Guest Post in Writer's Digest: Balancing authenticity and accuracy while writing historical fiction
My post in WD appeared Sept 6, 2013
A few years ago, when I was first trying to figure out how to get my debut novel A Murder at Rosamund's Gate published, I came across Writer's Digest.
Full of advice for the fledgling writer and published author alike, Writer's Digest gave me some great insights into what I needed to do to polish my manuscript and write a compelling cover letter. (I mean, tell me it's not important to know "How to see your work through an agent or publisher's eyes?" or, "Knowing when to stop: Expectations for a satisfying ending.")
So I really appreciated the opportunity to write a guest post, "How to write historical fiction: 7 tips on accuracy and authenticity" for Writer's Digest. In this post, I talk about the tensions I've experienced as a historian-turned-novelist, while writing historical fiction. I also try to offer a few strategies that have worked for me in reconciling these tensions. Check it out!
And while you're there, try out the daily writing prompt! Although I have to giggle, because today the prompt is: "You are a local news reporter for a failing network. Your boss tells you to ramp up the news by getting “creative” and constructing your own stories. What’s the first fake news story you create and broadcast on air?"
Fake News! Totally fun! Accuracy Shmackeracy! If you do take up the challenge, will you post it here too? I'd love to see it!
Working my way through edits...
I think a simple quote by the late great science fiction writer, Douglas Adams, will summarize what I've been thinking, as I work my way through my edits....
"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." --Douglas Adams
Still trying to make my deadlines, so will be blogging again soon! Nearly done though!
Proactive Interference...A really useful explanation for why it can be hard to keep a story straight...
I've been running into a funny problem while reflecting on the edits for my second Lucy Campion mystery (From the Charred Remains, out in April 2014!).
It's the same problem I encountered when talking to a book group tonight...
I'm having some trouble keeping the details of my stories straight.
Crazy, right? How can I not know my own stories? I spent YEARS writing them (at least A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.) But still, I have notes and charts and timelines and figures (yes, figures!) detailing subplots, tracking character motivations, etc. And yet, I'm still a bit confused sometimes. How is this possible?
So I raised the question of my faulty memory with my chief psychological consultant (literally my resident psychologist, a.k.a my alpha reader). "I wrote the darn thing!" I whined, er, lamented. "How can I not remember all these details? I shouldn't have to re-read my notes to know my own story. Do I just have the worst memory in the world?"
And, with a lift of his eyebrow and a stroke to his goatee, my cognitive psychologist replied, "Ah, well let me tell you about a little thing we in the field like to call PROACTIVE INTERFERENCE."
And here's what he explained:
"I'd imagine it's always harder for the writer to remember the details than it is for a reader. For the reader, there is one reality and it is laid out there on the page. The writer, however, has vividly imagined (and discarded) many realities. These early imaginings compete and interfere with the memories for the most recent version of the story. This proactive interference is a hallmark of human memory and, sadly, it is largely unavoidable. Be thankful that you took good notes in the first place!"
(See why I keep my alpha reader in my permanent employ? He helps me rationalize my disorderly thinking with a neat psychological construct!)
But this idea of proactive interference, and this notion of multiple imagined (and discarded) realities, really does resonate with me. I've found that even though I take notes as I write, I don't keep track of the scenes, characters events, etc. that get deleted or shuffled around. So I retain this memory of what I wrote, even though it's no longer in the manuscript, which is why I'm sometimes confused months later. I also wrote another unrelated novel in the interim, which probably doesn't help with my recall of the one currently being edited.
Perhaps I could do a better job of documenting the changes I make when I write (although, really, it's not like I EVER get rid of a draft!).
But, in a way, I sort of like the idea that underlies this confusion. Maybe it's part of the romantic image of writer as creator: the idea that one being can simultaneously hold multiple realities is strangely compelling.
Or maybe its just convenient to pull out the "proactive interference" defense. Dazzle my questioners with the multiple realities angle, and I can sidestep the missing details altogether.
But what do you think? Will that fly?
I posted this a few days ago, but I realized there's one more important thing to remember!!!
Tonight I am going to do something I haven't done since I was in grad school.
I am going to get a pair of scissors and physically cut up the first two chapters of my current work-in-progress (WIP).
Sure, I know about the cut-and-paste function in Word. Sure, I've heard of outlines. This extreme method of cutting probably seems crazy.
But I have to say, it is easiest way I know to physically see all the redundancies, missing passages, dangling storylines, etc. that can really plague a manuscript.
Plus, it's fun. And somewhat cathartic. Most importantly, it lets the WIP know who's boss.
From experience, though, I've learned a few things...
1. Don't cut more than 20 pages at a time. More that then, then you'll just end up weeping in a corner, looking at the little scraps of paper all over the living room floor. Which leads me to point two.
2. Don't try this on your desk or at the kitchen table. You'll never have enough room to see all the scraps at once. You'll need an entire floor to work on. Which leads me to point three.
3. Choose a floor where the cat won't roll around. Nearly impossible in my house. But I have a solution to this problem. Lay out an empty box next to your scraps. Your cat will stay in the box.
4. Number as you go. Personally, I use elaborate coding schemes, numbering my paragraphs in the order they go. 1A, 1B, insert 2D here, put 1/2 of 17 here, and last half of 13 here. But sometimes I forget my ordering system. So, 4a. Don't forget your coding scheme.
5. Don't forget the tape!!! The best part of this process is taping together your newly structured WIP. You'll feel really invigorated and happy, I promise. But this brings me to point six.
6. Pour yourself a nice glass of wine. No, not to celebrate. That comes later. But rather to ease the inevitable shrieking and tearing of hair that will occur when you realize that you have to sit down at the computer and make all these tedious changes.
7. Promise yourself that next time, really, you will write in a more orderly way. If not, it's on to chapter 3 and step one above.
But I'm curious! Has anyone else done this old school cutting and pasting? Do you find it works? Or am I raving bonking mad?
And now my addendum...
8. Don't double-side when you print! Like I did. Boo!!! Sort of defeats the whole purpose.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.