I’m mostly unqualified to be giving career tips–better to ask someone who has had a long and storied historical fiction career like Margaret George, Bernard Cornwall, Diana Gabaldon, Wilbur Smith, Philippa Gregory, etcetera. But the request comes up frequently enough that I’ve gotten it in my head to write down a few humble scribbles. Enterprising folks like Chuck Wendig write lists of 25 things you should know. I’m not that enterprising, so I’m going to come up with ten. If I come up with another ten later, I’ll write 10 More Tips for Aspiring Historical Fiction Authors. Until then, here we go.
1. Be a History Geek. Writing historical fiction has a lot in common with writing fantasy. In both cases, you’re using your imagination to build a world that is totally alien to the modern reader. The difference is, or at least should be, that the historical world you’re building has some basis in fact. And you’re going to have to live in that world for the entire time you’re writing the book, so you’d better love it! If you’re not a history nerd, this career isn’t for you. But if you’re the kind of person that can’t walk into the Library of Congress without getting a little weepy and blisses out when given the opportunity to paw at ancient maps, you’re probably on the right track.
2. Read Historical Fiction. I could froth at the mouth like a pitchfork wielding French peasant at the number of aspiring authors who don’t actually read anything. Instead, I’ll temper my remarks here to point out that you can’t understand the market you’re writing for unless you actually read books that are being sold in that market. It would be like opening a Chinese restaurant without finding out if there are any other Chinese restaurants on the same street, and whether or not they cook in the same style as you do, or if there’s something special in terms of price or menu that you can offer consumers.
3. Love Historical Fiction. Every now and then, an artist will come along and upend an entire genre and all its expectations. If you’re that artist, rock on. You don’t need any tips from me. The rest of us poor schlubs, however, are constrained by genre expectations. So we’d better love what we’re writing. More specifically, we’d better love the conventions, constraints and peculiarities of this specific genre. I am fortunate enough to be published in a different genre under another pen name, and I have done the math. Because of the research involved, historical fiction requires more labor for the return than any other genre I can think of. (And those other genres almost all require research too, just sayin’.) So, if you’re just writing historical fiction because you think it will make you rich…
4. Do Your Research. I’m a sucker for almost any sword-and-sandal flick, no matter how flawed. I watched every episode of THE TUDORS and loved it, even after throwing popcorn at the screen. After yucking it up with Kate Quinn about the wildly anachronistic costuming in the ridiculous show REIGN, I still secretly made plans to watch it. I love even the pastiche of history in fictional works. (I’m looking at you, SLEEPY HOLLOW.) So, I am not the history police and I’m not about to launch into a lecture about the dreaded mistoricals. All that said, what historical fiction readers love best is learning things. They love to be bewitched, immersed in the details a foreign time and place. To do that they need to trust you, as an author, not to break the spell. You can only wield this sacred literary magical power over them by knowing your stuff! That means taking the time to figure out what the crops were in ancient Mauretania, and how a census was conducted, and whether or not the uptight Romans actually ate breakfast. Don’t be lazy and try to call it creative license. Readers will notice and punish you for it.
5. Know when to Stop Researching. My husband and my agent once staged an intervention to stop me from fermenting shell fish in my back yard in an attempt to reproduce the ancient process of making dye. I spent days and days hunting down the exact species of yellow hibiscus that blooms in autumn in ancient Mauretania. It’s easy to get caught up in the research and fall down the rabbit hole. This is where deadlines are useful. You can spend ten years crafting the perfect historical tale–but I almost guarantee you that the time will not be well rewarded. At some point, it’s better to publish an imperfect book. If you’re rambling around your house, mumbling to yourself in Middle English, it’s probably time to let go. At some point, you must write the book. So, just as a rule of thumb, I might say that more than two years of research and writing is too much. Or, less arbitrarily, I’d just say, don’t be crazy and know when to back off!
6. You’re Not a Historian. Historians go to school, get to write fancy letters after their names, and are relied upon to tell the world what actually happened or could have happened, usually (but not always!) in the driest and least interesting way. They don’t–or shouldn’t–pick sides. That’s awesome. But that’s not your <bleeping> job as a novelist. You need to get into some historical person’s head. In short, you’re going to pick a side, my friend. You’re going to get all kinds of biased. You’re going to dream about them. You’re going to annoy all your friends with obsessive anecdotes. In fact, you’re likely going to become an insufferable partisan. (I can, for example, intellectually, argue on behalf of Augustus against Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius. But my heart would never be in it, because I wrote three books about Cleopatra’s daughter.) In short, you’re going to cherry pick the facts–just like real people do when justifying their actions–to form a coherent narrative that entertains the reader and tells a story. Which is why even if you are an actual historian, when you’re writing a historical novel, pretend you’re not. Are there historical fiction authors who masquerade as historians? You betcha. And these posers should the object of our scorn and ridicule. Don’t be that guy. Or gal. That’s all I’m saying.
