10 Rules for Rewriting History

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (Wikimedia Commons)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s guest, Jennifer Cody Epstein, is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, two daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.

Jennifer Epstein joins us to offer her tips and suggestions for writing historical fiction, something near and dear to her heart.

“I am writing about (and passionate about!) the craft of historical fiction because–quite honestly–I find the genre endlessly interesting, and writing about it helps me understand it better–and therefore write it better.”

Here’s what Amy Shearn, O Magazine, had to say about Jennifer’s new novel: “…The book reveals itself to be as miraculously constructed as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which itself is a character). The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a page-turner thanks to its high-stakes adventure, torrid love affairs and characters so real they seem to follow you around. And in the end, this gripping novel asks us not just to consider a lost chapter of a famous war but also to explore what it means to be lucky—and what it means to be loved.”

You can connect with Jennifer on Facebook and Twitter.

10 Rules for Rewriting History

A decade into writing historical fiction, I’ve learned some interesting things—not the least of which is that I happen to love writing historical fiction. As someone who’d always struggled in history class (all those names and dates to memorize) I’d never imagined that my first novel would be HF. I’d imagined instead a more conventional debut: contemporary. Semi-autobiographical. Coming-of-age-centered.

Fast-forward to 1999, when I was well into said S.A.C.O.A. debut and finding it flimsy and (frankly) not all that interesting. On a visit to the Guggenheim, I was drawn to a wistful self-portrait by an artist named Pan Yuliang. I loved the work. But it was the story of the artist—a Chinese former prostitute and concubine—that really blew me away. My husband suggested I make this my first novel. I told him he was crazy. A few weeks later, though, there I was, signing up for classes in Chinese history and oil painting and hesitantly attempting a prologue.

So what changed my mind? Well, history, for one thing. As study material it’s a drag, but as novel fodder it’s fascinating. It also gives my narratives a heft and a ballast that has been lacking in my more contemporary attempts. Maybe best of all, it’s an ideal (if dangerously seductive) antidote to writers’ block: when the words don’t come, you can always read or take some notes and still feel that you are moving forward. Though as I’ve learned, the line between “research” and “procrastination” can be dangerously blurry.

Still, I’ve now published two novels of historical fiction, and am just starting on my third. Here are some “rules of thumb” that have helped me in the process:

