How do you decide on the language to use in dialogue? Clearly modern expressions would be out of place. But the language of the time is also inappropriate because readers wouldn’t understand it, even if you researched it enough to be able to write it.
As with all these dilemmas, you have to find the right balance between these two approaches.
In any novel there will be some back story. Most characters haven’t just been born. They had a life before the novel began. And even one who has just been born has parents with back stories that will impact on the newborn. Some of that previous life will be relevant to the current story and needs to be told. It is also important to set the scene, whether indoors or out, to give readers a feeling for the setting (or settings) of the novel in place and time.
Even more so for a historical novel. Most readers will be unaware of the norms, limitations and customs that shaped everyday life in the specific time period. They won’t know what places looked like before the advent of cars, fridges and electricity wires.
It is the job of the writer to tell them what life was like in those days.
Readers don’t want information dumped on them. The backdrop doesn’t have to be described at once and the back story, however interesting, doesn’t move the current story along. Whatever can be shown during the story shouldn’t be told upfront. This is true of all fiction; in historical fiction there are more unknowns, making the avoidance of infomation dumping more difficult.
P.S. I’m looking forward to reading your comments. It might take me three days to reply, but reply I will.
An anachronism is before its time – usually in a bad way. It’s a thing that belongs to a period other than the one in which it exists or is attribed to. Usually we think of anachronisms as being misplaced. We think the author hasn’t done their homework. Unless they have been placed there on purpose for comic effect.
The Flinstones, for example, brought twentieth century issues into the lives of a Stone Age family.
But anachronisms are not suitable for serious historical novels.
Not all anachronisms are obvious. I don’t think anyone would make the mistake of having a character switch on a light in the Middle Ages. But would you know not to put a xylophone in an orchestra before 1874?
Anachronisms are not only wrong as actual things before their time, but also in similes and metaphors. As Chuck Sambuchino writes: “A fierce windstorm in a novel set in ancient Rome should not sound like an onrushing train.”
This is one reason why research is essential. And editing.
I’m delighted to welcome Nancy Jardine, Scottish author of historical romantic adventures, contemporary mystery thrillers and YA time travel historical adventures. As you’ll see, I’m rather in awe of Nancy and I’m hoping she’s about to provide some useful advice.
Nancy Jardine: author
Nancy, I am amazed and very impressed by all that you manage to do. You have published a number of books in various genres and are working on several more. You post regularly on your blog, thrilling readers with interviews, wonderful scenery and updates about you and your writing. You appear on other blogs in guest posts and interviews. You are active on social media. You do author events. And on top of all that you have babysitting duties. Do you have a secret stash of daily hours that mere mortals like me can’t access? How do you fit everything in?
I don’t feel I do fit everything in. I have ‘things’ I want to achieve in a day but often the domestic side overtakes everything else and the priorities shift. Your readers can read more of my domestic situation in my bio below, so I won’t repeat here. An exciting update would be that…the foundations for the new house were started only yesterday [now a few days ago] and I’m sure you can imagine that there was a lot of celebration in our house after all the red tape issues were finally over. I’m about to begin a BLOG DIARY about ‘My lost back garden’. Anyone interested can follow the progress on my blog – Nancy’s Novels.
Apart from lack of writing time just now, I know that I have too many manuscripts on the go. I want to work on them all – but that is way too fanciful. My writing targeting plans, made in January on my blog, need a lot more effort to be fruitful! The procrastinator’s way (mine) is to do more blogging which makes me feel that I’m still writing – just different writing. I’m weaning myself from Facebook, which is just too enticing sometimes.
Don’t I know it! Can you tell us about the settings of your novels? How important are the locations to the stories? Do you think it’s possible to write about a place you’ve never been to?