7. Don’t be Tyrannized by the Facts. If the facts are inconvenient to your storyline, you can change them. Some of them, anyway. Yes, I said it. And before you muster the firing squad, let me explain. I said to do the research. You should, if only because you can’t change the facts if you don’t know what they are. Get the little things wrong and the reader is going to think you’re either lazy, a moron, or both. If you change stuff, put it in an author’s note. However, realize that changing historical outcomes will be looked upon with extreme hostility by the readership. Moving a battle by a few days, maybe you can get away with. Changing who won that battle? Yikes. How much you can change and get away with it, that’s all a sliding scale. We can–and do–argue about that in historical circles all the times. But figure out where you draw your line in the sand and stick to it or you’ll end up tying yourself in knots.
8. Know How Many Books You’ve Got In You. A lot of aspiring historical fiction authors come to the genre because they’ve discovered some neat story buried in their own genealogy. Or maybe they’ve come across a neat untold story of their town. This is valuable stuff, and I always get caught up in these tales myself. But if you’ve only got one historical novel rattling around in your brain, you might not want to pursue a career in this. You see, in the book industry, backlist is king. Are there authors who make a fortune off one book and never write another one? Sure. Harper Lee comes to mind. But if you’re Harper Lee, again, you don’t need tips from me. The truth is, a writing career these days is built on book after book, strung like beads on a string. And building an audience means that you can’t easily switch around genres too much because readers are looking for a consistent experience from you. So if you don’t have a bunch of ideas for stories already, you might reconsider.
9. Get a Critique Partner. This person probably shouldn’t be your mom. To give you life, your mom pushed a red, squalling, ball of infant goo out into the waiting world like a watermelon through a straw. Do you think she wants to read something that will plague her with regrets for having done that? No! No matter how flawed your manuscript, your mom will make herself see brilliance in its dark twisty depths. So, you need to find someone else, in addition to your mom, to read your stuff. Someone who reads a lot of historical fiction. Someone who can tell you not just what’s wrong with your stuff, but how to fix it. Troll the historical fiction community looking for this person and when you find them, treasure them forever.
10. Look for an Agent. Some of you may be thinking about self-publishing. Don’t rule it out; in fact, I recommend that experienced authors try it. But to date, self-published digital books are not as much of a force in our genre as they are in others. That may change, but at present, the readership for historical fiction is primarily print which makes it harder for a debut historical fiction author to succeed in the realm of self-publishing. Consequently, you want your books in a bookstore. To do that, you’re going to need a NY publisher. To publish with one of the Big 5, you’re generally going to need an agent. To get an agent, your work is going to have to be publishable. And this is, to my mind, the biggest reason to seek out an agent. These are highly trained professionals who can best evaluate whether or not your book has some sort of parity with other commercial fiction in the genre. Note that I said look for an agent–not get an agent. It’s perfectly possible that you just haven’t found the right agent for you and you may pass on the offer of representation. An agent might do the same to you. She might not have had her coffee that morning. He might not like the font you used in your email. For whatever reason, an agent may ultimately pass on your project. But the process of searching may garner you lots of professional feedback, and give you some hint as to the interest in your subject matter, or give you a better clue as to when it’s ready to show to the world.
On August 12, 30 BC, the most powerful woman in the history of the western world breathed her last. Some claim it was murder. Others claim it was serpenticide. (My opinions were published here in my post, How Did Cleopatra Really Die?) But however it happened, then and there perished one of the great icons of femininity, power and feminine potential. She was an extraordinary woman who commanded her own battle ships, wrote scholarly treatises, and charmed the most powerful men in the world with her wiles if not her wealth.
I found her life fascinating, moreso because it came to such an abrupt end. What inspired me most, however, was the way her daughter picked up the pieces and immortalized her mother–and her mother’s legacy. That is why I began writing the Nile trilogy about Cleopatra’s daughter, the third and final installment of which will release this winter, in December. The first chapter of Lily of the Nile begins on this very day, August 12, 30 BC when Cleopatra Selene is asked to carry a basket of figs into her mother’s tomb. Thus, it has become an important anniversary here in Drayvania.
