctuation, cohesive forms of words (spelling of numbers, etc.).

Step five is getting ready for publication. When the work first comes to me as a formatted pdf, I read it quickly hunting for errors and checking the editor's comments. This is the first go through.

Step six is the long lingering review of the first formatted pdf. This is when I send it to my readers. I use three readers for review prior to publication. I know there will be more than one go around, so I send the results of my long review back to the publisher before I hear from my readers.

Step seven is the second formatted pdf review. This is when I incorporate my reader's comments and corrections, and then I complete a "read out loud review." Always accomplish a read out loud review prior to the final. You will be glad you did.

Step eight is to go around again--if necessary.

Step nine is accomplished with the final document. Pull the pdf into Word and let it check for spelling a final time. You can do this by opening it, or by copy and pasting it into Word. This is the last chance. At this point, you probably won't be able to find any more errors.

Step ten: don't read your own books--you'll find errors. I guarantee it. At this point, you probably don't want to ever read the novel again.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 5 Religion

I've been writing about historical immersion as a means to prepare to write historical fiction.  The major points I've made have been about the tools to get historical information (primary and secondary sources) and getting rid of cultural and social prejudice.  I've been using examples mostly from ancient Greece, and articulated in my book The Second Mission  Today, I want to focus on religion.  As with all cultural and social mores, we imagine the world was always the way it is for us today.  We imagine our way of thinking and our ways of doing are the ways everyone lived and existed in the past.  The truth is very far from that.  Even today, people think much differently depending on their culture and society.  One of the most important, if not the most important issue in all cultures is religion.  Religion forms, focuses, and directs a culture.  This is especially true in the ancient world.  In a pagan worldview, which includes both animistic and pantheonic paganism, the culture understands the world and its forces only through the gods.  There is no conception of natural forces or nature.  In animism every thing that has force or life (plants, animals, heavens, clouds, the sea, bodies of water,...) has a god in it.  The god sustains and produces the forces in nature.  The god must be placated lest something bad happen.  So whenever a creature is killed, the god within (or in charge of) the creature must be placated--thus all killing required sacrifice to appease the gods.  With literacy comes pantheonic paganism.  In this form of pagan worldview, the gods take on new meanings and responsibilities, but are still the focus of all the power in the world.  Everything goes from the gods and the cause of all action in the universe is due to the gods.  The new functions of the gods are related to civilization itself: wisdom, writing, music, metallurgy, war, love... With literacy new ideas spring fully armed from the minds of men.  In the Greek worldview, men are fated (pathos) and the gods are fated (chronos), and the fates or both are not pleasant.  The world revolves around the gods and fate.  This is the center of the Greek universe.  It is a universe where no one will make a move without a word from the gods.  It is a world where everyone believes and those who don't, don't live long.  The religion is forced and enforced.  It is not coercive, it is obvious to everyone.  Even the Greek philosophers did not disagree on this most basic view in Greek thought.  They played on the edges of the whys and wherefores, but they did not dispute or disagree with any basic point of the pagan worldview.

Therefore, if you want to understand any culture well enough to write about it, you must begin to understand its view of religion.  You can't hold a people's religious view in contempt.  You can't judge it from within.  You can only look at it within the context of their culture.  It is a foundation and a center point of the entire culture, so you can't ignore it either.  Many modern writers completely ignore the religious views of the culture they write about.  They make their characters like modern thinkers who ignore religion or who parrot some non religious worldview.  Their characters miraculously understand the world from a modern world view based in cause and effect.  They assume that modern ideas infuse especially the thinking men and women of the past.  This is a completely false and foolish idea about the past and about history in general.  Religion drives the world--it especially powers the ancient world.  The modern wars driven by Islam and secular Communism should warn us that the modern world is driven by much more religion than many would like to admit.  In your immersion, you must learn much more than what the people ate (we saw religion played a huge role in Greek food) or what they did (look at the architecture of the Greeks, based on temples and the gods).  You have to learn how they thought and why their thoughts became the reality of their culture.  Only then can you start to understand enough to write about their history.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 4 Historical Immersion

