Sunday, July 14, 2024

Challenges of writing historical fiction

 In my experience, the first challenge is in defining "historical fiction." To begin with, I mean "historical realistic fiction." Fiction set in an imaginary past is "fantasy" or "historical fantasy" or "alternate history" or even "science fiction." It presents its own challenges, but they are distinct from those faced by writers of historical realistic fiction. 

Some define "historical fiction" as any fiction set twenty years previous to the time in which it was written. Others say it's fifty years. My personal definition is "set in a time of which the author has no memory." So, if you're in your twenties, that might be as early as twenty years ago. If you're in you're seventies, than it's probably something like sixty years ago - or even seventy. What's important is that you are not writing from personal experience, and I'll explain why that is in a bit. 

On to the other challenges. You're probably thinking, "The challenge is in getting the facts straight," and while that's certainly true, facts are far more than names and dates and places. Those kinds of facts are fairly simple to establish using Wikipedia or any other encyclopedia or work of history. 

The real challenge is in getting the facts of social customs, norms, attitudes, etc. correct. Historical fiction recreates a world that is as foreign to the author's lived experience as it is to the reader's. And that's why it matters that you not be writing from personal experience. As the author, you should also be on a journey of discovery. You'll view the time from a different perspective than someone who lived through it. Items, customs, attitudes, etc., that were taken for granted by those living in that time will be viewed quite differently from someone living in the future, when those things have changed. An obvious example is that of phones. Young people today may never have seen an actual telephone with a handset, a cord, pushbuttons or a dial, and a receiver. An author of historical fiction would need to write something more than "He called his mother" in order to recreate that common event -- and if the author lived through that time, it very likely won't even occur to her that a detailed description is necessary.

Dress -- at least, outer dress -- is one area that authors of historical fiction are almost certain to get correct. For many of them, that's why they are writing it and that's why their readers read it. They are in love with hoop skirts or Empire gowns or Highland kilts. They may even get the footwear right. Where they often fail is with the underwear or lack thereof, and with the everyday dress of the common person. They miss the fact that clothes were not laundered after one wearing, or even several. They were "aired out" and brushed and spot cleaned. Underwear was washed more frequently -- that was its purpose; to protect clothes -- if you were wealthy. Otherwise, you slept in it. If you were lucky, you had two sets -- one to wash, one to wear. 

The same for hairstyles. They describe in detail the elaborate hairstyles of the wealthy, but generally ignore the simple hairstyles of the working classes and of children. Too often, women leave the house bareheaded. All adults -- those about 14 and older -- wore some sort of head covering when in public until the late 1960s -- a headscarf, a mob cap, a beret, something. Most children did, as well, although there was more variation for them, depending on age, location, and social class.

Transportation is almost always correct, being another aspect that draws people to historical fiction. Although, again, the amount of walking done by the lower classes is usually ignored and the restrictions this placed on their abilities to move very far from their birthplace. 

So, what are the challenges, beyond presenting the lives of the common people? Social norms/customs and attitudes. In regard to social norms, I mentioned one already -- adults covered their heads when they went out in public. Women always wore gloves (and please learn the etiquette of glove wearing! Take them off before drinking or eating) and men wore them when in formal dress. Men wore ties or neckerchiefs or ascot or something around the throat. They wore collars that buttoned onto the neck of their shirts and were changed daily or so. It saved washing the shirts. More than in our modern world, clothes were status symbols. They reflected the wearer's socioeconomic status and position in society. They could also be symbols of rebellion, or of religions or political beliefs. Examples are the simple dress of Quakers, the short, skimpy shifts of flappers, and the bonnets rouges of the French Revolution. 

Another that really makes me crazy is when young men and unchaperoned young women will go on "dates." Often that actual word is used. Even courting couples did not spend time together unchaperoned. The young man would ask the father's (or parents') permission to court their daughter. That did not mean that the two of them started going on dates alone. It meant that he might walk her to and from church and be invited to Sunday dinner. He might call for her in his carriage and they might go for a drive in the park in the afternoon -- in full view of the public. The two of them might be granted some time in semi-private in the parlor -- with the door to the next room open. It would be acceptable for the two of them to dance with each other primarily, although not exclusively, at balls. 