  1. History rides shotgun.  Remember that what you’re writing is a novel—not a history book. This means history should be used only to heighten and deepen your narrative, and not the other way around. Be careful not to get hijacked by some fascinating event that doesn’t fit naturally into your storyline, because no matter how hard you try—or how many pages you write (in my case, sometimes, hundreds—with Painter I spent months on historical tangents that ultimately proved irrelevant) it simply won’t work in the end. If it doesn’t relate to your plot, it shouldn’t be in there.
  2. Write right awayor at least, feel like you could if you had to. Many historical novelists put off writing until they feel that they’ve “researched enough.” If your story is strong enough, though, you should be able to write it (or much of it) immediately—albeit with lots of blanks and “[TK]s” and what I like to call “tent stakes.” For instance: in my most recent novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I have a scene where a bomber pilot takes off from an aircraft carrier for the first time. Since I had no idea how to fly a B-25, I initially used terms like “gas pedal [TK]” and “steering stick [TK]” as temporary placeholders. Sure, my dad—a Navy pilot in the 1950s—laughed his ass off over that draft. But I found was able to nail all the important things—how my pilot felt when the flag fell, his anxious banter with his co-pilot, his fears about flying into a foreign country—without worrying about the technology.
  3. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment PB CoverResearch like hell. That said, you do have to research—and the more you do the more authentic your book will feel. I probably read about twenty books for each novel, and countless online pages and papers.  Organizing all that info can be tricky, but I’ve found one technique that works well: index carding. After I read and highlight my factoids I type them up as notes, which I then divide, cut out and glue onto index cards. These I organize by topic: a list of oil paint colors popular in the ‘20’s would go under “Painting (Craft Of),” a detail about singsong girls under “Brothel Stuff.” When I’m getting ready to write a new section, I simply take out stacks of cards from related subjects, leaf through and line them up, and figure out what I can insert where.
  4. The 30 Percent Rule: It’s one of the depressing realities of researching: the vast majority of it probably won’t make your book. In my experience, between unused index cards and final-final edits I only use about 30% of what I’ve learned. Resign yourself to this likelihood. Try to think of it as paint: an artist may have dozens of hues and tones on her palette, but in the end she only uses what her painting really needs. On the bright side, just having all that info in your arsenal will probably make you feel more smart and capable and historical novelist-y. Plus, you’ll have lots of potential party-conversation topics.
  5. Talk to real people. For both of my books, I’ve found that some of my most vivid information comes from people, not pages—and that interviewing and observing subjects related to your story will add real-life nuance that text alone won’t. For instance, since Pan Yuliang learned much of her craft in an atelier at the Paris Beaux Artes, I needed to know how one worked. I did do some bookish research—but what really brought it to life was observing a class at the Art Students League of New York, which is run in essentially the same fashion. Similarly, since The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is set against the Tokyo firebombing, I needed a sense of what that experience was like. A trip to Tokyo and interviews with three women who’d lived through the bombing added incredible (if horrific) depth to that scene.
  6. Watch out for big-shots. One of the coolest things about HF is the writer’s omnipotence: you can put anyone/thing anywhere you want them. Don’t abuse it. Just because the Fitzgeralds were in Paris during the period about which you are writing doesn’t mean you write about them, no matter how much you loved Gatsby. If their paths and your characters’ would naturally cross, go ahead (but don’t overdo it!). If not, leave them out. Otherwise it will read like literary groupie-ism and lessen your story’s credibility.  On the other hand, including relevant smaller historical details will heighten your book’s credibility. What kind of hairs were Chinese paintbrushes made with in the early part of the century? What kinds of shoes did people wear? What were the big movies everyone was going to see, and how did Chinese movie theaters differ from Western ones?  One of my favorite discoveries with Painter—unearthed from a crumbling travel guide from 1932—was that Chinese commentators would simultaneously “translate” foreign films to audiences like a sportscaster would discuss a game, saying things like “Oh no! The woman is tied up on the train tracks! What is the hero going to do?” (Pure gold!)
  7. Vet vernacular. One of the hardest tasks a historical writer faces is finding language that fits his time, place and characters. On the other hand, one of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have your Plymouth-bound pilgrim say “gnarly.” Ok, so most of you probably wouldn’t do that. But I’ve been surprised by how even seasoned writers can slip up, even if just subtly.  Right now, for example, I’m reading a novel by a well-known author set during World War II, and the thing that’s stayed with me is that a German soldier refers to wood as “bourbon-colored.” As a bourbon lover, I appreciate the thought. But I just can’t stop wondering why a Bavarian soldier in the ’40s would fall back on Southern single-malt as a descriptive. In short, we are all the products of our respective eras and locales, and these things will inevitably creep into your narrative, so vet your language very carefully after you write it. Read it out loud to yourself, slowly. Have others familiar with your place/era read it too. I also suggest reading as many books written during  (not just about) your time period as you can, taking note of idiom and tone. Lastly, when in doubt strip your character’s language down to its most straightforward and uninflected form.
  8. Make a timeline. It may be all those history tests I failed, but one of the hardest things for me is keeping historical dates straight. Consequently, I find making timelines essential. With Painter, I superimposed four on a posterboard: one for Chinese history from 1899 to 1937, one for world history over the same period, one for art history and one for my character’s trajectory. That way, when I was writing about Pan Yuliang’s life at, say, age twenty, I could look up and quickly see what major world and domestic events (like the Treaty of Versailles and China’s May 4th Movement), and art trends (like the beginning of abstract painting) might have been in headlines and people’s discussions.
  9. Check your facts. Sounds obvious, I know. But it’s incredibly important to get stuff right—with each mistake, you lose a little more of your reader’s faith. In the best cases, these readers will politely inform you of your screw-up (I recently got a helpful one-pager from a well-schooled smoker about 1940s cigarettes, and why Winston wasn’t one of them). In the worst, they’ll gleefully point them out on Amazon or Goodreads reviews and stick you with a one-star rating. (Boo!) It’s inevitable, of course, that some mistakes will slip through the net—historical fiction is particularly vulnerable in this area. But a technique I learned in journalism can be helpful: namely, going over every single fact in your manuscript with a pencil, double-checking it, and checking it off only if it’s accurate (ideally by at least two sources). It also helps if, while writing, you insert source footnotes as you go each so you later know where you found everything. And if you’re really in uncertain territory—as I often found myself in both my novels—it’s well worth it to hire an expert to read through.
  10. Free your mind (and the rest will follow). It may seem strange, but another hard part of fictionalizing history is just allowing yourself to fictionalize. In fact, the most common question I get from students and readers is just that—essentially: when is it o.k. to make sh** up? The answer varies from writer to writer, of course. But in my case it’s pretty simple: if it can’t be easily proven that something didn’t happen, you can write as though it did. For instance, when researching The Painter from Shanghai I found very little information on Pan’s romantic life in Paris. But I needed romance (and let’s face it, sex) to propel my story forward. So I invented a handsome Communist Party member—a former art classmate from Shanghai—who also happened to also be studying in France when she was.  Or at least, I thought I invented him. Then the Chinese researcher I’d hired asked me curiously how I’d found out about Pan’s lover.  When I told her I’d made him up, she blinked in surprise. According to a Chinese source she’d found online, Pan had had an affair with a Chinese communist and former art student—and is moreover buried with this same man in Montparnasse. Turns out, sometimes history is even stranger than fiction.