The point I keep trying to make is that to write effective historical fiction, you must immerse yourself in the culture of the times.  I would also advise becoming familiar in some degree with the language and writing, but we'll get to that.  My primary expertise in with classical Greek and Anglo-Saxon languages.  I feel that I have been able to immerse myself well in those cultures at least to the ability to write about them.  Since they are the most familiar to me, I am especially concerned that other writers get those periods right in their writing.  Plus, my best and most powerful examples are from those times.  As I mentioned yesterday, you have to realise your moral or social prejudices must fall to the culture you intend to write about.  That doesn't mean you have to give up you morals or ideas, but you have to be able to subjugate them in order to understand the culture you are studying.  Yesterday, I put up the example of slavery.  Slavery was ubiquitous and considered moral in the ancient world.  In an historical novel, that view must come to your readers.  You have to be able to dispassionately approach subjects like this to give them reality and historical authenticity.  That doesn't mean you have to accept slavery, you just need to understand the culture and its underpinnings.  The same is true of every other subject important to human life and interaction.  One of the most misunderstood areas in ancient cultures is food and eating.  We tend to imagine that people in other cultures and other times ate similarly to us.  A simple trip to a foreign country or to a Japanese restaurant will show you otherwise, but it is more than that.  Most ancient cultures were survival cultures.  Few of the inhabitants ate as many calories as they wanted or needed.  In many cultures people only ate one meal a day, at the most two.  Meat was a commodity that was eaten very rarely.  Meat, in most ancient cultures was only eaten as a result of religious worship--following a sacrifice.  This is true of the Greeks.  They had meat only from sacrifices.  That means the wealthy ate meat perhaps once every other month at a festival or when they provided the sacrifice at a temple.  The temple precincts were next to the marketplace and extra meat was sold in the market.  The cost made it very dear.  Greeks would get most of their protein from fish, a non sacrificial animal, and dairy (cheese).  Can you imagine a world were meat is that precious.  I tell my classes that when momma (actually a slave or the father, momma was in the gynacium--next note) took her children to the market, they cried not for toys but for meat.

About women in Greek society.  I think in The Second Mission I gave the proper latitude of freedom to lower middle class women.  Upper class and upper middle class women were kept in a gynacium at home.  They were not allowed out of the gynacium when free men, other than those of their household, were in the house.  A gynacium was an isolated portion of the house.  Women were kept in a gynicium for their protection because in a near lawless culture, wealthy women were prey for many reasons.  In many regards, it is better to be a captive in your own home than to be dead, kidnapped, or raped.  Greek homes were built like miniature fortresses because of the problem of a lack of law or ability to keep laws except through "might makes right."  In spite of this, the social contract of the Greeks kept a relatively lawful society, but there were no police to keep the peace.  Your Demi (loosely, your familial group but of political and tribal dimensions as well) kept the peace and meted out judgement within the Demi.  Already, you should be able to see that the ancient Greeks are nothing like our culture.  They are nothing like the modern Greek culture.  If we decouple the fact that they are so different from our expectations, we may be able to start to understand them.  As you can see with food, religion is intertwined in the Greek culture.  This is true of all cultures in antiquity and many today.  Tomorrow, I'll write about this very important and much misunderstood dynamic of religion and life.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 3 Historical Information