Tonight we’ll be eating figs and making a toast in Cleopatra’s honor. I hope you’ll do the same!
My plan was to arrive early on Friday and sneak into the hotel without being noticed by anyone so that I would have time to dress and accessorize for a slightly more highbrow locale than the cattle-car experience of the airport. (Sadly, I am old enough to remember when crocs and flip-flops were not appropriate for travel.)
In the end, my willingness to surrender sleep for vanity was all for naught. My flight was delayed and when I finally landed in Florida, I immediately ran into members of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Historical Novel Society.
Now, Sophie Perinot (she of the sister queens), Kate Quinn (she of the irreverent gladiator romp) and I get along like a house on fire back home in Baltimore. Put us together in Florida and we’re likely to burn something down. Nevertheless, we took the risk of spontaneous combustion and hooked up with Hope Stewart and Barbara Beck. I believe the tall, willowy, and cheeky Kris Waldherr (she of the doomed queens) was there too.
Once at the beautiful Renaissance Vinoy Hotel–which afforded amazing views of the water–we made a lunch of it with Adelaida Lucena-Lower and the soft-spoken and delightful Stephanie Cowell (she of the Mozart and Monet tributes).
Our waiter bragged to us that we were lucky to have him and that the food would be excellent. Being historical fiction fans, what we appreciated most about our lunch turned out to be the throne-like chairs we were seated in. But let me get to the part you’re really interested in. The celebrities!
Fan Girl at Large
The evening started out with a cocktail reception. I remember seeing a few friendly faces. Then Kate Quinn discretely pointed and whispered, “That’s Margaret George.”
If I had any hope of maintaining a calm, confident authorial presence at this convention, it disappeared in an instant.
My knees went weak and I gasped. “Oh my god.”
Then, giving no thought to decorum, I … fled!
It was primal instinct. The only thing that stopped me from plowing over white-gloved waiters was the fact that Kate actually caught me by the back of my shirt and yanked me back. Even when warned of my impending melt-down, the irrepressible C. W. Gortner made it his mission to introduce me to the reigning queen of the historical fiction genre.
Margaret George is the loveliest, most gracious woman you can imagine.
Knowing my own obsession with all things Cleopatra, she showed me a genuine Cleopatra and Antony coin she had made into a necklace and my knees went weak all over again. I sat beside her during dinner and we had a lovely conversation about everything from Timothy Dalton to Caligula.
Or, at least, I think it was a lovely conversation. The whole time my thoughts were crowded with, “Please do not flip your plate into Margaret George’s lap. Please don’t knock over your water glass onto Margaret George. Please don’t forget how many descendants of Augustus actually became emperors of Rome…”
The effort required to avoid doing something embarrassing proved so exhausting I wondered how I would stay awake for the late night festivities. But, as it turns out, HNS folks are quite sensible. There was no late night mob in the lobby. No sleepless pajama parties–at least, none that I was aware of. RWA and RT veteran Eliza Knight and I were left staring at one another in confusion as people went upstairs to get a good night’s sleep.
Considering that I was taking part on the Religion in Historical Fiction panel at 8:15am, I decided to do the same.
The next morning I worried it might be a little too early for people to want to listen to a discussion about god, history, spirituality, and whatever the dissertation question was that Kate Quinn asked from the audience, but people turned out in force. Good thing, too, because moderator Teralyn Pilgrim went above and beyond the call of duty for this discussion, having read all the panelist’s books to prepare specific questions. And wow, what a chat we had! Teralyn, Kamran Pasha and Mary Sharrat all spoke so passionately about their work and the things they had discovered about faith that I was humbled. (I’ve already devoured Kamran’s book about the birth of Islam, MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS and cannot wait to start on Mary’s ILLUMINATIONS, about a very special nun.)
One of my favorite parts of the panel was having the chance to explain that Isiacism is not a dead religion, that it has lived on to the present day, and that it was a great forerunner of Christianity. On the other hand, I forgot to mention the black madonnas and Cleopatra Selene’s specific role in preserving that religion during one narrow part of history where it was imperiled. And to the gentleman whose question I hijacked to make the point that religious tolerance comes in waves throughout history, I’m still thinking of a real answer to your question.
The next few hours were a blur of panels that I attended, including one on the history police (with whom I am intimately acquainted) and another one on cliches in historical fiction (which I am sure I am guilty of having written). All of this was followed by wonderful lunch address by C. W. Gortner in which he made everyone’s heart flutter just a bit by reminding us of why we should be so proud of the genre we write, why we should not give up, and why community is so important. As a veteran of more conventions than I can count, it was easily among the top speeches I’ve been privileged to hear.
