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If you’re writing Historical Fiction you’re most likely in love with the past. While writers adore research and taking notes, diving into costume templates and other delights, it’s important to remember that unless you’re writing a text book there’s Story and there’s History. Don’t confuse the two.
Historical facts are like backstory. Their there to enhance, not overwhelm. A delicate hand is needed to spice up stories if we’re going to transport readers to the world we are recreating. It’s rich details, the little bit of this, and little bit of that we can use to enliven stories without dumping a lot of unnecessary, dry facts on top of readers who will turn away.
Because history to me is so enjoyable, when I approach a project in the early stages, I give myself a time limit to do research. It helps keep me centered on story, and prevents a trip far off field that will prevent me from actually writing the story and over-researching. In fact, I under-research. In the beginning. When I get into the draft, I leave blanks if I haven’t read deeply enough and go back after my first draft is done to read more on the topic so I can flesh out the scene first. Always remember, story first. I typically limit my initial research to two weeks to a month, depending on scope and familiarity with subject matter. I watch documentaries, read primary and secondary sources and research costumes. I do not research technical aspects yet, such as weaponry and language. Once I start writing the draft, I review notes and let the story guide me. If something needs more research, I’ll note and go back. The old Stephen King Cleveland trick. These things are usually things I want also to see in person. I’ll watch a YouTube video first, then schedule an appointment with a local expert. That’s it.
It’s crucial not to get overwhelmed with details. If you’ve loaded your draft with too much detail or find your characters speechifying-teaching history-you’ve gone too far. History like backstory is a spice. While I want readers who enjoy that time period to be charmed and delighted, I know I’ve done my job when I’ve transported a reader who knew nothing about the era. Those are the ones you should be aiming at. Don’t be afraid to use foreign words with elan, these are the things that bring your world to life.
If you don’t know how to do it, try something like, “I wrapped the rich uchikake around my shoulders for warmth. It was always welcome to have padded kimono on a night like this.” You’ve defined the item once, now be free to use the word again without having to define and the effect is seamless. The reader gets it.
How do you like to research? Do you dive in or do you do just enough to sprinkle the story?
I was chatting the other day during my errands. Writing came up, and they grew wide-eyed and interested as they asked, almost conspiratorially, “You’re a writer? How do you get published?” I realized then, that the novice who dreams of writing, is all too interested in putting cart before horse. It was only after I was slugging bundles in the back seat that I wished I could have said more.
I vaguely recall that place. Where the drive is nascent but not yet crystalized enough to carry them through the long days night. They really have no idea what they are doing. It’s dangerous, and kinda exciting too. Pull up a chair, or a bed because it’s not easy and it’s not over night. It’s not even next week, maybe not even next year.
1.) Forget publication. For now.
So often when we start thinking the world is ready for our stuff. If you’re just starting out, the world is not ready. You’re not ready. Develop your craft. Take classes through Writers Digest or local extension schools. Write and write some more. If you’ve written a novel or have a Nano project that was never EDITED TO DEATH, forget about subbing. You’re barely out of the gate.
2.) Get in the habit.
Write every day. If you want to write a novel, make an outline first. I started out years ago as a panzter. It made the editing process extra-long and while the book got better with every draft, I knew there was a better way. There are great books on craft out there. Story structure will save your life. You can’t hope to plot out a novel correctly without some form of road map.
3.) Get an obsession.
If you find a higher reason to write all the better. Figure out why you want to do this, not money. Not fame. And when you do, don’t talk about your work. Keep your novel close while you’re in writing phase, don’t show it to friends and family. Trust me, your enthusiasm will wane. It always works for me. This will help you through the endurance phase, when your writing buddies quit, but you have the chops to stick it out.
4.) Speaking of writing buddies.
If you can’t post your work because you can’t take it, you’re not ready. You need good critique partners to swap with. They are your only line of defense in a tough industry. Getting editorial help is a good if you can afford it, but it WILL NOT GUARANTEE success. Why? You pay editors. They have a pecuniary interest in your work. They also take too many projects, if they are in demand. You need unbiased truth here, the kind you will only get from friends who want you to succeed and who play a valuable role helping you along the journey. You help them, they help you. They are the best help you will get, and you will learn hugely by critiquing their work.