What goes through the mind of a person who does not sit to eat or who doesn't have furniture?  Historical literature generally won't tell you because two things get left out of historical writing--especially ancient writing.  The first is the mundane.  You would be hard pressed to determine the rules of baseball from a movie or book about baseball.  The reason is that the basics of baseball are assumed to be understood within our culture.  The mundane doesn't get written down.  You could point to a book of baseball rules, and there would be your source for some of that information, but not all.  For example, you couldn't gather from a book of baseball rules, the seventh inning stretch or the playing of the national anthem or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  In the modern era, much of this data is available from various sources, but in the paucity and the economics of the ancient world, these details are rare.  The second part that gets left out of historical writing is what everyone knows but may be unique.  A great event like a battle or an earth quake or the movement of an army.  These are great events and unique, but they might not be written down because everyone in the time knows about them.  Those events that get written are the ones that were important to the writers and to their audience.  Those that were saved in history are the documents that were important to those who came later.  So you have to do what you can with the information you have.  The big point about writing about time of antiquity is that you have to immerse yourself in the worldview of the people and understand where they were coming from.  This is much harder than it sounds.  The first problem is cultural prejudice and the second is moral prejudice.  Both have to give way to immersion.

For example, almost every culture in the world prior to about 1830 was fully slave based.  This is not a debatable fact.  It is.  The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Anglo-Saxons, Norman-French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, do I have to list every nation in antiquity?  I could.  They are all slavery based even up as far as 1830.  In fact, the word "slave" comes from the word for Slav, because the Greeks and Romans claimed Slavs made the best slaves.  During the time from antiquity to the 19th century, slavery had gone from the province of the middle class to solely that of the wealthy and then very wealthy.  By the 1860s, in the US, the rate of slave ownership was 8% in the south.  In ancient Greece the ownership of slaves was about 100%.  The point I'm making here is to understand a slave based culture, you have to first of all recognize that it is slave based, and second, you cannot see it through modern cultural blinders.  When you write about the culture, the existence and expectations of slavery must be part of the writing.  Because it is so nominative to the people in the culture, it must seem normative in your historical writing.  Almost no one questioned the existence and ethics of slavery in any culture until the 18th century.  Your writing must acknowledge and report on the existence of slavery just as you might write about eating or sleeping or any other subject within the culture. 

After all, that's the whole idea, to understand the culture like a person from that culture so you can bring out the nuances of the society and times.  If you don't understand, what their lives are like, you can't begin to understand their history or write about them.  Tomorrow, I'll look more deeply at this subject and give more details.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 2 More on Immersion

The basics of immersion.  Immersion, in this context, is placing yourself in the position to understand the culture and times of the people you intend to write about.  I wrote yesterday that the first step is to research and read all the primary and secondary source documents about the time period that you can.  This is when you begin to build your data on the historical period you are studying.  I start a file of the information and add to it over time.  You can see some parts of these files at under the "secrets" pages for my books.  This isn't all the information, but parts of it.  This type of all inclusive research works well for antiquity, but for more modern history, the number of documents becomes overwhelming.  You have to select them carefully.  Past a certain point in the modern era (beyond Gutenberg), I'd recommend using only primary and secondary sources.  When I researched the period of the civil war for a yet unpublished novel, I used only primary and secondary source documents (mostly letters and personal accounts).  I limited my research to Southern documents from mostly the area of the events of the novel.  I used pictures and my experience of the area along with period documents and reconstructions.  Because the information is so copious from that time, I had to intentionally limit my studies to the area and people at hand.  This is an important point about your frame of reference.  My frame of reference was the people in a certain town, in a certain place, in a certain time.  The better your can bound the scope of your subjects, the better you can immerse yourself in their lives and the better you can write about them.

