In last week’s post on making friends in your writers’ community, there were two topics I meant to address but neglected to. So I thought I should briefly address them here. The first of these is perhaps hardest to deal with:
What to do when you are jealous of your writing friends Assuming you are human, and imperfect, and have all the messy human emotions and foibles as the rest of us, it is likely you will, at one time or the other, find yourself in envy of your writing friends. Maybe someone got an agent already, while you’re still in the querying trenches. Maybe they were accepted into the mentoring program you were trying for, and it’s difficult to hide your disappointment. Or maybe their book got picked up by a publisher right away, and yours appears to be dying on submission. It happens.
So when, for whatever reason, you find yourself envious of your writing friends, here are my recommendations: First off, breathe. Be gentle with yourself, honor your emotions, and realize you are not a bad person for feeling this way. Then acknowledge that the only guaranteed way to avoid being jealous of your writing friends is not to have any. Wish your successful friend well–this is one of the few occasions I recommend “faking it until you make it”–and use whatever coping mechanisms you have that will not harm the relationship. Maybe you need to block a certain hashtag, or get off Twitter entirely, if you are feeling envious and bad about yourself. Or maybe you need to find people you can privately vent to, either in a private group chat or in person. The good news is, in most cases, this professional jealousy doesn’t last, or at least gradually loses its sting.
Every writer has their own path It seems like these days writers have more publishing options than ever: from traditional publishing to self-publishing, and the smaller presses in-between. And that’s great … except when we assume others ought to follow the same publishing path as we do. Time and time again, I have seen traditionally published and aspiring traditionally published authors assume that those who self-publish “couldn’t get” an agent or a publisher, and that simply isn’t the case. Self-publishing has a lot of advantages for certain authors and genres, can be far more open to marginalized authors than traditional publishing, and literally means nothing about the quality of the book. Unless one wants to be an insufferable snob, it’s best to acknowledge this fact and accept the self-published as authors, with all the professional courtesy that merits.
By the same token, when a querying author bemoans a form rejection on a full request, I have seen self-published authors leap out of the woodwork to tell them, “Just self-publish.” This is pretty darned rude. Self-publishing has its downsides, from difficulties getting one’s book into physical bookstores to needing to pay for editing, formatting, and cover design. It is hard work. You may face less rejection from the gatekeepers, agents and editors, only to find it from readers and reviewers. Even if you secretly believe an author would fare better with self-publishing than trying for traditional publication, it’s really condescending to say so, and undercuts all the hard work self-published authors put in. Whatever your chosen path to publication, be aware that others might do differently, and that’s okay. With mutual respect, we can all be friends.
Writing, as they say, is a very lonely job. It takes many hands to produce a finished book, from critique partners and beta readers to agents, editors, book designers, cover artists, etc. But while we draft our books, revise, revise again, query, get rejections, have crippling bouts of self-doubt, revise yet again, go on submission, get more rejections, and revise yet again, it can very much feel like we’re on our own. What’s more, whether we’re talking traditional or self-publishing, the public does not understand this process at all. If you tell a family member, “I’m writing a book,” they may come back to you with, “Oh really? When’s it coming out?” Well-meaning friends may suggest you write a book together, they’ll provide the idea, you’ll do all the writing, and you’ll split the profits, 50/50. Come to think of it, maybe those friends aren’t so well-meaning after all. But I digress.
My point is, when it comes to writing struggles, the people who understand them best are your fellow writers. They know what a big deal it is to get an agent, and what a long road you still have ahead. Writers understand those days when a critique partner’s feedback just hit the wrong way, and you need to process it (and, let’s be honest, sulk a bit) before deciding how or whether to implement it. They know how much rejection hurts, the excitement of a new idea you can’t wait to get down on paper, and how much you want to commission character art.
Social media can be a great resource for growing your writing community. I have found Twitter to be especially fertile ground for befriending my fellow writers. There are people I have known for years there, with whom I’ve swapped first chapters and query letters, shared resources and tips for revision, celebrated their highs and commiserated with their lows. So I thought I would share some tips for making these sorts of connections, in case others are looking for writing buddies, too!
Know why you want to make writing friends. Be honest with yourself. Are you looking for kindred spirits with whom to discuss the writing craft and lifestyle? Do you want to meet people who will cheer you up on those hard writing days, remind you to be gentle with yourself, swap query letters and writing tips and general writing banter? Or are you hoping to increase your follower count/newsletter subscribers/potential readers? If it’s any of the latter, I don’t really think it’s writing “friends” you’re looking for, and this may not be the blog post for you.