All my settings are carefully chosen for particular reasons that fit with my plots. In Topaz Eyes – my contemporary Award Finalist for The People’s Book Prize 2014 – I used a number of different destinations in the mystery thriller that’s also a treasure hunt with deadly consequences. I’ve been to every place mentioned and I selected them very carefully for use in the novel. When I wrote Topaz Eyes in 2011, it had been some time since I’d visited Vienna and Heidelberg. I used the internet to check that some mentions were still reasonably current. Checking was paramount because the colour of the tram system in Vienna changed in early 2011 from red to yellow. Checking was even more important for Amsterdam, because a place I’d remembered fondly from when I lived there in the early 1980s had been demolished. The Poffertje Stall which sold tiny Dutch pancakes near the centre of Kalverstraat – a main Amsterdam pedestrian street – had gone when I visited in April of 2011. I had a minor panic because I’d included the stall in Topaz Eyes. The manuscript was at first edit stages with Stephanie Patterson of Crooked Cat Publishing but when I got home from my holiday, I emailed and asked to make some changes to the story. Although it wasn’t likely that many readers would have picked up on this, I knew about it and it would have bugged me to leave it. There’s still a scene involving Poffertjes, for a significant reason, but it now fits with contemporary Amsterdam.
Crooked Cat is re-launching two of my other contemporary mysteries – Monogamy Twist and Take Me Now. There are a few locations which feature in these novels that I haven’t been to. I used the internet for information but I also got other handy tips from my daughter, who had visited them during her ‘year-out world trip’ after university. Therefore, I personally believe it’s possible to write about places you’ve not actually been to.
How do you set about writing a historical novel? Do you have the whole story in mind before doing any research, or does the story form itself as you discover details? Do you have any tips for an author planning to explore this genre for the first time?
I think that historical work always needs thorough research. Readers of historical fiction can be very disappointed if they find anachronisms or something that’s just wrong for the era – and I count myself among that readers group. I try very hard to give an accurate portrayal of my chosen era of first century AD Roman Britain in my Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures, even though historical details for the era are scant and much is gleaned from interpretation of archaeological data. If the epoch is completely new to an author, I’d suggest a good consolidation time of research would be necessary to get a real feel for the times. In my case, my teaching of Celtic/Roman Scotland gave me a great background to feed from. Book 1 of the series evolved from a basic plot and grew and grew. Books 2 and 3 of the Celtic Fervour Series took a lot more research since I knew very little of the Roman military infiltration of Britannia. Once I’d learned about the campaigns of Agricola, Governor of Britannia in AD 78-86, I was able to plot out the movements of my characters. However, I found that using the writings of Tacitus (a Roman historian) was misleading. He is one of the few prime source writings of the era but it’s long been known that his writing is somewhat biased towards a Roman slant, his summation of events not particularly reliable. Tacitus’ dating of events is now seriously flawed by a number of years, according to the latest twenty-first century archaeological findings – recent dendrochronology (wood deposits) findings now dating the construction of Roman forts and fortresses much more accurately. Agricola was credited with making early campaigns into northern Britannia (Scotland) but dendrochronology dating is now putting those first Roman footsteps, in Scotland, back to the times of previous Roman governors, like Cerialis and Frontinus. My tip to an aspiring historical author would be try to keep abreast of recent developments in your chosen era because things can surprise you part way through the writing of a novel and, if you’re like me, you’ll want to make changes for better credibility.
I enjoyed hearing (and seeing) you read from After Whorl: Bran Reborn in this video, although I didn’t understand every word due to the quality of the recording and being unaccustomed to your gorgeous accent. Do you think being a teacher provided good experience for readings and other author events? Was there anything else that prepared you for life as an author?
That’s an interesting question, Miriam. The answer might be perhaps. The funny thing is that during my 25 years of teaching mostly 11-12 year olds, I could stand up in front of them and just get on with whatever I’d planned. The same was not the case when I was in front of adults and my teacher colleagues. For some reason adults made me nervous and doubt myself. I was extremely tense just before my first author talk in 2013, but as it happened the audience was small – I think only about seven people – and I wasn’t nervous once I got started. I’ve not been in front of any more than 15 people so far with author engagements but I’m hoping that a bigger audience won’t make me nervous in the future. At present, I’ve no planned author talks but I’m hoping to arrange some soon for my YA time travel historical novel, The Taexali Game, which I intend to self-publish soon. I’m presently waiting on my cover design and when that’s decided on, I think I’ll be good to start promoting it. However, I’m quite anxious about the self-publishing process – even though I know that thousands of other authors have done it themselves.