5.) Read often.
Writers read. It’s that simple. You can’t learn the craft if you don’t read what others do. Read wide, in your genre and read outside your genre. If you’re trying to get published, read as many debuts as you can to crack the code.
6.) Believe in yourself.
Not everybody can write, despite the old saw that everyone has a story inside. If you can’t write, you’ll find out sooner or later. But if you learn the craft and stick to it, you may be able to get better. It takes grit and a thick skin, those who would give up at the first rejection letter will give up. They won’t believe in themselves or their story. They’ll be swayed by one agent’s opinion and won’t realize that while they can always improve, writing is subjective. Not everyone will love their story. But someone will.
Here’s a great link to K.M. Weiland’s site on Story Structure. I highly recommend the book.
If anyone is interested, e-mail me I have great Theme/Structure Chart you can use to help plot your novel. It’s copywrited by a well-known agent so I will not post. But it helped me immensely.
When I was researching my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I was interested in setting the story in a portion of Japan not as well known. I had seen the movie Silk, and my imagination was immediately captured by snow on pine. Hokkaido was that outpost that I chose to set my series. When I was looking around for inspiration for my daimyo-antagonist character, Matsumae couldn’t have been more perfect.
Though the character of Matsumae Yoshinobu is fictional, his backstory is one of rebellion and going it alone. The Matsumae ruled a portion of the island of Hokkaido, “Ezo” as it was known in the 1600s, and were given a unique fiefdom from the shogun. Most of the territory was wild, impenetrable forest. The native peoples called Ainu had settled it for years and were down as far as the Kuril Islands. The Ainu were tribesmen, completely different to the Japanese. They lived off the land, hunted and were considered unkempt and inferior. In exchange for protection of the northern borders against Russian and Ainu incursions, the daimyo were given a free hand. This was huge. It meant that the Matsumae didn’t have to travel every other year in a costly tribute journey like most other daimyo. They were left alone and they developed a thick skin.
The life was hard. Rice didn’t grow, they had to import their rice because winters were long, and the Matsumae relied on trade with the Ainu, of which they ran several taikin outposts as they began to subject the native peoples. Historians have noted that Matsumae daimyo are weak, inconsequential and occupied an anomaly in Edo’s otherwise centralized system of daimyo management. The shogun needed them. He was across the Straits on another island, Honshu, and that made administration of the hinterlands difficult. The northern borders were extremely important especially when Russia began to make more trips into Japan, and by the 18h century, there was real fear that they meant something more sinister.
In 1792, a seminal voyage from the Russians convinced the Edo government that the Russians were up to no good, that they had reason to suspect conquest. A Russian ship led by an officer of Finnish-descent, Adam Laxman landed in Hakodate and wintered at Matsumae castle. They demanded trade, and needed supplies. They pulled out papers signed by their Empress giving them authority to offer trade with the shogun. They had Japanese castaways with them that had washed up on Russian shores. They wanted to return them as a sign of goodwill. Europe was in flux. The French Revoltion infected the Russian Empress with paranoia who suspected the castaways as spies, but that was beside the point. The Russians meant to leverage them. It was all for naught. What started as a “friendship mission” was viewed with disdain and hostility. The daimyo met with the Russian ship, but told them they were unwelcome to trade. He gave them a paper that said they should go to Nagasaki if they wished to return and one ship a year would be recognized. This paper has been debated for centuries. The truth is, the Japanese were really calling the Russians bluff, and didn’t expect they would return.
The trip was considered a disaster. The Russians lingered through a never-ending winter with meager supplies and no trade treaty, but as the first Russian voyage to step foot in Northern Japan, they were treated somewhat decently. They didn’t help themselves to the women of Matsumae, and they behaved when they were told to leave in spring. But the threat was there. It was real and the Matsumae daimyo performed a valuable service in keeping the Russian bear from marching on Edo.