An even greater challenge is the temptation to ascribe modern attitudes to historical characters and to judge historical characters by modern standards. As I said above, modern attitudes about cleanliness are often ascribed to historical characters. They not only wash their clothes far too often, they bathe and wash their hair too frequently, as well. We laugh at Eliza Doolittle who "washed her face and hands before she come," and think of her as "dirty," but that was historically accurate. 

While we certainly can point to women and men who challenged sex/gender roles, as well as racism, they were doing it within a specific socio-cultural situation. Their attitudes would continue to reflect the boundaries and norms of that society. They were able to successfully navigate those boundaries in large part because they were born to families with relative privilege and connections. Wealthy people obviously had more of both and were able to exercise greater autonomy, but women were still women and men were still men and the races were still segregated. 

While working-class people might buck the system to some extent, it was within the confines of that system. A working-class woman might become a school teacher; she would not become a physician. A working-class man might become a Methodist preacher; he would not become a member of the Anglican clergy. 

Too often those who hold the standard attitudes of the day are depicted as narrow-minded, rigid, sexist, racist, etc. The men are presented as physically and verbally abusive, while the women are submissive, depressed victims. Certainly there were such situations, but in general, the average woman was satisfied with her life. She accepted her role as wife and mother and took pride in it. The average man honored her achievements. He also accepted his role as financial and material provider and took pride in it. Both of them were living within rigid role definitions and both expected the other to do so. It is quite possible to write a story about a person who was not happy within those restrictions and who sought fulfillment outside of them without damning everyone else as either abusive or depressed.

And that is the greatest challenge of all. 

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Characters' voices

 It's been a wild month since I last posted. We got an offer on the house in Baton Rouge in two days (!), I finished my last semester as a full-time professor and officially retired, the house was inspected and appraised and we packed, packed, packed. Furniture, etc., was picked up for storage on June 27. We closed on June 28 and immediately got on the road to Albuquerque. We arrived at our rental on July 1, went house hunting on July 2, found the absolutely most perfect place and made an offer and were under contract by July 3. Now it's waiting again for inspections and the appraisal. We're scheduled to close on August 1 and our furniture should arrive between August 10 and 19. 

Yesterday was the first meeting of my writing group in Albuquerque and I'm back to pondering the art and science of writing fiction. Readers have commented on how my many (some say too many) characters all have individuals voices and can quickly be distinguished from each other by their dialogue. I've been thinking about how I do that. I will be honest and say that it's not entirely conscious. It's an outcome of the process of creating an individual, unique character. This includes physical description, clothing, and manner of speaking -- their actual voice. 

The first thing I do is decide the gender and age of the character (not surprising). Then, the character's socio-economic status, which includes education and family composition, as well as birthplace/home town. Did this character grow up in a wealthy family, attend private schools, graduate from college? Or is this a working-class character with a high school education -- or less? It is 1929. Many young people left school at 16 to go to work and help support the family. Does this character come from a place with a distinct accent? 

At this point, I start to hear the character speaking in my mind. I don't put the word "hear" in quotation marks, because I quite literally hear the character's voice in my mind. I'm beginning to realize that not everyone visualizes the characters and the action of a book, as if a movie is playing in their mind.

I'll hear the voice, the accent, the rhythm of the character's speech. I make notes so that the voice will be consistent later. Does the character speak rapidly or slowly or at an average rate of speed? Does the character speak in a monotone or with dramatic emphasis or something in between? Does the character drop her gs or use double negatives? Does the character have a wide or narrow vocabulary? Does this character use slang and vulgarities or is this character prim and proper or perhaps timid or shy? Does the character remind me of a person I know/have known or of an actor or other celebrity? If so, I need to be careful not to create a parody or caricature of that person. It's one thing to be "inspired by," it's another to parrot or mimic another character -- real or imaginary. 

