Category Archives: Writing Craft

Research Your Historical Novel

by Mark H. Phillips

So you want to write a historical novel. Then it would be useful for you to know some history. Not just the kind of history you learned in school concerning who was the king of England during the American Revolutionary War or who was the Union General at the Battle of Vicksburg but the everyday level history like describing the posser your Victorian Era maid used on laundry day or how often a London homeowner would have to hire a gongfermor.

Getting details wrong is simply embarrassing and will throw your knowledgeable reader out of the story. Have your Victorian gentleman using a zipper on his pants is anachronistic. Although invented in 1893, the first practical marketing of the zipper didn’t occur until 1906 and it wasn’t called a “zipper” until 1923. In the movie Django Unchained dynamite is used in 1859 though it wasn’t invented until 1867.

The easiest way for a British Victorian writer to show vulgarity and boorishness in a character was to have them mis-use a title or screw up a mode of address. A man would never address the eldest daughter of an acquaintance the same way as the next eldest. Nor would a son address his father in the same way as a daughter would. A medical doctor is addressed as “Doctor” but a surgeon only by “Mister.” Do you know the difference between a parish priest, a curate, a rector, and a vicar? A modern writer, especially one not native to Britain, would have to do considerable research in order not to look foolish navigating their characters through the maze of Victorian class-based etiquette.

The kind of historical research necessary to bring your story alive is just plain fun. The housewife in 1920 Springfield, Illinois gets up in the morning and puts in her front window a colorful square of cardboard labelled in each quadrant with a different number. This particular day she makes sure the number 25 is in the uppermost position. Why? So that later that morning when the iceman knocks at her back kitchen door he will have the twenty-five pounds of ice for her ice box. Or in some locales there was a hatch in the wall behind the inbuilt ice box so the iceman could load in the ice without disturbing the homeowner at all.

In the same home late one evening a thug sneaks up behind the lady of the house as she is reading a book in her easy chair. He reaches from behind and begins to choke her. Defending herself, she stabs backwards with the knife she was holding, wounding him and driving him away. Why was she holding the knife? To slice open the pages of her book, of course.

A public library in 1920 Springfield would have been a quiet place. The Library of Alexandria in the ancient world was a horribly loud place because hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read silently. To read was automatically to read aloud.

Many details of the modern world are only explicable by reference to historical conditions that no longer exist. Why do women’s blouses button opposite from men’s shirts? Because a century and a half ago a lady’s maid would’ve been buttoning up her mistress’ blouse and the buttons weren’t backwards for the maid. Right handed women who dress themselves have been fumbling with buttons ever since because rich women used to use lady’s maids. Why are the letters on your computer’s keyboard arranged in the particular order they are? So that common letter combinations were as far apart as possible to keep efficient typists from tangling the keybars and jamming the machines. Now, after generations of touch typists have been trained on those deliberately inefficient keyboards, it’s impractical to change.

Fortunately there have been some excellent books on the history of everyday living published in recent years. Here are a few that I have found useful:

  • Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and How to Be a Victorian
  • Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
  • Robert Garland’s Ancient Greece
  • John Strausbaugh’s The Village
  • Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday, and Napoleon’s Privates
  • Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
  • Michael Olmert’s Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella
  • Particularly excellent examples of well researched historical fiction are George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (along with Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), Against the Day, and Mason and Dixon, and Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory.

The meticulous research that supports the writing of historical fiction is hard work and great fun. Bring your fiction alive with accurate detail that is evocative of place and time and that grounds the reader in the everyday lives of your characters.






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I (Almost) Finished NaNoWriMo… Now What? (Ana Vera)

I’ve tried to complete NaNoWriMo twice in my life. The first time, I was in a tough high school program and was crazy to even try. The second time was last year (2016), and I actually (almost) succeeded!

So what happened?

I’m normally a plotter, and so for months before November, I worked on my outline, and thought of little scenes to put in the book, and made index cards, and made Myers Briggs profiles for my characters, etcetera, etcetera. I even created a writing routine. Being a full-time engineer who had just bought a house and gotten engaged, I didn’t have a lot of spare time, but I gave myself 30-45 minutes each morning and another 30-45 minutes after work to crank out the words.

Things actually went really well.

Keep in mind, I had been working on this same novel all year, and had only about 25,000 words before I had started NaNoWriMo. In November, I put down an extra 40,000 words. Not quite at the finish line, but the bulk of my novel was done before Thanksgiving.

So what’s the problem?

Well, my plotter self turned into a pantser. I ran into a snag early in NaNoWriMo — my main character was not jiving with her love interest. There was just no spark, and I really liked their personalities as is. I went ahead and gave her a new love interest. Well, that’s not just something you do when you’re writing 1600 words a day, and the plotline depends on it. When I realized how little time I had to think through the scenes, and the characters, and the ultimate plotline, I just went for it. I made key decisions every day at the keyboard, and let it all unfold.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to feel about it. My gut says there’s gaps, and some parts are too long-winded, and the main character is too reactive, and there’s not enough little bits of personality because how do you come up with those things on the fly, without more percolation?

