“The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”
At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History,author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.
The questions posed by Mary were:
What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
What makes these particular authors stand out?
In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?
If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”
Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.
I already have Pinterest specifically for my writing, with boards for my two novels-in-progress; you can view them here andhere – please do follow the boards if you like what you see, I do follow back!
I’m slowly amassing followers on Pinterest, and it seems that with the very targeted appeal of each board, it could be a useful means of attracting new readers; a book’s subject matter, locations, and themes are all there, on display, so with this in mind, I’ve created a new board for the imminent release of my first novella to be published: The Battle of Watling Street
Having a strong collection of Pinterest boards is one of my aims, as I feel the visual nature of the curated boards adds another dimension to the wordy nature of books!
I’d be very interested to hear any views on using Pinterest boards to promote your writing or suggestions for other social media apps? I feel that Instagram, being app and phone based, is too bitty for me; I prefer using desktop, but I’m always open to new suggestions!
At 3.30am this morning, while putting the finishing touches to the edited and expanded second draft of my first completed work of fiction, my laptop froze, and I lost 5,000 words of creative frenzy. Half an hour of despair followed until, predictably, a youngster rescued me and found the Backup files for the Kingsoft WPS programme; my wonderful son.
So after running the draft through every grammar and spelling checker known to man, as well as the Google docs consistency checker, I’m ready to release my 17K words historical fiction/Sci-Fi novella to the kind people who have offered to beta-read for me.
I’m so excited! And so proud of myself. As usual, I went into the project seriously underestimating the amount of research required; boy, this one was heavy going. The story is set in 1st century AD occupied Britain, and there was LOTS of fact checking, not helped by the cheeky Sci-Fi twist ending.
This story is actually a prequel to one of my novels-in-progress, The Bondage of The Soil; I had the idea of a back story, and thought it would be a good exercise in world building and an interesting teaser to the main story, as well as a good place to start my publishing journey. I plan to self-publish Bondage and this prequel, whereas I want to try the traditional publishing route for my other book in the pipeline, And the Buntings Flew
So this post is just to tell you all, constant readers, what a great feeling it is to have finished a 17k words work of fiction, and to ask for your help; if anyone is interested in swelling the ranks of my beta readers and reading a pre-publication copy of the story in return for some feedback, please do get in touch!
I’ve just returned from a three-day break to Northern Ireland; the trip was definitely a mix of pleasure and writing research – the first thing I did after checking in at the wonderful Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe) was to head for the Belfast Central Library Newspaper archive.
And The Buntings Flew, the novel I’m half way through writing, is based in 1970s Northern Ireland, specifically, Belfast and those of you who have read my blog posts will know that it’s at least partly autobiographical, with a generous pinch of artistic licence.
My research at the newspaper archive bore some fruit, but this success was tinged with sadness and uncertainty; the Troubles left very few families untouched, and I now have to contemplate and investigate the new information I uncovered.
Despite any unease I felt while reading through the microfiches from 1975 and 76, they did offer, for a writer, a wonderful window on the past. I was particularly interested in the world news, and closer to home, the adverts; in 1975 the Northern Ireland government had members warning that if the UK voted to join the EEC (Common Market, and we did), that it would grow from a trade agreement to a federation of European states with a loss of UK sovereignty, which was a very topical read!
Some of the job adverts would be illegal today; some jobs called for “men”, “Christians”, and the jobs that females could apply for often called for “girls!” Such was life in the 1970s.On the plus side, a three-course meal with entertainment could be had from as little as £1.20 per head at a selection of Belfast hotels and restaurants!
I’ll be posting some more about some of the information I found in the archive library, but for now, I just wanted to post some pictures from our trip of the wonderful places to visit in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland (we confined ourselves to County Antrim on this trip.)
I’m also pleased to relate that I brought back lots of Thompsons Tea and vegetable roll, both Northern Irish treasures that I wrote about in my article lauding the Foods of Ulster!
This is just a quick night post to proudly announce that one of my flash fiction stories has been published by Richard Hearn at Paragraph Planet, a brilliant creative writing site that has published one 75-word story every day since 2008. I’m very pleased to have my story featured as the 27th March entry!
Please check the site out, it has an archive of all 1,600 plus stories published, as well as author interviews and bios.
My day job has just got a lot busier; I’m involved in business readiness for a large transformation IT project at work for the next few months. So what do I do? I create a new writing website! My timing seems atrocious, but I think under the surface I am becoming more confident in my writing and am enjoying immersing myself in all aspects of improving as a writer.
