Quick post today, just wanted to let you know there’s a great series of essays at Evangeline Holland’s blog, where she’s hosting Historical Romance week.
The untitled work that I’ve been slogging through the last three years continues to morph as I try to figure out just what it is I’m trying to write. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done real research… I knew starting out I wanted the book to be set in Ohio, and I did a lot of research about Ripley as an Underground Railroad hotbed until I burned myself on all the sad stories of escaping slaves.
I didn’t want to write about Ripley, OH anymore, despite the rich history. I wanted to learn more about my city, Columbus.
So I switched my location from Ripley to Columbus in general… but back during the Civil War, Columbus was much more spread out and disconnected than it is today. Clintonville, Westerville, Grove City… they weren’t suburbs, though perhaps still part of Greater Columbus, they were areas in their own right.
I knew I wanted to write something referencing Camp Chase. What’s left of the Union barracks turned Confederate prison camp consists of the largest Confederate cemetery north of the Confederacy itself. Isn’t that fascinating by itself?
I didn’t want to write about the sad and scary conditions of the prison itself. I wanted to learn about what happened to those men after the war ended, after Lincoln was assassinated. And how did that effect people living in Columbus?
Bust mostly, it’s becoming clear to me I want to write something fun and escapist. This has been a challenge for me, because I’ve had some personal issues the last couple years which make it difficult for me to keep spirits high consistently. How would I write cheeky characters if I didn’t feel cheeky myself?
Is this what happens when a teenage writer grows up? She loses her “I don’t care, I do what I want and I’ll be funny while doing it” attitude?
I was trying to research Clintonville, OH because it’s near where I live and I figured, hey, it should be easy to find information online as a start, and then hit the libraries for in-depth research. No such luck! I couldn’t find anything very helpful about Clintonville.
On my birthday, however, The Boy took me to tour historic Grove City. This is an area south of Columbus, and has been teased over my years in Columbus as “Grove-tucky.” Ohioans have this thing for making fun of people from Kentucky; I don’t get it, I guess it’s because it’s south of us and oh, by the way, Kentucky didn’t ratify the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments until 1975? Your guess is as good as mine.
The fact is, Grove city has a lot of historical pride. An art gallery is housed in the first bank (1st floor) and telephone (2nd floor) building. A number of shops are in the old Gantz mill. History was within reach, and I was able to walk on floorboards and peek into old safes that might have been around during the time I’m trying to write about.
If I’m intending to write about a prisoner of Camp Chase who manages to escape before the prisoners were set free as a whole, then it would make more sense for him to escape south to Grove City, rather than north to Clintonville, wouldn’t it? Oh logic, how thee loves to play with mine heart. Anyway, Grove City has a pretty cool genealogical section in their library, which is how I took the photo of the image in this post. I haven’t had a chance to drive to Grove City in about two weeks, so I’m hoping to get there soon to continue research.
So yes. I’m writing a book that is set in Grove City, for now. I think this could work. I’ve already gotten some anectdotal stories about people’s reactions to Lincoln being re-elected, etc. Oh, the possibilities!
With the restart of the latest WIP, I’ve been using Evernote to collect research about living in 1864 Columbus, OH during and right after Lincoln’s death. As convenient as it is, I kinda miss the old way of doing research.
Once upon a time, I ran to the library to grab all the books on a topic. I filled paper journals with notes to reference when I couldn’t remember a clothing detail etc. It got a bit unwieldy the more mobile my life became. I have a bin of research for Catching the Rose, which I wrote back in high school, so my research methods weren’t quite so methodical and clean. I filled two paper journals of notes for Haunting Miss Trentwood, covering transportation, clothing, the rise of the “independent woman” in 1880s England, and even English law.
For this new untitled Work-in-progress, I’m trying something different: Evernote.
Evernote is nice because it allows me to “clip” interesting paragraphs, images, and other online research. It captures the URL for me, so I can go back and build my bibliography without fear of missing something. And, best of all, it provides tagging and searching capabilities! When I’m trying to remember just who tried to bust all those Confederates out of the Lake Erie-based Johnson’s Island prison, I can do it easily.
So it works for my mobile life of bouncing around town writing in different locations per my schedule and availability. I can look something up on my phone, which is awesome, but actual collecting of materials is best on a laptop. And it’s making a sorted bibliography super easy to create!
I’ll try to do a better job sharing some of the things I’ve been learning, whether that particular research detail makes it into the book or not. In terms of progress, I’ve written two-and-a-half chapters and it’s felt like pulling teeth, but at least it’s progress!
According to my blog, I’ve been at this for ten years. I just wanted to make a note of that, I guess.
In other news, I’m writing the new Civil War book very slowly. The Boy has been helping by reading my pages out loud so I can hear awkward phrasing or when I obsess about colorizing everything (his green hers, her pink dress, etc). It’s a slow process, but since I’m building confidence after not writing for a year, it’s worth it.