So, I’m doing my percolation now. I’m thinking through the whole thing all over again, and trying to figure out which scenes to keep, to delete, or significantly modify.

I’ll let you know how it went when it’s over. In the meantime, I’d like to point out that if you’re swinging between pantser and plotter yourself, give the other side a chance. Without doing what I did–moving the dial each day, and letting myself be okay with mistakes in the future–I wouldn’t have gotten more done in November 2016 than I had in the last five years combined. So kudos to that!

Ana Vera

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Comfort Zone (Debra Black)

I have been taken out of my comfort zone. I usually use Microsoft Word on my desktop to type whatever comes into my head at the time I want to do some writing. Now I am bereft of my steady-as-you-go computer tower and working on a different unit that has none of the same settings or preferences tweaked to my happiness level. That has made me wonder… what makes you comfortable when you are trying to crank out several hundred words on that new scene that is sitting trapped in your head?

Do you still use a pen or pencil and paper? Whatever floats your boat, I’m not judging. I like writing with pen and paper for my journal. I just personally cringe at the thought of several thousand words in one sitting with writer’s cramp impinging on that exciting plot point. How about a typewriter? You have one that still works??? Nice! I can’t type without several errors per line. Not the tool for me. If you use a computer, welcome to the modern world. This is where many of us slog through, typing hours of our lives away. The benefits of instant typing correction, spell check, and a plethora of other helpful tools puts this option in the front for me. If you are thinking of getting that fancy voice-to-text recording software… we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

OK, so you may have noticed I am an I.T. technician, and you may wonder why I haven’t tried the last option. It’s simple. I am a casual writer. I haven’t found the expense of getting the program and training it to recognize my voice so that I can use it to be tempting enough. I didn’t judge you for your pencil and paper caveman approach. Don’t judge my lack of motivation! I do encourage those of you who are serious writers to try it, though. Once you get used to it, I hear it can be a major time-saver. Some of the programs have even been updated to put in appropriate punctuation without having to specify it.

Now you can tell a small device to turn on or off your lights or play a certain song and you can be instantly gratified. I have no doubt that somewhere in the near future you can tell that same voice assistant to start a dictated record of your newest chapter without ever having to turn on an actual computer or scrounge for paper you haven’t scribbled ideas on yet.

Some of us will avoid such luxury for the sake of security. Those voice assistants are notoriously easy to hack at the moment. Improvements such as locking the device with voice recognition for a particular user, and making it impossible for recorded sound to travel outside the residence network without a complex password would go a long way towards making me more comfortable with these devices.

I see a lot of potential in the ways new technology can be utilized to help writers progress. We can balk at new ideas, or we can learn and expand our abilities with improved techniques and technologies as they become available.

Here are some questions for you. Where is your comfort zone? What technologies, software, or techniques have you stumbled upon or researched your way into that may help other writers improve their output and quality of writing? Do you have any suggestions for a particular piece of software? Is there anything recent you have tried that you would tell other writers to avoid? Please feel free to post comments and let your fellow writers benefit from your experience!

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Strong: Word-lifting Techniques (Natasha Storfer)

As I sit in my local YMCA, watching my toddler learn to doggie paddle, I’m surrounded by people becoming stronger. A familiar gentleman lifts from his wheelchair and is lowered to the pool for his laps. Retirees wearing floats wade through water aerobics in the deep end. The woman training for a triathlon arrived before I did, and will be here long after I leave. My daughter’s class is building muscles, and learning to swim for the first time. With every movement, they are strengthening their bodies and demonstrating determination.

Can we apply those examples to become stronger writers? Yes!

Join a Group

There is power in groups:

  • Accountability
  • Continuing education (a good group will have this)
  • Peer encouragement

Mentors and Examples

Learn from others that have “been there and done that.” Find a mentor, preferably one with a similar writing style.

  • Read their blog, their books, the books they’ve written on how to write, or even send correspondence.
  • How do they create? Can you incorporate any of their techniques?
  • If you are feeling weak, find a teacher – and add more accountability.

Find a “Spotter”

Find someone with a good balance for your level of writing and goals to “spot” you, as someone would when lifting weights. Check in with each other to make sure both of you are okay.

  • “How is writing going?”
  • “Can you help me with this paragraph?”
  • “Are you going to the next critique group?”

Your spotter is also someone you spot for. Trust and respect go both ways in this relationship.


I see the same faces all week at the YMCA. The swimmers turned growth/improvement into a habit.


  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • Every day

Even a sentence is better than a blank page.


When the water gets deep, keep swimming.

No one always feels “in the mood” to write. This separates the pros from the hobbyists. Sink or swim. And when you’re at the end of your buoy…


Find something that motivates you, which is specific to you. Have a goal, and a reward for each goal.