I noticed a small apparent gap in the market for sites that accept and publish short/flash fiction between 300 and 500 words. I’ve written a few stories of this length (you can read one at the new site), but some of the websites I found were sadly defunct, or not accepting new submissions.
I chose the name for two reasons; it seems interesting and catchy (to me anyway!), and the name embodies what the site is about: short stories, up to 500 words in length, so stripped down, but literature all the same. Most genres are welcome (see the submission guidelines for more info); I hope in this small way to provide another outlet for writers of short fiction.
I’ve been busy setting up the site and Twitter, and am proud to present the fruits of my labour.; now all we need are some short story submissions!
So go ahead; put on your writing caps and write a story, ideally between 300-500 words; the theme for the first edition of the site (which will be published as a PDF file and hopefully as an ebook anthology eventually) is…New Beginnings!
I’d love your feedback about the idea and the site, or any suggestions to make it better?
Wikipedia defines Norn Iron as “an informal and affectionate local nickname used… to refer to Northern Ireland, derived from the pronunciation of the words “Northern Ireland” in an exaggerated Ulster accent (particularly one from the greater Belfast area). The phrase is seen as a lighthearted way to refer to Northern Ireland, based as it is on regional pronunciation.”
The Northern Irish accent is distinctive, some say unique, and is unmistakable; as such it poses a challenge to writers who need to write Northern Irish dialogue. A similar issue faces writers of broad Scots dialogue. I read Trainspotting in 1994, and was transfixed by the stories, but I was also impressed with Irvine Welsh’s use of Scottish vernacular and phonetic spelling to convey the sounds of the words as they would have been spoken by the characters.
From the inception of my novel And The Buntings Flew, which is based largely in Belfast, I planned to include as much local dialect, both street vernacular and the peculiarities of Ulster-English dialect in my story; I want to reflect the way the people who inspired the book spoke, and still speak. I also want to make the story accessible to all; I have a couple of friends who didn’t finish Trainspotting because they struggled with the language used, whch is a great pity. So I’ve decided to use the key phrases and words I recall from my own childhood in Northern Ireland, and those ones that I hear most frequently whenever I return. Hopefully I’ve captured an authentic slice of Northern Irish dialogue without overusing words that many readers may be unfamiliar with.
My use of “Norn Iron” is therefore in no way exhaustive! If you’re interested in finding out about more Norn iron words, In Your Pocket has a great introduction, with lots of very colourful and expressive phrases! 🙂
Having said that, I’d love to hear from you if you can suggest any more common words and phrases I may have overlooked. All of the phrases below are used somewhere in And The Buntings Flew; I hope you enjoy them and don’t have to refer back to this glossary too much!
Norn Iron Word/Phrase
Are you getting?
Are you being helped/served?
Away in the head
Am not (e.g. Amnt I? – Am I not?
Mouth (from beak)
Bout Ye/What About Ye
How are you? Greeting
Catch yourself on!
Agreed, absolutely, OK, or great, perfect
Fried breakfast (Ulster Fry)
Is that you?
Are you finished/ready?
Shopping (usually for groceries)
Ice cream cone
A lot, very
See you? Heres me!
Thats what you think/say, but heres my opinion
See (this thing/person/situation)
An exclamation of annoyance/frustration, calling attention to something
So it is/do it does!
Yes it is/yes it does
The day/The night/The morra
The dogs on the street know
Something which is common knowledge
Wait till I tell you
I must tell you this
Quite often in a sentence where not grammaticality required, e.g. ‘shut you your bake!
I try to ensure I always have the means of making a note close to hand; Evernote on my phone and tablet, a notebook and pen in my bag, a voice record option on my phone. Post-it note pads everywhere. You never know when a great idea will spring to mind! But sometimes circumstances prevent me noting a potentially blockbusting idea or plot twist, such as driving to and from work along the M25. Luckily I have had a passenger sharing many of my commutes recently; my beloved son. We were talking the other day about my novel’s progress and some of my ideas to address a plot gap I have arrived at (picture my brain sat in a ten junction M25 traffic jam!)
A Plot Breakthrough
I’m nearly half way through writing And The Buntings Flew. I know how the story will end, and the main characters are all either in the draft or captured on my timeline and characters spreadsheet. But I had a thorny issue; I need to join two major strands of my story, and this will need to involve some fairly young characters. I am also keen to include some Irish folklore in my story but in a natural, realistic manner, as befits the tone of the story and what happens to some of the main characters.