What works for you to make fiction more realistic or help history come alive? Have you come across any stories when it turned out history (or truth) actually was stranger than fiction?

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Comments

  1. says

    As a historical fiction writer (also living in Brooklyn with a needy Springer Spaniel!), I found this so helpful. I especially liked the suggestion about the notecards and timeline.

    If you had to estimate, how much of your time was devoted to research and how much to writing?

    Thanks, Jennifer, for this post!
    Jackie Cangro´s last blog post ..The One with Space Mountain

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    • says

      Hi Jackie–

      Wow! A Brooklyn doppelgänger! Great to meet you :) It’s hard to put hard numbers on the process, but I’d say I probably spend a third of the time researching and two-thirds writing….and rewriting. The problem for me is that I know I will never feel like I’ve learned enough to feel qualified to write the stuff I try to write–so even when I don’t feel “ready” to write I try to force myself to try anyway. But it is an equation still in the works!

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  2. says

    Jennifer-

    Hello from Brooklyn. Wish you were here…oh, wait, like all the cool literary people (commenting today so far) you are.

    Your tips are absolutely brilliant. They’re not “tips”, really, but working methods for the historical novelist. I especially love your emphasis on details over, say, the gratuitous inclusion of historical figures. And the best details come from people, not books.

    Loved The Painter from Shanghai, and now am looking forward to The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. As I read I’ll have the extra pleasure of mentally flipping through index cards, knowing that there was much you wisely left to my imagination.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Film Deal: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon

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    • says

      Hi Donald! Thanks so much for the positive feedback–I’m never sure I’m qualified to give advice on this stuff since I feel like I’m still figuring it out myself, so great to know you found some of it of use. And yes–Brooklyn is indeed author-packed–as one author here put it, there seem to be zoning laws in place requiring everyone who pens for a living to move here. :) Thanks for reading, and best of luck with your work!
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..Oprah.com (March “Book of the Week” Pick)

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  3. says

    I’m not cool enough to be writing from Brooklyn, but this writer from Texas thanks you for your 10 Rules. The notecards and footnotes are brilliant. And since I write in Scrivener–easy to do. You also opened a few windows I hadn’t considered when researching. Thanks.
    elisabeth crisp´s last blog post ..The Relocation of Smaug

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  4. says

    Good article. Thanks for some good advice. #1 certainly deserves to be at the top of the list. A historical setting is a great way to engage the reader, but story is foremost.

