Posts Tagged historical fiction

‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones

for logoMy guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Penny

for logoMy guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Break your heart in just three minutes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Gaughran

for logoMy guest this week says music has always been a companion to his writing. He drafted his first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while travelling the world, and now he turns to music to settle into the writing mood. In his fiction he likes to explore the bittersweet, the unresolved, the questions, the dark side of a strength, and draws inspiration from the songwriters and performers who can break your heart in three minutes flat – while fitting the shape of a tune. He is David Gaughran and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music used to be background until this character’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Helen Hollick

for logoMy guest this week used to regard music as a mostly-ignorable atmosphere. Then one inspirational moment changed everything. She was listening to Mike Oldfield when a character leaped, fully formed, into her imagination – an enigmatic pirate of the Caribbean, skilled with a cutlass and a roguish smile. This character also proved a turning point in her career, as her agent advised her that the adult readership did not want stories about pirates. But so strong was her conviction about the character that she wrote him anyway – and thus her indie career was born. She is Helen Hollick, her novels are the Sea Witch series, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack. All say ‘arrr’.

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How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.


Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!

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‘Dark bars, blazing sun and volatile people’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Erika Robuck

My guest this week says music helped her slip away from 21st century family life into the volatile, simmering Key West of 1935. Her novel features a half-Cuban woman who goes to work for Ernest Hemingway (who himself once said he used words the way that Bach used notes). She is Erika Robuck and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for Hemingway’s Girl.

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‘I want you to feel what my characters feel; music helps me do that’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, VR Christensen

My guest this week is a fan of BBC literary adaptations and describes music as a ‘necessary luxury’ in her writing process – magnifying the worlds of her characters, helping her to wriggle inside their plights and their conflicts. She is historical novelist VR Christensen, author of the bestseller Of Moths And Butterflies and she is flitting over to the Red Blog today with its Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘The last days of Nazi Germany did not play out to Wagner, but sentimental hits about love and hope’ – Leslie Wilson, The Undercover Soundtrack

My guest this week drew on the music of 1930s Germany to flesh out her story of a girl who hides her Jewish boyfriend from the authorities. For some of the scenes, she even wrote lyrics in the style of the time. The novel, Saving Rafael, has been nominated for no fewer than four awards and Leslie Wilson is talking about its Undercover Soundtrack on the red blog today

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‘I’m almost not creating, but transcribing the feelings the music gives me’ – KM Weiland, The Undercover Soundtrack

My guest on The Undercover Soundtrack this week claims not to be musical in the slightest, but ‘endlessly fascinated by the power music has to tell perfect stories’. She is KM Weiland and she’s talking about the aggressive, dreamy soundtrack that beat, thudded and swelled behind her medieval novel Behold the Dawn. Join me at the red blog

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Genre pass notes – five key points on writing historical fiction

Like any genre, historical fiction has expectations and pitfalls. How much detail should you include? If the characters talk and behave differently from the way we do, how will you make that relatable? I put these thorny questions to KM Weiland, author of the medieval novel Behold the Dawn and historical western A Man Called Outlaw.   

1. Obviously one of the attractions for readers of historical novels is immersing themselves in the details of that world. But clearly you can’t overload the text with too much detail. How much historical detail do you include, especially of world affairs?

 At its heart, historical fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. The rules of description and backstory that apply to contemporary fiction also apply to historical fic. Love of history or no, historical readers aren’t likely to have the patience to sit through pages upon pages of pontificating about Roman politics or Napoleonic battle tactics or Regency etiquette. They want what every reader wants: a ripping good yarn. The history is just icing on the cake.

 So you include only those details that are necessary. Unless your Roman character is interested in or affected by politics, you don’t need to explain Senate procedures. If the Senate procedures are important to the story, then by all means slap them in there. But never flaunt your research in your reader’s face. Give them only what they need to know and make it matter to the story.

 2.       How much explanation would you give for the small details of everyday life – eg if a character made a cup of tea or brushed their teeth?

The small details are actually some of the most interesting to include, both because they are often little-known factoids and because they contribute so beautifully to the verisimilitude of the story. Fiction is in the details. But, just as with sweeping historical context, you have to be careful to contain your details—your drinking of tea and your brushing of teeth—to what’s pertinent. If you can work in strange and interesting details, it’s often an excellent opportunity to add originality to your scenes. But if the cup of tea is in there merely to show readers how tea was brewed in the early 1700s, it’s extraneous and will only serve to bloat your story and slow it down.

 3. How do you find an appropriate idiom for the characters’ dialogue while still sounding natural?

This is a delicate balancing act, since the speech patterns that were acceptable in times past now sound stilted and even pedantic to modern readers. For instance, back in Charles Dickens’s day, contractions were used only by the lower classes. But to write dialogue sans contractions nowadays sticks out like Ebenezer Scrooge at the office Christmas party.

It’s important to develop a good ear for the rhythm and flow of period dialogue, by reading extensively in period literature. Some people have had excellent success mimicking period dialogue (Patrick O’Brian comes to mind), but usually it’s best to find a happy medium. Give your dialogue just enough of an “antique” flavor to keep the reader in the period without bogging him down in alien speech patterns. For example, in the time period in which my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn is set, modern-day English was almost entirely unknown, so I had to find a speech pattern that would be intelligible to readers while still grounding them within the setting.

4.       With characters’ behaviour and culture, how do you make characters who modern readers can relate to, but don’t behave anachronistically?

Social mores have a way of evolving and devolving in some pretty crazy ways. What used to be perfectly acceptable would now be considered barbaric. Much of Behold the Dawn centers around the tourney games. These gladiatorial mock battles, which were wildly popular at the turn of the 12th century, are shocking in their violence to us in the 21st century.

And yet the wonderful thing about history is that no matter how much the world changes, the basic elements are always the same. Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.” So human nature, in all its tragedy and triumph, remains essentially the same in every time period. We can still find depravity and integrity, guilt and redemption, disappointment and hope—and these elements can translate even the most foreign of situations into something we can all understand.

5.       You write fantasy as well. How has writing historical fiction helped?

 My first fantasy novel Dreamers Come (due out in 2012) featured a society with a medieval basis, so I got to use much of my historical research as a launch pad. Having taken meticulous notes during my research period for Behold the Dawn, I understand the power of precision in my descriptions of places and battles. But it was an interesting experience being freed of the strict timeline of a historical period. In fantasy, I’m free to create my own timeline, which was both liberating and a little bewildering. I have several ideas for future stories that incorporate fantasy elements into actual historical periods, so I look forward to the melding of the two worlds!

 Thanks Katie! As well as writing historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska, KH Weiland blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture. She also has an incredibly useful e-book, Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Guide to Bringing Your Characters to Life, available on her website totally free.

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