Interaction trumps transaction. When another writer follows me on Twitter, one of the first things I do before following back is look at their timeline. This is in part to make certain I am not following anyone problematic, e.g. transphobes, racists, general bullies, etc. But I also look to see whether the person actually engages with their followers and/or tweets anything besides promos for their books. Some authors will promo the books of others as well, in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” sort of arrangement. If that works for them, fine, but I’m personally not interested in being spammed at, and I don’t think most people are.
But do promote your book, if you have one. It’s part of your job as a writer. There is nothing wrong with sharing your cover reveals, Kirkus reviews, preorder information, if you made the NYT Bestsellers list, etc. And if you’ve made genuine writing friends, they’re usually happy to boost the signal. Think of that part as the frosting; the friendship and writing support is the cake.
Hashtags are your friend. Many, if not most, of the writing friends I’ve met on Twitter have been through various hashtags, chats, and writing games. Way back in 2015, I first entered a writing contest called Pitch Wars, and while I never got in, following the hashtag got me a ton of writing advice, as well as helping me to meet other hopefuls who are still my Twitter friends today. There is a bi-monthly (I think!) event called #CPMatch I have used to find critique partners, and an event called #Pitlight which allows authors to pitch and share aesthetics of their works in progress for general cheerleading, connection, and fun. You can share snippets in various hashtags like #amwriting, #Thurds, and #1linewed. There are also icebreaker chats like #ASFChat, for adult speculative fiction writers, #MGChat for middle grade authors, chats for queer authors, romance authors, you name it.
Talk about your book. If you want to. To the extent you want to. I don’t personally worry about someone stealing my ideas, but if that’s a concern, you could stick with sharing tropes, fancasts, or vibes.
Talk to other people about theirs. This is so important. If someone makes an aesthetic you love, pitches a book that sounds right up your alley, or shares a snippet so lovely you want to cry, let them know! Hearing words of encouragement such as “I think your story sounds phenomenal and I’d read it in a second” can be a real boost to an author who just got a form rejection on a full request, or whose book sold poorly in its first week. And if someone is writing about the things you love, that can be a great conversation opener. You might have more in common than you’d think! On a related note, don’t ask a writing question then ignore all the answers. I’ve seen people do this, I think hoping their Tweet gets some numbers, but it’s not a real interaction if you don’t at least look at, like, comment on some of the responses.
Don’t just befriend writers who are as or more successful than you. And don’t dump your unagented or unpublished Twitter friends when you reach that milestone. It’s a pretty crappy move, for one thing. For another, people’s writing journeys are rarely straightforward; published authors can fail to sell their next book; the struggling querier may get a six-figure deal in the next year, you never know. But mostly, this sort of snobbery is uncool.
Don’t take it personally if people don’t follow you back. And whatever you do, don’t complain publicly when they don’t. This never looks good. You don’t know how online people are, how busy they are, or whether they get anxiety when the number of people they follow gets too high. There are plenty of reasons people might not follow back right away … or at all. And frankly, it isn’t your business. People get to curate their online spaces, period.
Vet those you follow. Whenever someone follows me on Twitter or Instagram, I always check their profile before following them back. How do they describe themselves? Are there red flags? Is he a Good Christian Man Just Trying to Live an Honest Life ™? Does the profile not say anything, or offer mindless platitudes? Those are people I avoid. But it isn’t really enough to read somebody’s profile before you follow them back. It’s a good idea to look at their Tweets themselves. I don’t like to follow people who just throw book ads in my directions. And I’ll usually scroll down a bit to see if there’s any problematic political comment in their recent quotes, though of course the absence thereof is no guarantee. When a mutual follower tweets something like “Heads up; this person is a misogynist who bullies other writers,” that earns them a pretty quick unfollow even if I missed those Tweets. Because, again, People get to curate their online spaces, and that includes me.
Finally, don’t feel you have to talk about writing to the exclusion of everything else. My writing friends are super supportive when I share struggles in my daily life, too. But also, we are all nerds. So geeking out over Castlevania or Shadow and Bone is never off the table, either.
These are just some tips that have helped me make the most of my online writer’s community. And if you’re looking for more writing friends, look me up!
“Where to start” is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of revising. Whether you have a bright, shiny new first draft in your hands, you’re on draft three, reeling from the feedback your critique partner just gave you, or smarting from a few agent rejections and knowing that your manuscript needs to be reworked, but uncertain how, beginning your revisions can be a daunting task. Why else did it take me five NaNoWriMos before I even attempted to revise any of my flawed little baby first drafts, even then ending up with an exquisitely crafted and polished first chapter, while the rest of the draft was a tangled mess?