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  5. Deb says

    Hi Jennifer:
    I kept nodding my head as I read through your comprehensive “rules of thumb,” and would just like to add one further tip for your consideration, which I’m borrowing from American civil war historian Gary Gallagher–and that is always to “think forward” when studying the past.

    Hey, we all know that Pickett’s Charge would turn out to be a disastrous failure, and General Lee would ultimately surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. But nobody living at that time could have possibly known that, and neither of those events, nor scores of others I could point to, was inevitable.

    Contingency had a lot to do with it . . .

    Or as Stephen King wrote in 11/22/63: “There were no violins or warning bells when I pulled the janitor’s theme off the top of the stack and set it before me, no sense that my little life was about to change. But we never know, do we? Life turns on a dime.”

    In response to your final two questions, I find reading primary sources, especially diaries and letters, incredibly useful, and yes, there really were at least two African-Americans living in Gettysburg who enlisted and served with the 54th Massachusetts, so I wasn’t just making that up!

    Thanks for making me think!
    Deb

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  6. says

    Thank you for sharing so generously about writing HF. I fell into it because of the stories, and am having to do massive amounts of research as well, which I enjoy far too much. Your advice about placeholders is spot on …
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Low-country Gems

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  7. says

    Very good practical advice. But when I saw your section on note cards (which reminded me of how I did my dissertation in US history over 35 years ago) I thought–has she never heard of Scrivener? http://www.writersstore.com/scrivener/

    This is a great research tool as well as word processor–and they even let you keep your notes in virtual note cards on a virtual cork board if that makes you more comfortable.

    As an historical fiction writer, I have found it an invaluable tool, particularly since much of the research material I find can be cut and pasted in to electronic folders (material now available using google books that I used to have to go to the libraries to read), and you can paste in links, and actual photographs in to research folders for easy access.

    For example, I spent last week describing a 1880 San Francisco building for a short story and I had an old photo of the building in the split screen below my text document and below the photo I had pasted in the 1879 SF directory description of the interior of the building! It made writing so much easier and faster than the days when I would be shuffling around xeroxes, books, note cards, etc.

    Finally, I also have had the same experience of making up a fictional character and later discovering that the fiction bore an uncanny resemblance to fact. The Historical Novel Society actually did a whole series on this last fall that you might find very interesting. http://historicalnovelsociety.org/stories-of-serendipity-writing-historical-fiction/

    I look forward to checking your work out.

    M. Louisa Locke

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  8. says

    Very helpful points. Thank you, Jennifer. I’m quite new to writing historical fiction. I find your No. 10 Free Your Mind to be amazing!

    I had a similar experience. In one of my short stories (placed at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home in Concord, MA, called the “Old Manse”), I created a ghost story that there were psychic energy lines (ley lines) in Hawthorne’s orchard on the property behind the Old Manse, and these ley lines streamed to the famous Old North Bridge. When the ghost story was published and read by a tour guide at the Old Manse, he told me that just one year earlier a ley line was discovered and verified by EMF technology near a favorite rock of Hawthorne’s in the middle of the orchard. The tour guide asked me how I knew about it since it was not publicized. Of course, I hadn’t known about it at all. But I guess inside the world of fiction, anything can develop. Don’t you just love when that happens!
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..Phantasmagoria On the River

