Research Basics: Historical Fiction

Hi readers! I hope you’ve been well since my last post. Today where going to talk about the basics of researching Historical Fiction, a genre of writing that I really love. I touched on this a bit in “Research Basics: Alternate Realities & Alternate Worlds,” but in this post I will be expanding on them. So let’s get started!

What is Historical Fiction?

Historical Fiction is an overarching genre, covering everything from just straight Historical to Alternate History and Historical Romances. It’s all about the setting and the plots of the stories taking place in a different time than where we live. It can use made up events that fit seamlessly into history or actual events that took place like a famous battle.

What are some useful terms to know when researching Historical Fiction?

There are two terms you will want to know when researching for a Historical short, novella, or novel. Primary sources and Secondary sources. Primary sources are things like newspaper articles from the time; artifacts such as cookware, weaponry, and clothing; photographs and portraits; diaries and journals. What’s you’ll notice they all have in common is that they were created in the time past, when the historical event as still going on. Letters sent home during the American Civil War, or WW2 would be primary sources.

Secondary sources are things like the internet (Reliable websites only!) and history books. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but a book I’m reading called Between Women by Sharon Marcus would be considered a secondary source. Secondary sources take some of the research pressure away from you, because the author of the book has already narrowed down the topic and compiled the data. They’re great when it comes to in depth overviews of a topic, really great in fact. The only drawback is that they can be colored by the author’s opinion on whatever the topic is.

How do you pick an Era or event?

This is where things are exactly the same as my previous post. I suggest making lists of the five to ten most interesting events/periods in history to you. You can also just brows through overview type books if you prefer and see what jumps out at you. I like lists better though, they’re easier and you can cross off whichever ones aren’t as interesting to you as the rest.

Sometimes you have periods in history that interest you already. When I was small I loved Ancient Egypt, King Tut especially. One day I will probably set a story in Egypt, when the right concept comes along. Also of interest to me are the Regency & Victorian Eras, as well as the American Revolution and the Mughal Empire. I find everything about those times in history interesting. But I will admit, I do like a couple more than the others. Lists are great for when you already have a few periods/events that interest you.

What sort of information do you need know to write Historical Fiction? 

Everything. From what a religious service was like, to what people of different classes ate, to how they dressed. It sounds small and nit-picky I know, but say you’re character is a slave. She would’ve dressed differently depending on if she was a field or house slave, the fabrics used for her clothing would’ve been different. What she ate would be slightly different as well, and she would be more or less subject to the whims of the family. In general, though a slave, her life wouldn’t be the same just because she was a slave.

That’s why knowing all these seemingly small details is important, so you can record the story in a way that makes it seem as if it could really have happened. Verisimilitude is important in all fiction, but even more so in Historical Fiction or Contemporary Fiction where you’re recreating the real world or in this case, the past.

Where is the best place to start your research?

This is where I think some will be frustrated about this post, that is, if they’re not already. Why? Because this part is entirely up to the writer. Some people like to read first hand accounts first to get the feel for the events, and some prefer the reading the events before getting the context. My personal preference is for books that provide some of both. An overview with first hand accounts dispersed throughout. I’ve found it such books provide something others don’t, but that is something I will go into more detail about during the practical part of this series.

Till next time, don’t get eaten or abducted!

 

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I’m never doing that again…

Well, I can honestly say I have no desire to ever write anything remotely historical in nature without ample research ever again.

What do I mean?

Last July I wrote a novella based on the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe. Don’t get me wrong, I love the thing. It’s pretty awesome in that it’s the first and so far only thing I’ve finished of that length. The subject matter is pretty cool too. Vampires, prophetic dreams, an amorphous late Victorian Era setting, and passionate friendship turned lesbian relationship. The language was pretty good too. I named it Bringing Me Dreams after a line from the poem.

But let’s just say that it has some pretty extreme problems. Here’s a list for your reading pleasure, in no particular order.

1) I moved an entire Black Louisiana Creole family from Louisiana to Massachusetts for no discernible reason. Absolutely none. And I need the back-story behind it, even if I never include it in the story itself. It explains why FMC2 is even there in the first place.Which leads to point two, something equally horrible.