Let's look deeper at some very important ways of understanding a culture.  Start with a blank slate.  I implied this yesterday.  Don't start with any preconceived ideas about the culture or the history of the times.  That might blow your theme out of the water, but it is better to get the history right than to work toward an agenda that will not stand up to scrutiny.  Some of the most egregious mistakes I see in historical novels set in antiquity are the obvious historical errors in them.  Some of the worse are a lack of understanding of: furniture, clothing, money, cultural ideas, food, meat, sexuality, general culture, slavery, commerce, religion.  These basics drive a society and culture.  A lack of understanding of them will cripple any historical novel because they define the culture and time and the way people think.  For example, in the West, money was not invented until ca. 600 BC by the Lydians.  It was not ubiquitous in the known world until the Roman empire and even then it was rare in many areas.  If you write a novel in these periods, you have to understand there is no money in general circulation until about 250 BC.  You have to figure out, from history, how people traded and did business without money.  Even after money is available, it is rare, and people still use the older methods of trading without it.  Money, or lack of it, drives the entire culture and ideas of the people.  A book with money in it in the periods mentioned (definitely prior to 600 BC but in varying degrees until much later) is just silly.  Ubiquitous furniture is another example of a lack of understanding about the past.  People did not have furniture, except the very wealthy and royalty, until very late in human history.  People in antiquity in the West, especially the wealthy, lay on their sides to eat and sat on the floor or cushions.  Slaves sat up to eat.  There were few chairs.  Tables were nonexistent or very low and small.  There were few pots or pans or plates and no utensils used for eating.  I'll get into more details about these subjects tomorrow, but you can see how important these details are for understanding about the past and history.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 1 Immersion

One of the readers of this blog gave me the idea to write about "historical and social authenticity."  I thought I'd expand that thought and write specifically about producing historical fiction.  This topic will cover the suggested area well and give it an overall writing focus. do you start writing a historical fiction work?  The answer is easy--immersion.  The solution is hard.  Immersion in history and culture is hard and a lot of work.  I have written three published historical fiction novels and three published science fiction novels  The historical areas I immersed myself in was: ancient Greece in 400 to 399 BC, the Levant in 6 BC to AD 35, Tunisia in AD 1926 and Egypt in 1440 to 1340 BC, and AD 7,265 Anglo-Saxon culture. 

So, how do you do it?  How do you immerse yourself in an ancient or a future culture?  You immerse yourself in the same way you learn about a modern culture.  If you can go to the area of study, that is a great step, but not as effective as you think.  How can you go to ancient Greece or ancient Egypt?  You can't.  You can look at what those areas are like today, but they are only a shadow of the past.  Reading, research, and study is your best friend in immersing yourself in a time, place, and culture.  I start by reading primary and secondary source documents.  Primary documents are those from eye witnesses of the period in question.  Secondary documents are reports related by eye witnesses to others.  Only after I run out of primary and secondary source documents do I move to tertiary documents.  Tertiary documents are those that are not primary or secondary.  I try to use the earliest tertiary documents possible.  In studying about ancient Greece, there are many great source documents.  It is easy to, first of all, familiarize yourself with the period from the eyes of those who lived in it and, second of all, to begin to get a feel for the people and their thinking.  That is the ultimate point, you have to begin to experience life like the people of the times.  You have to begin to understand: what they ate. How they ate. How they worked.  How they worshipped.  How they entertained.  How they slept.  How they married.  How they played.  What did their world sound like?  What did it smell like?  What were their homes like?  What were their markets like...?  Think about all the pieces of your life today and do not assume that anything from any other period is like that at all.  You can't extrapolate.  You can't interpolate.  You must accept the world you are studying in the past as it is and not how you think it might be.  You should attempt to wipe out every idea you have about those people in the past and your experience of life today.  If you don't, you will not be able to realize their culture and times and transfer them to paper.

I'll give you a modern example of immersion.  I want to write a novel about Japan in AD 1000, the period of Genji.  This has been the most difficult immersion I have attempted.  The language is foreign to me.  The culture is significantly different than I am used to.  I have been working and studying this for about 5 years.  I started by reading every primary and secondary source from the time.  I eat Japanese food.  I plan to visit Japan.  I have visited Korea and done extensive study of China and Japan.  I have written some on ancient China--ancient China is easy compared to AD 1000 Japan.  I am working right now on the modern Japanese culture to begin to understand ancient Japan.  I'm working backwards because of the paucity of primary and secondary sources.  This isn't the best method, but it is a method.  I will eventually write this novel, but only after I can understand the thinking and culture of the people of the time.  So...immersion is the first step.  I'll explain more tomorrow. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Of Skunks and Inspiration