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  9. says

    Awesome tips. Thank you Jennifer. I love the note card idea. My notes usually get shuffled around in spiral notebooks. Trippy stuff about Pan’s lover. Wow!
    I recently recreated Woodstock in my novel and spent a long time watching documentaries and YouTube. I jotted notes while watching to describe what I saw and that really helped with my setting details. While reading, my hubby questioned a brief mention of guys playing Frisbee–as to whether or not it had been invented then and luckily I’d already double checked that. But it’s even those tiny tidbits like that and “bourbon-colored” that will pull people out of the story if its not working.
    I’m off to continue my recreation of Titanic now, and I’ll be referring back to your helpful post!
    PK Hrezo´s last blog post ..Indie Life – My Big Fish Story

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    • says

      Thanks, PK–and that’s a great tip about watching videos. There is an astounding amount of material on YouTube, I’ve found–for my last novel I was able to watch footage of Japanese pioneers in Manchuria, and see the busy streets of Harbin during the 1930’s. I have to say, all these technological perks and easily-accessible research materials really do make me wonder how people like Michener did HF so prolifically….
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..Oprah.com (March “Book of the Week” Pick)

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  10. says

    Jennifer

    What a great post. Many thanks. I too nodded enthusiastically as I read your article.

    I write what I once ‘labelled’ historical fiction until my editor pointed out it was historical fantasy. A big difference in some ways, but it requires the same attention to details.

    Having studied Fine Arts and art history, and realizing the horrendous gaps from the fifteenth-century to ours, I used every devise I could to elaborate the things I could only speculate in my imagination.

    And, like you, some of the things I ‘made up’ turned out to be true. Love it that when that happens. It’s a bonus to having fun, and writing about the Italian renaissance is fun for me.

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  11. says

    I loved this post, and you gave me wonderful ideas. I am currently working on what I call “near historical” fiction (the 1960s) and my timeline has been instrumental in tracking events, I agree. It’s amazing, though, how much I can’t find out some fairly mundane things that happened such a short time ago. For instance, what I thought was a very simple question about an institution’s procedure landed me on the phone for HOURS. You’ve given me some excellent ideas for how to work around some of these information gaps as well as other really cool insights. But I fear that the danger with closer history is that someone may remember…. Thanks for a great post!
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post ..It’s All About the Story

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    • says

      Hi Julia–

      That’s so interesting–and it points to one of the ongoing debates about HF–e.g., what is considered true “history”? I think I read somewhere that some historians consider anything that occurred 50 years ago or more to fit into the category “historical.” As for someone remembering–well, that’s always the risk, isn’t it. As I said, we’ll inevitably get things wrong. But then there is the flip side–those times when people write to commend you on how well you’ve captured a place or time–which makes it all worth it :) Good luck in your novel!
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..Oprah.com (March “Book of the Week” Pick)

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  12. Carmel says

    Great tips, and I loved the Communist lover story. That’s one of the fun parts of being an historical fiction writer — making something up and then finding out it’s true!

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  13. Bronwen Jones says

    This is the best summary of advice on writing historical fiction that I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you, Jennifer. I look forward to reading your novels. Kind regards from a (regretfully as yet unpublished) historical novelist in New Zealand, some distance from Brooklyn.

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  14. says

    This is one of the most succinct craft pieces on historical fiction I’ve ever read. Thanks much. Midway through my first historical novel, it’s nice to see that I’m doing some things correctly. :)

    I struggled with managing the historical facts vs. the storyline at first and echo M. Louisa Locke’s recommendation of Scrivener (I also use the historical photos I’ve collected while I’m writing) but the greatest tool I’ve discovered is Aeon Timeline by Scribble Code. It was designed for writers. Using it, I’m able to easily determine a character’s age during any event in the timeline. And I’m able to create numerous arcs that can be related to a place, a person or something else (I do both). I can also easily view events in multiple places at the same time. After I started using the software, life became so much simpler.

    Good luck with the new project.
    Keith Skinner´s last blog post ..Five Places to go Medieval

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  15. says

    A most helpful post — thanks, Jennifer! I’ve been feeling my way as I go, but it’s great to take a step back and see how historical novels are “supposed” to be created.