2) FMC1’s father, who is White, apparently goes into business with a Black man without any care or problem because of it. Yeah…. no. That wouldn’t happen. Even if he wasn’t prejudiced, the lack of social consequence just wouldn’t be reasonable.

3) The interracial lesbian relationships between the two lesbian couples is handled very poorly. While the story starts in 1895, female homosexuality wasn’t as frowned upon or legally regulated as male homosexuality. The whole thing is just overly dramatized, and again reflects my views on the subject with no care to the time period.

4) The story really really needs a second POV so I can better communicate all I want to about the story. But I constructed it in such a way that while needed, it is entirely impossible to do so. I would literally need to rewrite everything.

Needless to say, Bringing Me Dreams is a total scrap and redo. And I need to reconstruct the story from the bottom up. And let me tell you, I’m not happy about it in the least. But I’ve cried my very literal tears, and put on my brave face. There’s nothing left to do but just do it. Just buckle down to my researching and rewriting in hopes that my new version of the story isn’t as awful.

Till next time, don’t get eaten or abducted!

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Research Basics: Alternate Realities & Alternate Worlds

My last post was more introductory in nature than these next few posts will be. I hope that it was interesting to read. Over the next several posts that make up this section I’ll be looking at Alt Worlds, pure Historical Fiction, and how they can be combined like when someone sets a Horror story in a historical setting. Even better in my opinion, I’ll be doing a practical section when I’m done showing how I actually use the methods I outlined.

So, now that I’ve said that…let’s move on!

What is an Alternate World and what is an Alternate Reality?

If you’re a Fantasy or Science Fiction reader, you’re well aware of what these things are. But it never hurts to talk more about it either way, and the best way to explain it is by using popular examples that we personally connect with. In my case that would be Star Trek Alternate Original Series for Alternate Reality, and Lord of The Rings for Alternate Worlds.

Why did I pick those two? Well in addition to be things I enjoy, they’re pretty much the perfect ones to use to describe these combined concepts. Star Trek: AOS changes, or becomes an Alternate Reality the moment Kirk’s Dad dies. And it diverges even more from the original universe of the first Star Trek series when Vulcan is destroyed. Alternate Realities are all about changing something in the original timeline, and things diverging from there. It’s the “what if this was changed?” What if Vampires were merely a facet of human evolution? What if Neanderthals had survived and lived alongside us right now? There’s many more of this kind of question, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Lord of The Rings, and most of Tolkien’s other work for that matter, are set in a world that is entirely not our own. An Alternate World if you will, with an entirely separate history from the one  we live in. There’s different cultures, deities, animals and beings that live there. It isn’t Earth in any other way except maybe allegory and some minor parallels between the two. And yet, despite not being our world, we connect with it as if it is.

Researching for Alternate Realities?

When writing Alternate Realities, or Alternate Universes if you prefer, the first thing you do is find a setting or time period you like. There’s an entire sub-genre dedicated to this that overlaps with Historical Fiction called Alternate History. But not all AR/AU stories fit that sub-genre, some are just plain Science Fiction. It’s writing a contemporary world where Homo Neaderthalensis never went extinct, vs writing one where they help us win WW2. Or where aliens help or hinder us when it comes to winning the war.

Sometimes this comes to you right off the bat: What would our current society be like if Neanderthals were still around? What would the American Civil War look like with aliens or Neanderthals in the mix?

Other times you have to go looking for a period that interests you, so you can find the perfect jump off point. Your “What if…?” point. For things like that, I suggest brainstorming. And also comparing and contrasting things. If you know more about one time period than another, but the other one is more interesting to you then work with that one. There’s no real technique I would suggest to do this, just make a list of five or ten time periods/historical events that interest you. Cross things off till you get to the two most interesting, the ones you think you can really go the distance with because they’re so interesting. From there you can look at an overview of whatever you’ve chosen, and hopefully one will pop out more to you. A good place to start is by textbooks or any reputable nonfiction book that can provide you with a complete overview. Wikipedia is hit or miss and I don’t recommend it for serious research, but it CAN be helpful if you need an extremely quick overview.