It can be productive in ways other than getting words on a page:

  • Glitter gel pens for editing
  • A new case for your laptop
  • The latest non-fic how-to writing book

It’s wonderful if something practical gets you writing but if…

  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • a “brain candy” paperback

…get the words on the page – go for it*. Just keep it balanced.
(See Spotter for accountability)


We grow at our own rate. Every writer has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Learn to improve your weak points and write in a way that highlights your strengths. The toddlers weren’t training for a marathon and the wheelchair-bound man used the tools available to help him get into the water. They know where they are, and work with what they have.

  • Know them
  • Study about them
  • Act on what you learn

Don’t Forget the Fundamentals

Just like push-ups (groan), there are things that we need to improve, even if we hate them.
(Spelling, my continual nemesis, mocks all software attempts to correct it.) No challenge = no improvement.

  • Do you have “favorite words” to eliminate?
  • Have a passion for passive verbs?
  • Are most of your sentences a similar length?
  • Be self-aware and find your fundamental challenge – and strengthen those writing muscles.

Invest in Yourself

We all need rest and recovery to improve. Invest in equipment – the most important being your mind.

  • Get enough sleep
  • Go on a walk
  • Schedule breaks

Take a moment to think of how you are feeling and how that impacts your writing. Find your needs and fill them.

Mix it Up

If your writing becomes repetitive, or you don’t see any improvement, you may have hit a plateau. Try something outside your comfort zone as a warm-up, stretch, and change the routine.

  • Like to write ‘em long? Try some flash fiction.
  • Try flipping the perspective in one of your chapters.
  • Write in a specific genre? Put a few different ones in a hat and write a short story in the genre you pull.


I hope you find your prefect combination to grow stronger!


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Harlequin Lover (L. Stewart Hearl)

In honor of National Poetry Month, which…

…was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

Harlequin Lover
©1990 L. Stewart Hearl 

Click here to listen along as Ada Khoury performs both vocal and instruments.

You’ll find her by the pool side,
While her old man’s off at work.
Today’s lover is a Count,
While her husband’s still a clerk.
Right now, it’s off to London,
Leaving her home far behind.
Her passport’s stamped in hand,
She’s crossing oceans in her mind.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

It doesn’t feel like cheating,
For her lovers are not real.
But paperback fantasies,
Make each romance a thrill.
It’s off to balls in castled halls,
Or an embassy today.
A dark stranger by her side,
Who will sweep her clean away.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

Yes her husband treats her well,
As well as he is able.
His heart is good, his spirit fair,
There’s food upon the table.
But he’s away so often,
She spends hours by herself.
And when she feels romantic,
She just reaches for the shelf.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

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Developing Strong Female Characters for Texas Fiction

Please join us this coming Saturday, March 11th, for a special event!

See details below and on our Events page.


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10,000 (Jennifer Kuzbary)

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

A sense of relief came over me when I read that sentence in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. This “10,000-Hour Rule,” to which he devotes an entire chapter, is one that arises repeatedly in studies of highly accomplished people. Gladwell lists a few of these: “composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you.”

Master criminals? Okay. Fiction writers? Even better! That’s what I want to be. I’m studying* to be a fiction writer, and how wonderful to discover there’s a reason why I’m not “great” at it. Not yet, anyway.

Most of my writing experience is in technical and other nonfiction writing. I am discovering that learning to write fiction is a process, one that is time-consuming to learn.

You would think the process to be a lot easier, especially when you enjoy reading fiction as much as I do. Published novels are so polished and together, and yet I know getting them into that condition requires a lot of hard work. Hours of practice seem to ensure the actual effort will be at least a little easier. This is my guess. As I said, I’m not there yet. Not even close.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything,” according to Daniel Levitin who is quoted by Gladwell in the book. “It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Another interesting discovery, not necessarily from Gladwell, is setting a timer can be more productive than just sitting down willy-nilly to write. I find that when I time myself, say 30 minutes without a break, I’m more pleased with the outcome. (Especially when I commit to not looking to see how much time is left, trusting the timer will in fact go off when time is up.) The quality of my thoughts seems somehow better, even if not everything that lands on the page is that useful. Overall, the flow of nonstop words for a set amount of time can generate ideas that you later incorporate into a larger work. I’m using this method now to practice what I’m learning in two books on writing fiction. (See below.)

I’d like to encourage you to remember the 10,000-hour rule as you write. Also, try timed writings if you haven’t already. These can be either hand-written or typed. Either way, the mini-deadline can improve your creativity and increase your output. Timing your writing also makes it easier to count the practice hours that will help you become a great writer.

Finally, if you have tips, suggestions, comments, observations, recommended practices, or anything else related to writing great fiction, you can share them below.

Good writing to us all! No, make that great writing to all who strive for that magic number.


* Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway


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