Whatever voice the character has, consistency is vital! Sometimes readers will correct a character's speech because it's grammatically incorrect or the word doesn't mean what the character thinks it means or because the phrasing is awkward or verbose. Occasionally it was a genuine mistake on my part, but most of the time, that's part of the character. 

And, of course, in my work, there is the issue of the character's voice being historically accurate. Word usage has changed. What was once incorrect is now correct, and what was correct is now incorrect. Words now have different meanings. Current idioms may not even have existed at that time, and idioms that were in use may be impenetrable or have changed meaning. Acceptable terms of the day may now be completely unacceptable and I need to do more research to find a historically accurate term that will not be offensive. It's also important to recognize that acceptable terms today may have been extremely offensive in a previous time.

In summary, voice comes from character. Your characters will have distinct voices if you've developed them sufficiently and know them well and allow them to speak naturally. 

We're off now to explore the Elena Gallegos Open Space here in Albuquerque. We find ourselves in the peculiar position of wanting to see and do as much as we can in ABQ and NM and yet realizing that we literally have the rest of our lives to do so. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Show, don't tell

 Possibly due to the questions that Oleg asked in his interview (, I've been thinking a lot about the craft of writing.  Probably also due to revising and polishing short stories for submission to the SouthWest Writer's annual contest.

One of the most common bits of advice to authors is to "show, don't tell," but what do we mean by that? 
Interestingly, when I follow that advice quite literally and merely describe my characters' actions, tones of voice, and facial expressions, my beta readers complain that the work lacks emotion and that they don't understand the motivation of my characters. So, the literal "showing with no telling" that works for movies and television and other visual media doesn't particularly work for the written word. What, then, does it mean for us writers?  

Wikipedia defines it as "a narrative technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through actions, words, subtext, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author's analysis and instead describes the scene in such a way that readers can draw their own conclusions. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction, literature including haiku and Imagist poetry in particular, speech, movie making, and playwriting."

OK, so I had it half right. It does mean actions and words, but it also includes "thoughts, senses, and feelings," as well as subtext. Readers do want to be told more explicitly how the character is feeling, why the character is acting in a certain way, what the character's motivations are -- but they want it to come from the character not the author, they want it to come naturally and organically, and they want to be free to draw their own conclusions about what is really happening.  

Does this mean that the story must be in the first person? That's sometimes easier, especially in terms of thoughts, senses, and feelings, but it's not a requirement. What is a requirement is that the character be the source of the information. The first, most obvious way, is through dialogue with others, in which the character's words convey necessary information, as well as the character's reactions to the words of others. 

A related technique is the internal monologue. These can be presented as actual thoughts -- I use italics to indicate that my character is thinking these exact words -- or they can be narrated, as in "She thought" or "She wondered" or "She reflected," etc. 

Along the same lines, the character can be said to "feel" an emotion. It's even more effective if the character reacts physically as well, crying or screaming or jumping for joy. Similes and metaphors are also effective means of conveying emotion without just baldly stating, "He felt happy." "He felt as if ..." "His heart jumped into his throat" or, conversely, "dropped to his stomach." 

This "showing" extends beyond thoughts, senses, and feelings to descriptions of the physical setting and objects in it. How many times have you been immersed in a story, identifying with the characters and virtually participating in the action, and suddenly you're presented with several paragraphs of rather pedestrian exposition? You're thrown right out of that world back into ours, feeling as if you're reading a textbook or a manual. Rather than telling the reader about the setting and the objects, allow the character to experience them through dialogue, action, and reaction. 

This is a standard feature of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, where worldbuilding is so vital. The best example of this that I can think of is Tolkien (yeah, I'm one of those). He never just describes a setting. The hobbits do it for him. They gaze in wonder and awe. They react with fear or joy. They shiver in terror or ecstasy. They talk to each other about it. And we learn more about the other characters, the settings, the objects through the hobbits' interactions with them, verbal and physical. They struggle up a mountain path. They push their way through a thicket of thorns. They sink back into a soft bed. 