Next up, I moderated a panel on Location/Setting with other members of the Chesapeake Bay chapter including the melodic-voiced and passionate Adelaida Lucena-Lower, who came up with the idea for the panel in the first place, Eliza Knight, the wise Kathryn Johnson, and Sophie Perinot. My love of having a microphone in my hand must have showed. It was a blast as we took questions on everything from the marketing of unusual historical settings to the advisability of pen names. Also, Adelaida brought visual aids that made everyone oooh and ahhh.
Last on my agenda was as a panelist on the Ancient World discussion with Margaret George, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter, who I met for the first time at this conference and who I instantly adored. What I remember most about this panel, other than Kate’s expert moderating, is the trivia game at the end where we could not get four ancient world authors and an audience full of folks who were either experts or very interested in the subject, to quite agree on the answers. I also remember that the lovely Meg Wessel of A BOOKISH AFFAIR was an incredibly good sport while I put her through round after round of historical interrogation. (God bless the bloggers and the readers. We cannot say this enough. They are the patron saints of our industry.)
The Chaos and Debauchery
Next came the book signing. That’s the chaos part. I was totally confused by the fact that our books were not at our tables. Which meant that I could not snag books from my own favorite authors before sitting down to sign for readers. This sorry state of affairs meant many fewer books purchased by me–and resulted in a mad dash to the bookstore with Kamran Pasha and the very charming David Blixt, who also has an interest in antiquity.
I want to thank all the amazing folks who came up to have me sign their books. I especially remember Weina, who is writing about a Chinese Cleopatra. When I guessed Tang Dynasty China, we both expressed our mutual admiration for Jeannie Lin’s work. I was also delighted to finally meet Audra Friend of Unabridged Chick! (Did I mention that we should all get down on our knees in thanks for great bloggers and reviewers?)
That night I sat next to Christy English (she of Alais and Eleanor) and Donna Russo Morin, two of the sassiest historical fiction authors you’ll ever meet. Dinner that night was followed by a bit of a controversial talk by Steve Berry, and a wildly entertaining costume show hosted by Gillian Bagwell (whose Nell Gwynn book I loved).
Dressed up as Lady Rivers, Gillian has exquisite comic timing! But it was Teralyn Pilgrim who brought down the house by showing up dressed as a Vestal Virgin who was pregnant just needed to lose some weight. As I’m partial to Teralyn, Vestal Virgins, and sly humor, I was rooting for her to win the contest. And not be buried alive. She won the contest. We did not bury her alive. In fact, all of us wish her good luck with her “diet.”
Alas, at this point in the evening, I was forced by circumstance to miss almost all of the late night readings with Diana Gabaldon. It gives me something to look forward to next time!
And there will be a next time, because this was an amazing group of people. The mixture of authors, readers and reviewers as part of a single SOCIETY is a special and wonderful characteristic of this convention.
I have many scattered impressions. I remember receiving many gifts of hippos–including one from the very funny and gregarious Sophie Perinot that had a little sign saying, “I really am dangerous.”
I remember a long discussion about the Red Baron.
I also remember Kate Quinn’s red shoes.
I remember meeting Julie Rose and Heather Domin and sitting out on the front porch of the Vinoy in rocking chairs. Waving hello to Lisa Yarde without ever getting a chance to talk to her.
In closing, to all the other readers and bloggers and authors that I met and did not have the opportunity to mention by name in this post, know that you gave me a glow that will last for quite some time. To the others, who I wanted to get to know, but wasn’t able to find a spare moment…I’ll be back. And we need to do this more often.
P.S. For a much funnier recap, check out Kate Quinn’s!
What could be better than a book festival with free admission, tons of give-aways and prizes, roving gladiators and highlanders, panels for every reader ranging from literary fiction to historical fiction, and sessions for aspiring authors to pitch their work to editors and agents? I’ll tell you what’s better than that. NOTHING!
So if you’re anywhere in the Baltimore area this weekend, put this on your calendar!
I have the absolute best swag to give away this weekend, including Egyptian Goddess Perfume in carved stone pots! Historical Novel Society authors like Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, Janet Mullany, Kate Dolan, Sharon Buchbinder and Eliza Knight will all be there. And I may just do a reading or two from my upcoming books. Here’s my schedule for the weekend:
2pm-3pm Crossing Genres Panel
3pm-4pm Book Readings & Signing
5:45 pm Sex and the Historical Fiction Author
7pm SFWA Reception
Join SFWA for a reception and autograph session with authors from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Enjoy good conversation, soft live music, and plenty of food and drink.