For me, chances of me getting through an actual book dedicated to whichever topic isn’t going to happen if I can’t read a simple Wikipedia article. It cuts down on spending unneeded cash.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to start reading up on the period/event more thoroughly. If you’re working with a time period or long event like WW2, you’ll probably want to make a list and narrow things down further again. In the case of something like my Neandertal example further up, you’ll want to start researching them before anything else.

 Fun fact: The current dominant theory regarding their extinction isn’t one of being killed off, starved out, or even climate. It involves being absorbed into our population by interbreeding. We did fight and compete for resources with them, but we also interbred, resulting in parts of their genome still living in us today.

This would be the point where you look for first hand accounts of your WW2 battle of choice, so that you get the human experience and not just the facts. Letters, journals, newspaper articles etc. If you’re an Architect, you probably will start outlining right now. If you’re a Gardener, you’ll probably start just writing with the facts in mind.

Researching for Alternate Worlds? 

In many, many ways researching Alternate Worlds are much more difficult than Alt Realities. You’re piecing together these Secondary Worlds from different things, a mish-mash of information. You’re world may have an African, First Nations, or some other basis for how the society is formed/run; it may also have tech from a different part of the world. Even if it isn’t like that, you’ll likely want to look up matriarchal and matrilineal societies if you are making women more socially powerful. You’ll want to look up colorism if either dark or light skin are more valued in this world you created.

If you’re sending a valiant female blacksmith on a quest to reclaim a throne or help someone do that, you’ll want to know about sword-making, the likelyhood of a female blacksmith etc.

I don’t have much in the way of tips for this, except that I would personally make a list of the information you feel you’ll need. That way when it gets to your big fight scene, it is both awesomely entertaining and realistic.

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Setting, setting, setting…

So, I’ve had a couple of days to think about this. On Wednesday one of the fellow members on Absolute Write said some that I interpreted as saying setting doesn’t matter in a recent thread discussing the nature of originality. We were talking about retellings at that point, so I doubt they meant for all stories. But I don’t agree, whether something is a retelling or completely original, setting DOES matter to me. Far as I’m concerned, it is the unsung Main Character of a story.

I guess this is the point where I should say how I’m defining setting, because I’m defining it in two ways. 1) Where the story is set like a secondary fantasy or Scifi world, and 2) the overarching genre of the story. Say you want to transfer a basic plot structure like a heist plot, a mystery plot, romance plot etc. and make them such and such a plot in a certain setting. Like a romance plot with a horror setting, or horror plot with a historical setting.

Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire based Horror novel and film (There’s an American version of the film that I haven’t seen and am not really interested in because I feel from the trailer alone, the Swedish version was done much better.), centers around the budding devotion and romance between the two main characters who both appear twelve. One is a vampire, but that’s beside the point. It is the main thrust of things, with Horror acting as the setting that frames the story.

By contrast, if I decide I’m going to writer a story using the basic framework of a Horror or a sub-genre of Horror and decide I want it to take place during the 1920s, the setting is historical. And it doesn’t matter which basic horror plot I use, that setting will likely dictate how best I can modify the basic plot of whichever sub-genre of Horror I pick to make the story good.

The same holds true of retellings as well. If I’m writing a Horror Romance version of Romeo & Juliet, sticking to the tragic romance, Horror becomes the setting around which I frame this plot structure. But since I find it easier to describe than Horror Romance, we’ll go with Scifi for the first example and contemporary for the second. Ok, so you pick a SF setting and it comes time for Romeo to be banished.  You can’t kick the Romeo-character off the spaceship without subverting the rest of the play, which may or may not work, if you write the retelling in spaceship setting. Depending on how big the ship is, he may go into hiding or have to break out of the brig. If you do kick him off, there has to be a way for him to get back to the ship, which complicates things. You have to find a paralytic poison substitute for the Juliet-character to take, if you’re not subverting that part of the structure. You have all these considerations to make, and they’re dictated by the setting.