Thinking about Lost in Space (my husband's favorite nostalgia program), I could write, "The robot had a round metal torso with two accordion-pleated arms with metal calipers on the end of them. His torso could spin around in a complete circle. His head was a clear flattened bubble with lights inside that rose up and down as he spoke. His  accordion-pleated legs were each attached to a continuous track and generally moved in the same direction together." 

Or I could write, "The robot extended his accordion-pleated arms and flailed his metal caliper hands, while the flattened clear bubble that served as his head bobbed up and down and the lights inside it flashed off and on. He moved backwards and forwards on the continuous track that served as his feet, his accordion-pleated legs moving in concert. A voice emanating from a speaker in the upper half of his cylindrical torso warned, "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger." The torso rotated first one way, then the other, as the robot searched for Will Robinson." 

Same information about the robot, but in one version, it is sheer exposition, while in the other, it is an integral part of the description of the action and gives us insight into the personality, or programming, of the robot. And that insight forms a subtext -- the subtext of the relationship between Will Robinson and the robot. More on subtext in my next musings.  

Monday, May 27, 2024

Authorial voice

 A new blog post so soon?! I have the time and something on my mind -- and that is, the importance of finding your own voice as an author, whether of fiction or non-fiction. By that, I don't mean stubbornly clinging to what you have written, regardless of the feedback of others. I mean learning to distinguish between useful, valid criticism which will improve your story and criticism which is basically "I would have written it this way." My response to that is, "Please feel free." 

Every successful author develops an individual voice -- Dickens didn't write like Austen or even like Trollope; Stephen King doesn't write like J.K. Rowling; Hemingway didn't write like Faulkner. That voice attracts their readers and holds them. It gives the author's works their individual flavor and also adds a level of authenticity to them. The writing flows naturally and the characters and actions are authentic to the setting and theme, as the author is writing authentically and naturally. It's painfully obvious when someone is trying to write in the style of another (other than parody, of course) or to a checklist or template. 

This is the reason that I tend to avoid writer's workshops taught by other authors. Too many of them simply teach authors to write to a formula, to obscure rather than develop their own voice. I'm sure that they honestly believe what they are promoting, as it is what has worked for them. What they don't seem to understand is that it is not suitable to every genre, every audience, or every author.

The same can be said of literary agents. My limited experience with them was that they want authors whose works imitate whatever is topping the best seller lists today. It never seems to occur to them that those best selling authors, regardless of genre, are there because of their individual voice, not in spite of it. 

When I taught storytelling, I emphasized the importance of developing your own voice and style. I was always thrilled when the final performance rolled around and every student had developed an individual style that suited their personality. They also had learned to select stories that built on their individual strengths as storytellers. And every single student was effective, whether holding us rapt with a slowly building tension or making us laugh through humorous antics. They were all confident in their own voice. 

So, how do you develop your own voice as an author? First and foremost, you read -- you read deeply and widely. Partly to study the voices of others, but also to find which "voices" resonate with you and which voices you admire and want to emulate. If you only ever hear one voice, that's the voice you'll measure yourself against and it may be the wrong one. And you can study others' techniques that you might want to employ. 

Second, practice writing. Write in different styles and different formats. Write for different audiences. Experiment with different voices. Utilize those techniques you saw in the works of others. You may find that you have one voice for short stories and another for novels and yet another for blog posts. You'll likely find that some forms of poetry feel natural while others are totally alien. 

Third, seek feedback from other readers and other writers -- but only after you feel confident that you know your voice and your audience. Others can identify weaknesses that you want to resolve and they can also identify certain strengths that you want to build on. Use this feedback to improve and hone your voice, not to change it. 

And, yes, you might even attend writers' workshops taught by other authors. At this point, when you have confidence in your own voice, you'll be able to sift through the advice and keep the kernels while discarding the chaff. 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Catching up on how many months?