What other author events do you take part in? Which events have you found most useful for selling books?
Apart from my author talks at local public libraries, and women’s groups like the Women’s Rural Institute, the only other events I’ve attended have been when selling my books at local craft fairs. My first foray with this ‘public selling’ technique was when a friend agreed that my books are my ‘produce’ and that I could take a stall and sell at our Farmers’ Market in the local county town. These markets happen one Saturday morning every month, under canvas awnings, and are held in almost all weathers. (We are talking north-east Scotland!) At first, I was uneasy about being ‘out there’ and on show as an author. As it happened, I thoroughly enjoyed coming across new people to talk to about my books; potential readers; and people from my teaching past – fellow colleagues and some parents of kids I’d taught. The downside is that wind and rain are NOT good for paperback books or for printed publicity material. After a few of these outside markets, I was very fortunate to be invited to join FOCUS, a local crafters group who have bookings for their Craft Fairs in public Halls across Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (FOCUS means Festival Of Crafts Unique to Scotland.) FOCUS events are all held indoors, so weather isn’t a problem and my table display doesn’t blow away!
Between September and December 2014, I sold a total of 140 of my paperback novels at Craft Fairs and Author Talks. That’s not huge sales compared to some authors, but it was a thrilling start for me. I intend to sell at fairs this coming 2015 season which begins in April. The most exciting thing about selling at Craft Fairs, so far, is that I’ve had a few return customers who liked the first book they’d bought and they then bought more of my work. The only minor drawback to selling at these fairs is that I spend around 7 hours on a Saturday that could potentially be new writing time. Nevertheless, as published authors, we all now know that promotional time must be spent and is a huge time suck!
Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Miriam.
Thank you for coming, Nancy, and for your interesting and helpful responses.
Nancy Jardine lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland – currently with her husband, daughter, son-in-law, 3 year old granddaughter and almost 1 year old grandson. It’ll continue to be a busy household till late summer when the new build home should appear on the back garden for the young ‘uns. The great thing about that is Nancy now has less of her original garden to tend, and any garden jobs that side of the property will soon be someone else’s! Child minding is intermittent over the day, so writing time is precious – the tendency is for it to be between 9 p.m. and 1a.m.
Her published work to date has been two non-fiction history related projects and six novels. Three of the novels are contemporary mysteries, the others historical romantic adventures set in northern Roman Britain, late first century AD – published by Crooked Cat Publishing. By spring 2015, she’ll have published The Taexali Game, the first of her Rubidium Time Travel series for a Middle Grade/ YA market.
All matters historical are a passion; Ancestry research a lovely time-suck. She regularly blogs; loves to have guests visit her blog; and Facebooking is a habit she’s trying to keep within reasonable bounds! Any time left in a day is for reading, though her TBR list of books on her kindle is now huge.
My guest today is the Crooked Cat author, Vanessa Couchman, whose debut novel is set in Corsica. In The House at Zaronza, a young woman uncovers the story of a secret romance from the beginning of the twentieth century.
Hello Vanessa and welcome to my blog. Could you start by telling us about the place you live in?
Hi Miriam, and thanks for inviting me. We have lived full time in South West France since 1997. We fell in love with an ancient farmhouse set in glorious countryside. Having a continental climate it can be freezing in winter (no one tells you that before you move!) and roasting in summer. But we love it here. I’m not a city person by temperament and the country life suits me perfectly. Although it’s good to catch up on exhibitions, theatre etc and especially English bookshops whenever I go to London.
People think Israel is always hot, and are surprised when I mention snow in Jerusalem.
How well did you know French before you moved and how good is your French now?
I learned French at school for years but it doesn’t equip you for living here! My grammar was good but I could barely string two words together. (My husband had lived in France before, so his French was reasonable). I went to French classes for 4 years and now I would say my French is fluent but not perfect. Being a perfectionist, I will probably always say that!