Minor spoilers ahead; my main character is a young girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during “The Troubles” who (maybe!) identifies a terrorist who attacked a member of her family; she subsequently struggles to share her secret with the adults in her life. She is sent away for a short while to stay with friends, and this is the point at which events accelerate to a thrilling climax! I planned for this character (Purdey) to witness the aftermath of another violent event, and I wanted a suitable foreshadowing.
Playing with friends in a reputedly haunted house was one idea I had, based on a “real” house near my own childhood home (elements of the novel are based on my own childhood). In discussing this with my son, we veered off on a tangent to discuss Irish myths and folklore; phone in hand he was able to Google as we spoke and I told him of the Irish spirit, the Banshee. The idea of the children believing the house was haunted appealed to me, and had been mentally penciled in previously, but I only had a vague idea of the Banshee’s characteristics; we discovered that not only is she meant to be the spirit of a murdered woman who cries and wails to warn of an imminent, nearby death, the Banshee was also believed to be particularly attached to people with (Irish) surnames that have an “O” or “Mc” prefix.
This is where the synchronicity/coincidence occurred, as it has often done before when writing; the characters I have planned to be the victims of a shooting are two young brothers, whose surname begins with “Mc”. Another fact I wasn’t consciously aware of was that a possible explanation for the origin of the Banshee is the eerie, pronounced screech of the Barn Owl, common in Ireland as it hunts by night. Birds feature very prominently in And The Buntings Flew, both in terms of the plot and thematically; here was an Irish supernatural Folklore figure that might also have a prosaic, real life explanation; the screech of a bird! It fitted beautifully into the story and is an elegant segue to the next sequence of events in the story.
Feeding the Unconscious, Creative Mind
More synchronicity was in the air when I read The Creative Penn’s Joanna Penn discussing her creative writing process, in which she describes coincidence and synchronicity as almost magic or supernatural elements that commonly occur in the creative process of writing.
I think there are many reasons for this phenomenon, many of which centre around our individual and collective unconscious; Joanna Penn discusses the idea of the Jungian Archetypes(which I will visit in a future post!) but equally important I believe are the elements at work on the run up to these coincidences making their way to your conscious attention. By this I mean the process of planning and immersing oneself in a creative work; for me that consists of capturing the initial idea, making copious notes, as and when ideas spring to mind, researching just as hard as I did for my MBA dissertation, and devoting to the idea of my story a single-minded vision and attention, even when not actively writing. Travelling and visiting locations where I can carry out primary or secondary research (the location itself or resources such as museums, churches, news archives etc) are all elements in priming the unconscious to offer up these scraps of information that then seem to “magically” work for your creative endeavour.
Creative Feedback Loops
I originally had an equation as the title of this post:
This was an attempt to summarise my creative process for writing fiction; but there are other ways of stimulating the collective unconscious to offer up synchronicities, even if you aren’t able to do much external research or travel. Blogging helps me practice the art of writing, and posts such as these are a feedback loop; thinking and writing about elements of the story prompts me to read and research more, leading to more ideas and prompts, in a “virtuous circle” or creativity!
I am also enjoying my recent initiation to Twitter; I enjoy finding relevant quotes or information about my story or the writing process, and reading the thoughts and views of others; used judiciously (and not allowing it to devour all my time!), Twitter is proving another useful creative tool, as is the Pinterest board I created for And The Buntings Flew(thanks for another great idea Joanna Penn! 🙂 )
Have you had similar coincidental/synchronicitous breakthroughs with your story? I’d love to hear from you with your experience!
One of my favorite authors, Robert Harrisis doing a Goodreads “Ask the Author” Q&A mid January and I’ve just posted a question about his latest novel “Dictator”; fingers crossed that he answers!
My question is about the historical character, Roman lawyer, politician, orator and consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is the central character in Harris’s latest trilogy, although he is surrounded (and intrigued) by historical heavyweights such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Pompey the Great.
Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today?
Cicero was a very talented, largely self-made man in a key period of history that was dominated for the most part by men with an aristocratic or very wealthy background. My question to Robert Harris was, does he think that there is, or could be a public figure like Cicero today, and if so, is there someone he would identify as being that person?
One of the main themes for me in reading Robert Harris’s historical first century BC novels is that politics is timeless, as are the scheming, betrayals, uneasy alliances and real-politik that dominates it today. Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today, or as in the time of the Roman republic, would that require huge financial backing? Has much changed? The 20th century featured one or two very ambitious orators who had humble beginnings, and that didn’t work out so well for humanity.
If I do receive an answer I’ll post it here, and if this type of historical/political fiction is your thing, please do check out Robert Harris’s novels if you haven’t already.