I write books set in the early Roman empire, a time during which a lot of horrible things were accepted as commonplace. Slavery was a normal part of life. Social class was enshrined into law. Women were sexual chattel, often without a say in their own lives and without representation in government. Human beings were forced to battle to the death in an arena for the entertainment of others.
In spite of this, people in the early Roman empire weren’t all that different than we are. Their aims for their lives have remarkable resonance with our own. They wanted to honor their forefathers. They wanted greater security and prosperity for their children. They were patriots. They believed in some forms of social mobility. They built beautiful things that are still a wonder to our eyes. They created governmental and public programs that worked more smoothly in some cases than our own. In short, they tried to instill a sense of order into the chaos of the world around them. They survived and thrived and bequeathed to us a wealth of knowledge without which we would be much poorer as a civilization.
So how to handle their portrayal in a fictional novel? Does one make the Romans out to be fascist monsters? (Certainly, that’s how my heroine sees them at first.) Does one take a stance of moral relativism and present them without censure and perhaps with a glow of rosy admiration? (Colleen McCoullough seems to take this approach.) Does one use humor to deflect readers’ discomfort in reading about such a ruthless way of life? (John Maddox Roberts seems to have gone this route.)
Or does one simply trust the reader to know that a portrayal of history is not an endorsement of it?
Until recently, I’d have thought it was understood that just because an author writes about something horrible doesn’t mean he or she is encouraging it. We do all understand that horror and thriller writers aren’t advocating murdering people, right? But it seems as if historical fiction and fantasy writers aren’t always given the same benefit of the doubt.
I’ve seen a bizarre slew of criticism lately, ranging from one author being accused of bigotry for writing from the viewpoint of a character with a documented distaste for Jews to another author being panned for her ancient heroine being insufficiently appalled by the institution of slavery.
Now, I’m all about reading the subtext and thinking critically about what a book’s true message is. I understand that an author can inadvertently write a body of work, the underlying theme of which makes you question the author’s values. (The combination of Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 comes to mind.)
That said, some genuine effort at giving a fair reading to the author’s motives ought to be made before announcing, say, that George R. R. Martin is creepy. (I know. Martin isn’t a historical fiction novelist, but his fantasy is loosely based on the historical War of the Roses, so the reaction to his work is still relevant here.)
So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?
My own primary motivation in writing historical fiction is to use it as a mirror to hold up against contemporary society. I want my readers to look at the ancient world and compare it to the world in which we live today. I want my readers to realize how far we have come. I also want my readers to realize that the progress of women’s liberation is not a straight line. There have been setbacks in the ancient past and there will likely be setbacks in the future against which we ought to be wary. I want my readers to compare the political propaganda we hear in the news today to the kind that was spewed by Augustus.
This is my intent. And yet, I realize that sometimes my intent is not conveyed. This may be because I’m not talented enough. It may also be because every reader carries their own baggage. Every reader’s experience of my novel is going to be unique to them. They are going to tend to see in it things that conform to their own world view.
But if their world view is that writers never write about the depravity of history unless it’s out of a creepy sense of wish-fulfillment, then their world view is spectacularly ill-informed.
Oh, I’m sure there are Civil War writers who really wish that slavery had never been abolished. (Newt Gingrich comes to mind.) I’m sure there are horror writers who use the therapy of putting pen to paper to keep them from sacrificing babies to Satan. I’m sure of it because given a large enough population of people, you will always find some percentage of sociopaths and freaks. However, since it’s very clear that those people are a deviation from the norm, why don’t we just assume that writers of fiction have some other more benevolent reason for writing about evil?
(Also, isn’t it worse to air-brush over the horrors of the past as if the world was so much better back then?)
Some authors write historical fiction for the same reason I do. Others write it because they have an obsession with documenting little known facts. Still others wish to put a human face onto an obscure time period. So they write about all the awful things people did back then. They don’t generally write about it because they want their audience members to pine longingly for the day when kings ruled absolutely and could behead their wives.
I’ve heard it argued that some readers do romanticize that past and wish to return to the glory days when women, peasants and brown people knew their place. This is horrifying, but the fact that lunatics and losers might read the wrong thing into a fictional novel has never been, to my mind, any real criticism against that novel.