There I was.... That's the beginning of every bad or good aviation story, and this isn't an aviation story.  Well, there I was sitting in bed around midnight and reading on my iPad when my Shellie, Chino, came in snorting.  He snorts all the time (it means he's offended about something), but this was strange snorting.  I had heard him in an altercation with the neighboring wildlife--he does that often.  Usually he gets upset with raccoons, opossums, squirrels, birds, ducks, geese, and sometimes, skunks.  He was slammed by a skunk a couple of years ago--I thought he had learned his lesson.  He didn't.  There was no smell at first--then it came all at once and filled the room.  The smell was nothing like the terrible short whiff you get from a drive by skunk squish.  This was potent, and I could tell the skunk had been grazing in the rosemary in my house goddess' garden.  The house goddess rose from her slumber with a look of action in her eyes.  I knew what that meant.  I just wanted to throw the dog back into the darkness.  He could play all night with the skunk for all I care--his shots are up to date.  The house goddess pulled the skunk stink solution from her cupboard--did I tell you, she is always prepared (better than a boyscout or a girlscout).  We ended up in the poolhouse.  I ended up with skunk stink all over my hands.  The dog was desmelled, and I closed him in the mudroom.  No more midnight wilderness encounters for him.  Then we opened the windows, turned on the fans, and turned off the AC.  I went to sleep with the scent of very potent skunk in my nose.  I think it was slowly numbing my smeller, but not enough that I couldn't smell skunk.

What does this have to do with inspiration?  Actually nothing.  I have some new experiences, but all I wrote, I wrote to you.  I'm not sure how to turn this into a good scene either--all I could think is how mad I was at the dog for being stupid again.  Maybe he needs glasses--how about night vision goggles.  I thought dogs were supposed to be able to see well in the dark.  You would think after one skunk experience, he would have "caught a clue."  You can't feel sorry for the dog, the skunk, or the victims (me and the house goddess)--it would never make a good scene.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Using my novel Centurion, I made a test of FaceBook advertising and the Amazon associate program.  I had a budget of $150 for the FaceBook ads.  This meant I spent $5 per day for the ads on FaceBook.  The way a FaceBook ad works is that you set a max per day expenditure and a max bid per click.  Your ad appears on FaceBook pages at random based on your targeted audience and your bid.  When someone clicks on your ad, you pay the bid amount.  I let the system set the bid initially and adjusted it to $1 bid per click.  During the month of August, I had 1,096,288 impressions (the ad showed on that many FaceBook pages) and 135 clicks (135 people clicked the ad and went to my webpage at  The campaign cost me $107.75.  I checked the visitors to my page at and the visits matched well with the clicks.  The traffic on the site was up, but not that great.  I had 4 sales through the Amazon associate program during that time and made $0.68.  I did sell one book through the associate program, but not the targeted book.  The targeted book was bought at least 5 times through Amazon (through observation of the author central pages).  I have no measure of the number of books sold through other sellers.  I won't know that until January when I get the royalty reports.  There is no way to measure the effects of other marketing efforts.  I turned back the amount per day to $2.00, the minimum, and will keep it there for a while.  I'd like to keep the ad campaign going for at least 6 months.  When my new book(s) come out, I will put one up as an ad campaign.

So, the conclusions.  It hasn't hurt, but I'm not sure how much it helped.  I'll keep it going at a low level, and I'll keep up with the Amazon associate program.  The Amazon program doesn't cost anything and earned me almost 70 cents.  If I were you, I'd try it too.  Being an Amazon associate gives you some professional widgets on your site and can give you a measure of your traffic and sales.  A FaceBook ad campaign will bring more traffic to your site.