    I’m attempting a historical novel about three bohemian painters and writers: my grandparents and step-grandfather in their wild youth. My era is 1917 to mid-’20s, in Chicago, Paris, and Valencia. Oh, the temptations to lard in well-known figures! I think only Woody Allen can get away with that easily.

    May I tip my hat to the obvious: the internet. Very little of the material and contacts I’m finding would have been possible even 10 years ago. New stuff comes online all the time. It’s astonishing!

    For the general millieu, I’m finding some of my best material simply by reading newspapers and novels of the times. And there’s nothing like holding an original flapper dress and feeling how heavy this gauzy silk chemise is, because of all the beads. (Add bootleg liquor, cigarettes, a jazz band, and stir.)

    Keeping track of all the material is a huge challenge. I have files upon files, piles of books. I’ve tried Scrivener and quickly outpaced it. The most useful thing I’ve done is to compile a single, detailed, central timeline, color-coded, with a bit of everything and a cite to find the rest as needed.

    Hey, Jennifer, would you be willing to share your “list of oil paint colors popular in the ‘20s”? (off-list, I doubt many others would be interested).

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    • says

      P.S.: Just looked at the online preview of Jennifer’s _The Painter from Shanghai_. Reads brilliantly! I’m going to have to get a copy. And of course, I should have known: its bibliography looks helpful too.

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    • says

      Hi Mary–so glad you enjoyed it! And yes–the Internet is an amazing tool for an HF writer. To be honest, if I were writing pre-Internet I’m not sure I’d have the patience to write in the genre….or at very least, I’d write even more slowly than I do :) Your novel sounds like a blast. But to be honest, I’m not sure I have that list anymore–I realized early on that if I kept all my research materials I’d have to rent another apartment here in Carroll Gardens–not something easily done on a novelist’s salary! But if I do come across it I’ll be sure to let you know–and in the meantime best of luck!
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..Oprah.com (March “Book of the Week” Pick)

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  16. says

    A very helpful piece. I especially like the time line idea. I think Faulkner had to do that with his own plots to keep the threads straight!

    I would add–and maybe this is obvious to everyone else–be sure to check when real-life figures in your book died. I was so sure that a newspaper editor was part of the period I was writing about, and he was, just not all the way to the year of my book!
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..The Poetry of Yoga, an Anniversary Celebration: Part 1

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  17. says

    This was great advice. I especially liked how you emphasized that not all your research will make it into the book. The story should not be put on hold while the author is showing off what a great researcher he or she is. (smile)

    Like you, I also love to talk to people instead of just digging through books and magazines or online sites for information. Sometimes talking to a professional to get some needed details can actually spur a scene. Sometimes I’ve finished talking to a pro, then wrote our conversation out to use as a springboard for the conversation that the detective will have with the fictional pro in the book.
    Maryann Miller´s last blog post ..Friday’s Odds and Ends

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  18. says

    This is wonderful advice on writing the historical novel. I found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement through the entire article.

    The only thing I’d add is that even research that doesn’t make it into the book can still be used. To promote my historical young adult novel, I put together a presentation that expanded on the history behind the book, and accompanied it with a PowerPoint made up of scads old photos, video and audio clips. I gave this presentation at book clubs, libraries, school groups, and historical societies. It was a lot more fun and versatile than a traditional reading, and I got tons of positive response to it. Plus I got to share some of the most fascinating things I’d dug up in my research. Win-win!

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  19. says

    Enjoyed this post and bookmarked it to return and reread. What are your thoughts on using period vernacular in the narrative? I know it’s OK in dialogue, but what about when the character is thinking or processing her life? Thanks for any insight you might want to offer.

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  20. Marcy McKay says

    Jennifer – I write commercial fiction, but have a particular historic piece that has always tugged at my heart. I research with all my novels, but HF seems more daunting since it’s based on 100% REAL. You’ve graciously handed us the perfect process to tackle this. Many thanks!