In still other news, I’ve changed all my digital touch points to say I write young adult Victorian fiction. Took me a while to get it figured out, but I think this works best. Huzzah!
Today we have a guest post from Michael Seeley, something I’ve been meaning to post for… FAR too long. Sorry Michael! Anyway, let’s find out how Michael suggests how historical fiction authors can balance the market away from thrillers and modern romance.
We all know that thrillers and modern romances are the biggest sellers. They dominate the markets, and it seems to be what all our friends are reading. But what if you’re not into the newest spy-chase novel and the modern romance isn’t your thing? For me, the draw of historical fiction has always been stronger than the idea of writing-for-profit in a genre that will probably sell better. But, that leaves historical fiction writers at a disadvantage.
Or does it? What can we as author of historical fiction do to balance the market for us?
Write for the Public
First off, you must try to use what’s currently popular. What do you see in movies/other popular books/popular culture? For me, a military historian, a prime example of this is works on Rome and ancient Greece. The ancient world is hot right now. It’s sexy. Films like Gladiator, 300, Alexander, Centurion, The Eagle, and many more capitalize on that. They may not be exactly factual (but neither, strictly speaking, is historical fiction), but they do increase the public’s care and concern for history. For me, that means that works on Rome and ancient Greece will sell better. In fact, I’m in the process of planning a novel set in that age.
This works for other subgenres, like historical romance as well. Look at Downton Abbey and the like. Romance itself is timeless; make money from that. If you see that the Middle Ages is catching the public’s eye, use that to your advantage. Right now, Victorianism is ripe for writing. With Steampunk (a fantastic genre that is easily mixed with historical fiction), Sherlock Holmes, and others making a dent in pop culture, take advantage of it. Tailor your work for the public.
Use Historical Fiction to Change Your World
Although the money is fun, all authors also long to be remembered in their works. They want to have a lasting impact on their world. Don’t you? I’m just finishing Mary Renault’s masterpiece, The Last of the Wine. It’s set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War and follows a young soldier and student of Socrates. The protagonist, Alexias, falls in love with an older student and another philosopher, Lysis. The book tells the story of these men’s love, their lives, and the tragedy that is war. But what’s more is that it was written in the 1950s. At that time, being a homosexual was not only unpopular, it could be ruinous to one’s career, to one’s very life. Renault wrote the work in part to paint a larger picture of the issue.
She wrote the book because, as a homosexual, she was tired of the backlash. She wanted to show that, throughout time, homosexuals were just as capable of doing great deeds, of being human. Her works all touch on this and other social issues.
So can yours.
Do you care about the environment? Look at Victorian England and the damages just beginning by the Industrial Movement. How about immigration — do you find immigration policy today unfair? Look at Ellis Island. Use your genre to shed new light on an issue you’re passionate about. The beautiful thing about the past — the thing which let Renault get away with such commentary in an age of repression — is that everything is in a different context. In the age of kings and revolutions, actions are different than today. Looking into the past gives us the freedom to be critical, to be un-shaking in our critique or our praise for once was and is now lost. Your readers will make the connection. Your book can truly change your world.
Tell a New Story
How often have you read a story that sounds just like all the others? I can’t tell you the number of times. It seems like people are becoming more and more unoriginal. But you, as an author of historical fiction, have access to thousands of years and millions of stories waiting to be told. As authors in this genre, we have the license to find the gems in the past that get lost.
Recently, I was researching a famous general from the Napoleonic Age, but he almost never made it to manhood; as a child, he almost suffocated to death by pretending to be a dog. He got stuck in his family’s doggy-door, and because he was pretending, he refused to use his voice. All he did was bark. And his parents laughed at their funny son. Until he passed out. And turned blue. Obviously, he lived, but anecdotes like this are beautiful. You simply can’t make some of these things up!
Now, I’m not telling you to steal your stories. But, unlike those spy thrillers that sound the same, we have millions of people’s tales waiting to be redone. Research. Add your own voice. Change things. But draw from that amazing well that history gives us. You can then write a new story that will capture and inspire.
So, if you’re sick of people complaining of the power popular genres, use your tools. Write to fit what’s popular, use your historical lens to change the world, and bring amazing stories from the past to life.
Then see those run-of-the-mill thrillers compete.
At an early age, Michael Seeley found himself devouring books about the past. Then he started writing his own. His first novel, The Faith, is the opening to a trilogy about revolution and regicide. His second novel, Duty, asks what might have happened if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo. His collected short fiction, Men of Eagles, offers new perspectives on the wars of the Napoleonic Age. Michael has found inspiration from the winding alleyways of Paris, the tall forests of Norway, and the impressive Acropolis of Athens, but he currently resides in the Midwest with his beautiful wife, listening to the winds whisper across the prairie. Find more about his work at http://www.seeleywrites.com and http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Seeley/e/B004M6J5PO/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 .