But not all are quite so frustrating as a space ship, some settings are more fluid and changeable based on the characters, but that doesn’t make them less important. Take that same retelling, only this time set it in Washington D.C. during the 21st century featuring two men. One is Black and let’s say the other is Hispanic. Maybe they both fulfill the cliché of inner city minority men being gangbangers, maybe one does, maybe neither of them does. Personally I vote for neither, or one if you really must go that route. The setting in this case isn’t the city so much as the time we live in. Which means incorporating things like how expensive D.C. is, the machismo factor in the Black and Hispanic communities, issues of religion in those communities etc. because they’re what will be needed to make the story believable. And above all, to make the characters believable. Someone who grew up in Boston or D.C. around the turn of the 20th century is a different person than someone who grew up during the early 21st century. Characters are in my mind just imaginary people, and people don’t just come from nowhere.

Till next time, don’t get eaten or abducted!

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Why I Like It: Glee

Yup, I like Glee. Though to be fair, I’m not completely satisfied with it. There’s actually a lot I don’t really like much in the show, but there’s an awesome amount of stuff I like about it too. But what I like the most and what grabbed me the most about the show was Dave Karofsky.

That’s right, Karofsky.

For me as an aspiring writer, he’s a wonderful example of character with a real and tangible story arc. Most of the other characters, particularly in the original cast from the first half of the series, don’t have as much as an arc. And while he’s a bit stereotypical in places, his is a story we hear about in the news instead of seeing in TV shows. The last really interesting closeted jock character for me was a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that use to pick on Xander, which is frustrating to be honest.

Karofsky starts off as this homophobic closeted jock who picks on the entire Glee club, focusing mainly on out and sort of flaming gay kid Kurt during season two of the show. And that’s all you expect him to be until he kisses Kurt in the sixth episode of the second season, where all his previous actions towards Kurt are thrown into an entirely new light. Suddenly it becomes obvious that Karofsky is one of those Gay/Bi guys who wishes they weren’t and that’s why he acts like such a douche to Kurt, who represents what he can’t be at that point in his journey. The kiss also makes it obvious he’s attracted to Kurt, but we won’t go in-depth on that for a bit.

Slowly we see him getting worse and worse in his desperation till he drives Kurt from the school with how bad he has gotten. Which I didn’t much like him during even though I got him, got why he was being such a douche. And then he starts to make this slow turn around when Santana, who is herself a closeted Lesbian, sees him checking out guys and confronts him about it. He apologizes to Kurt and the glee club. In fact, he apologizes to Kurt multiple times, even in tears at one point. He forms this anti-bullying group with Santana while they’re running for prom King and Queen, which he seems to take seriously for more than the Santana hanging the fact she could out him over his head. But this is ultimately thwarted when Kurt is voted prom Queen and Karofsky prom King, because he has a bit of a back slide and runs when he’s supposed to share a dance with Kurt. Which to be entirely fair, Kurt did tell him to come out as they’re walking down to the floor, and he really wasn’t ready for that.

The next time we see him, Dave is happy at gay bar in season three. He’s come a long way, not fully comfortable with himself, but comfortable around other LGBT people. And more importantly, he’s able to admit to himself and Kurt that he is gay.

Yikes! This is becoming the Karofsky show, and I want to talk about other things I like too in regards to Glee. Let’s wrap the Karofsky bit up then, shall we? Karofsky then doesn’t show up for a bit until the Valentines Day episode, where we find out he’s in love with Kurt and he gets outed. During the episode before the outing, he’s sweeter than we’ve ever seen him before. A glimpse of what he will be like in the future when he’s comfortable with himself. The reveal and date with Kurt is a bust romantically, and ends up with Karofsky being outed at his new school. The next episode has him tormented into attempting suicide, in a poignant reminder it isn’t only more “obvious” kids that get treated like this by society and their peers. He doesn’t die, but we do see a never followed up beginning of a friendship between him and Kurt. Skip ahead a couple of seasons without him, when he returns as Blaine’s boyfriend, he has come full circle. He’s gone from self-hating to open and comfortable in his own skin.