 My excuse is that I've been writing like a mad woman in all of my spare time. I've finished the second novel in the series, French Toast ala Santa Fe, and have sent it around to beta readers. My writer's group, Write Minds with the SouthWest Writers, is also reading it 3000-4500 words at a time. 

I was also interviewed by Oleg Kagan for his "Shelf Talks" blog. Please visit it at

The past couple of months I've been working on short stories for the SouthWest Writer's annual short story contest, which opens June 1. I'd love to post them here, but they must be unpublished, so ... you'll just have to wait until the contest is over! So far, I've written four -- and it occurs to me that I probably shouldn't describe them here on the very remote chance that one of the judges should stumble upon this blog. Very remote, but non-zero. 

Oh, yes, and I retired as of May 19, 2024! Lots of paperwork with that. I preferred to hand carry it rather than send so much personal identifying information through the mail, so I was literally driving around Baton Rouge to deliver it. This afternoon is my farewell tea. I'm wearing a garden party hat. Photos to follow. 

We put the house up for sale, which involved a pre-inspection in March that revealed that we needed a new roof due to hail damage. Thankfully, the insurance covered the bulk of that. Due to the frequent thunderstorms, it was the end of April before it was finally installed. It looks fabulous!

In the meantime, there was the decluttering and accompanying trips to Habit Restore and Purple Cow thrift store. Finally, cleaning, getting the yard in shape (which required 26 bags of mulch) and professional photos, and we went on the market on Friday, May 10. Two showings on Saturday and an offer on Sunday. Four more showings through the end of that week and a back-up offer. My head is still spinning. Their inspector the end of that week and a few more repairs -- biggest one being the new water heater. We opted to do that rather than offer a home warranty so that there will be no problems with insurance. 

So, we're looking at a closing date of June 28 and arrival in Albuquerque on July 1. I met with a realtor when I was there in February and we've been pre-approved for a new mortgage, so the house hunting will begin!

In the meantime, I've begun the third novel, Cold Vichyssoise Soup. I'll be submitting the first chapter in the "First chapter of an unpublished novel" category. This one takes its own detour and is focused on Route 66 in Albuquerque. Prudence investigates a murder among a troupe of vaudevillian performers staying at a motor court on the Mother Road. It's going to be a more traditional murder mystery, just to see if I can do it. It will include a brown-and-white performing terrier named "Miss Mamie." 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

 Oh, yes, one more bit of good news. My Valentine's Day flash fiction made it into the SouthWest Writer's Association Newsletter, Sage. It's on page 5. They even found a site with a copycat recipe! For those who are not aware, Zulu King Cake is an Ambrosia Bakery original.

 So excited to announce that I have signed a contract for the publication of  Fried Chicken Casta├▒eda with Artemesia Publishing. Anticipated release date is Spring 2025. 

What this means is that I've removed the self-published versions from sale at Amazon and B&N. Any of you who purchased a copy now have a collector's item. ­čśé 

Will the title change? Maybe. I kind of hope not, but I'm not going to argue about it. Will the cover change? I certainly hope so! I am not now nor have I ever pretended to be a graphic artist. Will the contents change? I would imagine so, to some extent, to make it more marketable. But the characters, setting, and basic plot will remain the same. 

It also means that while my book will eventually return to Amazon and B&N, it will also find a place in real, live, honest-to-goodness bookstores! Something I could not do on my own. 

In the mean time, work continues of French Toast a la Santa Fe. My writing group continues to provide valuable feedback and to catch all those internal contradictions. I'm starting to plan the next two books, in broad, general terms. The next book will be set at the Alvarado with a side trip to Taos -- I think. The fourth book will pick up right after Prudence finishes her training. The details of the training are of interest to me, but they do not a compelling story make, and it will be time for her and Jerry to resolve their relationship. 

I haven't forgotten about a Fred Harvey cookbook for the 21st century, either, but that is definitely a post-retirement project. Did I mention that I'm retiring May 18? And that we will be moving to Albuquerque just as soon as we can sell the house here? Well, I am and we are! So many changes coming up!