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Old April 8th, 2015, 04:49 AM   #1
Joined: Apr 2013
From: Home of Ringing Rocks
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General Writing Questions

I am finding certain aspects of writing challenging and could use some advice. I thought maybe others here might be having their own challenges and that we could use this thread to help each other out.

This is my major challenge, and I admit, there may be an obvious answer to it, but I'm just not seeing it...

It's understanding physical aspects of a place during the time period. For example, if I were to use Puerto Rico in my story, I know that Luquillo Beach is very different from the beach in Boquerón. Boquerón has lots of seashells and Luquillo doesn't. Some beaches are good for surfing, while others are calm and shallow, while still others are great for snorkeling. Inland, the natural areas outside of Ponce are more desert-like, whereas areas like El Yunque are rainforest. IIRC, there's even a difference in water temperature from the east and west coasts. And most hurricanes hit the NE part of the island, the whole island doesn't get hit equally.

Now, that's today, and I told you all that off memory and mostly from physically visiting those places. But what about 200 or 300 years ago? I know that Boston, for example, was almost an island when Massachusetts was part of the colonies. Today, a huge amount of the bay has been filled in and it looks nothing like it did then (I'm focusing on the "natural" aspects of a place for the moment, not the buildings and such). OTOH, from my understanding, Little Egg Harbor, NJ has areas near it that look much the same way it would have looked then because there's a huge nature preserve close by.

Some things have made themselves known as I've done other research, like I know that the weather in the Atlantic sort of flip flops during the year and affects when and where ships sailed to some degree. But other things seem to take hours to find, if I find them at all.

Maps help. From old maps, I can see that Boston has changed, I can see where the little islands were in the bay, and many of them provide the depth of the water throughout the bay as well, but I haven't noticed them showing if the shore is rocky, sandy, piney, cliff-y, etc. Now, maybe all this is on the maps, and maybe it's just too small on the computer screen to see. (Boston is a poor example, because so many authors have written about that area, and I actually have a thread about that one, I should be able to find out about their physical space fairly easily, but there are other places that don't have a gazillion books written about them - those are the ones I'm having trouble with).

I've tried to just ignore this aspect of my writing for the time being and just write the story line with the intention of revisiting the physical aspects later, but it irks me not to know.

SO, my question is, is there an easy way to find this information, or do I just continue watching for it as I research other things? Is there a book? How do writers deal with this? Do they physically visit the area and check out the library's old papers/maps?

PS - don't forget your questions, if you have any.

Last edited by R5 plus; April 8th, 2015 at 04:52 AM.
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Old April 8th, 2015, 05:48 AM   #2

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1. The more research you do, the better you will get at it. Increasing your knowledge base, by whatever means, is the goal. Archival sources are a great place to find primary sources, and those documents written at the time often contain the sort of detail you appear to want. Some archives are available on line, but I'm an old-school guy who likes rummaging through old papers, or sitting for hours at micro-film kiosks. The more narrow your focus, the faster you can usually find the information. On the other hand, a broader search often leads to surprising and very interesting results.

For most fiction, a few great little details are a plus to help lend credibility and a sense of substance to your writing. The more contemporary your setting, the easier it is to find such details. Elmore Leonard was famous for sending friends to visit locals to report back on their experience. For instance, he might want to know the color and pattern in a hotel lobby, and have a series of photographs of the site.

Ancient settings need far less accurate detail, and you can substitute modern environments that are close to the best guess of what existed a few thousand years ago. It is the middle ground that present the most problems. Modern urban environments have changed so much and so quickly that many readers will remember "back in the day". "I grew up on just such a farm, and it weren't like that a'tall". Get a detail wrong, and you're toast. Do the best you can, and then put your reader to work filling in the details. A famous example is the Hemingway short story where the only details are when one of the two characters takes off her straw hat and carefully places it on the seat of a Range Rover. As a reader you are there and witness to the action and its outcome with never noticing how little detail is supplied. This takes practice and skill.

2. More generally. Keep your sentences short, simple and to the point. Averaging 14 words to the sentence is a pretty good target. Use action verbs, and avoid any sort of modifiers unless they are absolutely essential. Words have weight and meaning, so use those words that carry the story forward, and avoid weak words, or those that a reader has to slow down to digest. Don't let the writing get in the way of telling your story in a n interesting way that keeps the reader actively involved. We write for the reader, not for ourselves. Ideally the author disappears leaving the reader in a credible world, not too different from their own. Readers tend to identify with the characters, especially the protagonist. "The hero was just like me, though I weigh 290 pounds and work as a clerk for an accounting firm." It is the inner life and world that matter most, and that is often best revealed by the dialog. A lot of readers may skip long narrative passages, but hardly anyone skips over well-written dialog. During the 19th century a book had to last a long time. Each evening after Daddy came in from the fields and our soup bowls were licked clean, we sat before the fireplace and Mother read a chapter of Dickens before we went to bed, to dream. That example might be too long, but it illustrates a couple of the points I wanted to make for you.