Despite my fangirling about the Karofsky story-line, there are other things I like about Glee. It does well with being funny, and the development of parallel relationships both platonic and romantic is interestingly done. Which is also a reason I gave you for liking Star Crossed last week, it’s a reoccurring thing with me. TV-wise I enjoy shows that explore the full breadth of human relationships. They make for more interesting television, because you have more scope to do that with TV than in most movies.

The ethnic and religious diversity for the entire show is interesting, and so is the realistic tackling of interracial relationship later on in the series with Mercedes and Sam. I like Puck’s little brother, Jake. I like Puck, who is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. He’s a good use of the trope, well-rounded and interesting.

But I’ve rambled enough……

Don’t get eaten or abducted dear readers!

(Click for the wikia of Glee if you want general info about the show.)

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Orginality

Last week was trying to say the very least about it. I lost a family member and had to attend the funeral, my grandmother to be precise. I’ll miss her for as long as I live, but I got to see my extended family when we all came together to honor this awesome person who lived a full and wonderful 99 years. As I was looking around the event hall at the after funeral reception/dinner, I was struck by the number of diverse stories in just the one room. Each one of those stories unique, and yet linked.

In that way, people are sort of like stories and life is the writer who writes them. Some of these stories are grouped into things like race, orientation, religion, or families which make them similar in way. Like how Mysteries share the same core premise and core question, or Romance.

Ok, I see you looking at me like I’m crazy. You must be wondering what I mean by core premise and core question. A core question is the question a story asks, and in a Mystery that is, “Will whatever the mystery is be solved?” And within Mystery as a genre, you have different subgenres with a core question that is basically a version of the above modified to fit the subgenre. A core premise is similar in that it produces the question, “Person or persons tries to solve a great puzzle.” But core premise can also be something like the Hero’s Journey, which permeates everything from Epic Fantasy, to fairy tales, to mythology.

And you just think I’m crazier now, don’t you? You  can’t see what I’m getting at yet. I’ll elaborate a bit, and hopefully that makes me sound less insane. Me and my cousin are both Black Lesbians, but we aren’t the same people. Our lives have shaped us, made us the people we are today. And those lives despite those similarities, have been different. Think of our race and what that means for us as Americans as the overarching genre, it’s the Fantasy or Horror of things. Our sexuality can be likened sub-genres like Epic Fantasy and Southern Gothic. And the final piece of the puzzle, our individual stories, can be likened to books themselves.

Like people, books are unique despite sharing a premise. They’re original, something writers tend to worry about an awful lot. Sometimes too much to be entirely honest. Let’s say that I write a story that is based on an ancient myth, or even something more recent like Romeo & Juliet. I take all the basics of this starting point, and I change it completely. I rewrite it as a Horror Romance, start the narrative off with the Mercutio alike’s death etc. It now only shares the premise, some events, and maybe some quotes as chapter headings in the case of an Romeo & Juliet inspired story. As far as I’m concerned, it is now something that is original. How can it not be when I’ve taken it somewhere new?

For contrast, I also feel like if I write a Contemporary story with Black LGBT characters, then the story is also original. It may share a theme, or have things like setting, character race, and character sexuality in common with other books like it. But I’m shedding new light on the subject, telling such a story in a way that only I could.

Originality isn’t whether your book is a retelling, or not directly related to something else. Originality is writing the story that only you can write, even when that is a retelling that takes something in a previously unexplored direction.

Until next time, don’t get eaten or abducted!

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I’m Overhauling the Blog!

Yup, you’ve read that title right.

I love this blog. I really do. However, it is all over the place and sort of gives me a massive migraine to look at. Since I’ve got zero plans of giving the thing up, I’ve decided to reboot it so to speak.

Everything but the last couple posts will be deleted, after I’m done combing through them for topics I can revise. I know this may seem sudden, but it really isn’t. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of months, and I feel like the blog needs more organization and focus. Something I’m finding almost impossible to accomplish with all my old posts still up. It will still be eclectic, but a more measure sort. Like a room that blends LOTR, Colonial America, and Mughal Empire India without clashing and hurting your eyes. I feel like I’ve finally found a way to accomplish that after a year of puttering around and experimenting with this blog.

So I figured, why not do it? Why not use the blog to showcase my newfound level of comfort with how to blend different things together?

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