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  21. says

    I really enjoyed this post, Jennifer. I like the down to earth points that you make. I’ve never thought to go through and check every fact I write – I think this is great advice.

    I’ve also had the same experience you recount in your final point. I started writing a sentence which turned out to be written by a very clever young woman who insisted I keep on writing what she wanted. Before I knew it I was writing a novel very different from anything I’d written before. When I was half way through I discovered a real person from that time,( although 6 months apart) in exactly my character’s situation and who was incredibly similar. I’m reconciled to the fact that people will assume I’ve based my Alice Petherton character on the real historical figure but I shall refer them to this blog and say it was all down to freeing my mind.

    I echo what Louisa says about Scrivener. It’s the best software I’ve ever used. It won’t take you away from the writing at all. I found I could plunge in straight away and only learned more when I had need to. A bit like your comments on writing right away and researching, in fact.
    Martin Lake´s last blog post ..A New Year

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  22. says

    Thanks for this post! I am about to tackle revisions to the first draft of my historical novel – especially all the places where I skimmed over the history and left myself notes to “Fix Later.” After immersing myself in research (I now have squatters rights at table #22 at my local historical society), I found myself teetering into the territory you describe in #1 – I want to put ALL of my research into the novel. Thanks for the reminder that history rides shotgun.

    Love the suggestion to read books written during the time period in question. I’ve also found it useful to skim newspapers written during the time period, which give a sense of how events were understood at the time, as well as a sense of daily life. Plus the ads are always fun to look at.
    Julie Gilbert´s last blog post ..A Parent & Writer’s Ode to Mondays

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    • says

      It’s a really hard habit to break–in part because simply spewing out historical facts is much easier than actually creating something fictively. In fact, I just gave my husband what were supposed to be the first fifty pages of my next novel. His first comment: “This reads like a history book!” Out comes the red pencil…sigh….Anyway, glad this helped in any way, and good luck with your writing!
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..“Gods” Wins APALA Honor Award!

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  23. Kate Hannigan says

    This was incredibly helpful and sort of validating or inspiring or affirmative in some sort of way! I guess I needed to hear this, especially the part about history riding shotgun – it’s a novel! Not a history textbook!

    I am very excited to read your newest book.

    Thanks for posting this.

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  24. says

    Great ideas. I have found one limitation that actually frees writers–not knowing other languages well enough to spend time researching in it. Generally there is enough info in English, so being unale to research original sources may actually be a blessing.

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    • says

      Daniel–you are so right! I actually felt writing “The Painter From Shanghai”was much easier in many ways for me than “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment” because I knew enough Japanese to feel like I SHOULD have been researching in it. I’m now back to researching in English about a country whose language I don’t know (Germany) and finding it quite, as you say, liberating :)
      Jennifer Epstein´s last blog post ..“Gods” Wins APALA Honor Award!

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  25. says

    Great post, thanks. I’ll need this as I forge ahead (or backward) into the 1920s on Maui!

    A couple of thoughts:
    –Someone somewhere said to be “historical” it has to be outside the lifetime of the writer. (So my novel based in 1971 wouldn’t count for me, at least. Maybe for a younger writer? Or maybe the 50-year rule applies.)
    –Reading old newspapers, including the ads, gives a great glimpse of the way people talked, the values and attitudes they held, and the kind of lives they led. What kind of stove, or bathtub, or transportation did they use? It will be in the ads. Prices, too, which could be helpful.

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  1. […] A. How to write Historical Fiction by Jennifer Cody Epstein: the smartest guide I’ve seen in a long time. She calls it 10 rules for Rewriting History. I have to say that once again I am envious of some of the sources and ability to fact check that more modern historical writers have at their fingertips than I do with my Late Bronze Age efforts, but for anyone this is a great article. Once again good stuff from Writer Unboxed. Link here. […]

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