Here is a possible revision for the first of many editing cycles: Daddy was always tired, and our farm did its best to kill him. At the end of the day, he sat silent at the table while Mother's watery soup was served. We ate in silence after the prayers, and left no scraps behind. We had no clock and as night fell we gathered around the warm glow of the fire. This was a special time when Mother would take down Oliver Twist from the mantle. As she read, the family was transported to a world far from the harsh reality of our own lives. Even Daddy laughed and cried as the chapter unfolded. Then we were off to bed and dreams. Shorter sentences, and details alluded to but left sketchy enough for the reader to imagine, and the passage is loaded with information to enrich the larger story development.

Last edited by Asherman; April 8th, 2015 at 05:51 AM.
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Old April 8th, 2015, 05:58 AM   #3

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That last point is meant to underscore the importance of editing. You will note that the word "silent" appears twice in the passage. That gives rise to the next edits, and sometimes a single passage may involve ten or more edits in the search to find just the right combination of words to best tell the tale.

3. Modern readers have more potential entertainment, and they demand text that moves at a pretty fast pace. A story that takes a couple of hours to read, hasn't much of a chance to hold reader interest. This is another reason to keep your sentences and graphs streamlined. If a reader doesn't understand a word or phrase, you stand a good chance of losing them. Don't write down to the reader, but write in the way your target audience finds comfortable and not too challenging. The story is supposed to be the challenge, not your means of telling it.
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Old April 8th, 2015, 09:01 AM   #4

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Originally Posted by R5 plus View Post
(Boston is a poor example, because so many authors have written about that area, and I actually have a thread about that one, I should be able to find out about their physical space fairly easily, but there are other places that don't have a gazillion books written about them - those are the ones I'm having trouble with).

That's the catch, though. The more well-known places are easier to research. If you're researching an obscure place, my advice would be to focus your research on the nearest big city or well-known place and hope you find some passing mention of your place in there somewhere. Newspapers are a good place to start. There are lots of old newspaper archives online. The Library of Congress has one, and so do the websites of some city libraries. This site also has a bunch of old newspapers and magazines from all over the US and Canada. The presentation and navigation could be better, but there's a ton of info here if you have the patience to scour through it

Old Fulton NY Post Cards Newspaper Index page 1
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Old April 11th, 2015, 07:40 AM   #5
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So, basically, what you're both telling me is that there are no shortcuts...I suspected as much, but was hoping someone might tell me something different.

As always Asherman, a wealth of information in your posts . Thanks for that.

I think one of my biggest struggles is that I tend to focus too much on one (or a few things) as I'm reading and don't realize until later that some "minor" details I skimmed were actually important to me...And then I'll remember that I read something about it, but don't remember where I read it. It's different reading materials with the intention of writing something off the information as opposed to reading it to learn something or just plain enjoy it.

stevapalooza - Great idea about the newspaper. And I actually just discovered that newspapers in the 18th century often had a "shipping" section that talks about, you guessed it, ships (which is where my interest lies). Thanks.
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Old December 1st, 2015, 06:57 AM   #6
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From: Indianapolis
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My favorite historical novelist, James Alexander Thom, is famous for his meticulous research. He is particularly known for getting the details of the physical place down for his reader to "feel" the experience.

For instance, when he researched "Follow the River", he physically retraced every step of Mary Draper Ingles' journey from Ohio to North Carolina, following the same paths she took to return home after escaping her Shawnee captors.

He says the body remembers many details that the mind forgets. In other words, walk and feel the land under your feet. Get to know the landscape intimately.
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Old December 1st, 2015, 08:46 AM   #7
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I don't have the discipline to research 'properly'. It means that I meet some very interesting people and learn about a whole load of events.
There are four volumes written by Thomas Carlyle in the mid 1800s. They are the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, with elucidations.
Imagine, no internet, no telephone etc. but Carlyle gathered together almost every letter or speech relating to Cromwell.
Another place that I find esssential (and addictive) is British history online.ac
There are bits and pieces from all over the place. Translated state archives from Milan and Venice. I lose myself in there for hours.
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