Ah, a perfectionist. That fits with my impression – that you’re organised and modest. Organised because of the way you handled your interview of me, down to the exact time when it would be published, and even converted that to my time zone. And modest because when I praised you for being organised you downplayed it.
Does that trait also apply to the way you write? Do you plan everything before you start?
I was brought up not to push myself forward, so the idea of blowing my own trumpet always makes me squirm. Not the best of attributes, perhaps, when it comes to marketing books! I suppose I would describe myself as efficient and can achieve quite a lot if I set my mind to it. I also have a tendency to indolence, so there are bursts of activity with fallow periods in between. When it comes to writing, I do like to plan things – but not too much, since that can stifle creativity. Sometimes, I just like to start writing with an idea in mind and see how a particular scene will work out.
I have the same problem when it comes to marketing books. It doesn’t come naturally, but we twenty-first century authors have no choice.
I recently wrote a blog post about the word ‘passion’ after someone wrote that it has no place outside the bedroom. Having concluded that it does, I wonder what you’re passionate about.
Gosh, hard to know how to answer that one. I’m passionate about women’s rights and passionately against oppression in any form. That all sounds a bit high falutin’, so coming closer to home, I’m passionate about history, which was the subject of my first degree, and that’s why I normally choose to write historical fiction. My interest in history grows as I get older and I’m particularly interested in Corsican history and the history of the area of France where I live.
I’ve never tried or wanted to write historical fiction before, but an event I happened to come across triggered an interest. How should I go about it? Do you have any tips for writing historical fiction?
Gosh! I’m no expert. One of the dilemmas is how much history and how much story to include. Getting the balance right is very hard. Great chunks of historical background will just turn off the reader. Equally, you have to get your facts right and ensure that you have captured the spirit of the age.
Since we’re talking about fiction, my advice is to focus on getting the story right and worry about some of the detail later on. You still have to research the period in question, but the research shouldn’t develop a life of its own. Sometimes you have to adjust the storyline in the light of the history. But navigating a course through these problems is just what fascinates me about historical fiction.
You have written historical fiction. Therefore you’re much more expert than I am, and this looks like excellent advice.
I enjoyed reading The House at Zaronza very much. I particularly liked the superb writing, the settings and being able to lose myself in the story. What have others said about it?
Thank you. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. Well, you know what I said above about squirming! However, I’ve been delighted with readers’ responses to Zaronza. A number of people have mentioned the Corsican setting, which is pleasing, since that was very important for me. People have also mentioned that they felt involved with the characters and kept reading to find out what happened when they should have been doing other things! And lots of people have asked about a sequel, which was not something I considered when I first wrote it, but I am working on one now.
Lastly, I’m interested to hear more about the choirs you sing with. I have belonged to choirs in the past, but only one at a time! How do you have time for several? What sort of music do you sing? Do you give performances?
I love singing, but took it up again only a few years ago, not having been in a choir since university. Until last Christmas I belonged to a big local choir, which gave concerts several times a year, but sadly had to give that up since they changed rehearsal times. I also belong to a small ensemble of 12 people run by a friend and a women’s choir of about 30. And we sing in big a scratch choir twice a year, which comes together to give concerts in aid of a church restoration fund. Fortunately, not all these choirs meet every week. It’s mostly classical music and choral works with the big choirs, but we also sing more modern works and French songs with the smaller ones. But I would never, ever sing a solo in public!
I wouldn’t do that, either. I don’t think I could stop my voice from quivering.
Vanessa, thank you so much for this interview. I’ve enjoyed finding out more about you.
Thank you, Miriam, I’ve enjoyed it too.
Clearly Vanessa is not going to blow her own trumpet, so I shall sing her praises! She is one of those people who manages to fit so much more into their lives than I can. She is an excellent writer, a kind and friendly person and… I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I know.
Vanessa Couchman is passionate about French and Corsican history, from which she derives the inspiration for much of her fiction. She has lived in France since 1997, where she runs a copywriting business and also writes magazine articles. Her short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions. The House at Zaronza is her debut novel.