By sharing my revision processes with you, I hope I can give you some inspiration on how to get started on your next draft, whichever draft it may be. Because, surprise, surprise, I write multiple drafts and often adapt a similar process for each of them, depending on the needs of the story.
Before we get started, I’ll point out that not only do different revision methods resonate with different authors, so my suggestions might not work for you, and that is okay, but also, different books have different needs. My YA Contemporary Fantasy had a strong beginning, according to both my mentor and my agent, but the ending took a few tries not to feel rushed and to feel earned. My Adult Fantasy, or rather, Adult Historical Fantasy, has a framing device that needed substantial work, as well as needing additional research between the first draft and the drafts I sent to my agent. I am all about starting with one method of revision and adopting it to make it your own, or rather, your story’s own.
So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Step One: Take a Break
So, you have just finished your first draft, and you’re eager to leap right in and make it look like a polished book. Congratulations! Hang onto that enthusiasm: you’re going to need it! But, as disappointing as this is for some people, I don’t recommend you start revising the moment you finish your draft. The book will still be too fresh in your head. Your brain is likely to read it as the book you meant to write, rather than as the book it is. If you dive right into revisions right away, you’ll be too close to the material. Plot holes will be easy to miss because you will fill then in with your brain. Characters will read as you meant to write them, and not as you actually did.
So how long a break? That is going to depend on you. For me, a month is ideal, but if you’re on a deadline, you might have a week or less. Do what you can. Use the time to work on another project, if you are the sort of writing who can spin multiple plates in the air at once. Try writing some short stories or even flash fiction. If you’re like me and tend to accumulate writing craft books without having time to read them, in between drafts can be a great opportunity. As a bonus, you will have all that juicy craft related information fresh in your brain when you begin to revise!
Optional Step 1 1/2: The Revision Contract
This is a step I came up with because I suffer from depression and generalized anxiety, which means I get discouraged, overwhelmed, and emotional very easily. Sometimes revising, particularly in response to agent and critique partner feedback, but even just to my own standards can be A Lot. I get frustrated with myself when a particular scene doesn’t seem to be working, or when I get feedback I want to implement but I don’t know how. So, I created a Revision Contract, which acknowledges those feelings while reminding me of my self-worth and encouraging me not to give up. I’m sharing a screenshot here (there is also a version specifically for agent feedback), but if you would like me to email the whole thing, use the contact form and I will be happy to!
Step Two: The Read Through
After you’ve taken a break from your previous draft, whether it was a week, a month, or six months, it’s time to sit down and read your manuscript as a whole. I recommend reading it like a reader would, pretending you didn’t write it. Printing your manuscript is one option, albeit an expensive and environmentally unfriendly one. Another option is to send the manuscript to your e-reader, usually changing the font, which helps trick the brain into thinking “I did not write this.” The e-reader works well because you can take notes, but you can’t change anything, preventing your making corrections as you go. If you don’t have a printer or e-reader, and you must read your manuscript on the same device you wrote it on, you might change the font and save your manuscript to read as a pdf.
As you read through your manuscript, think about the things you want to change. Is the pacing lacking? Does the middle sag? Are your villain’s motivations unclear? Take notes, being as specific as you can, but don’t make any changes yet.
Please note: emotionally speaking, this can be the most difficult part to get through, even though it should only take you a matter of days. Whether we suffer from imposter syndrome and are certain everything we write is trash, or we’re convinced this draft is the most amazing thing we–no, ANYONE has ever written, coming face to face with the words on the page can be kind of rough. I know for me, the prose always sounds so trite and overfamiliar, and that’s one hundred percent because I’m the one who wrote it. I have the story as it should be stuck in my head, and of course this draft won’t measure up. If this is you, too, be kind to yourself while doing the read through, and remember, you CAN improve this book!
Step Three: The Outline
Note: If you are a plotter, and you stuck incredibly close to your outline as you drafted, congratulations! You might not need to do this step. Read through your original outline and adjust for where your manuscript veered off the original plan. If you use notecards, as I often do, you might use a different color notecard for the scenes you added and remove (but don’t throw away) the scenes you didn’t end up using.
If you are a pantser, “discovery writer,” or a plotter who did not stick close to your original outline, this is the opportunity to reverse outline your first draft. I like to do this on notecards, sometimes using a different color for each act of the story, to give me a visual, however flawed, of how much space act three is taking up in comparison to act one etc. You can also just outline on your computer, in Scrivener, or by whatever other method works for you. You want an easily accessible record of what happens in your manuscript when, so you don’t have to page through it to find out where you introduced the mad scientist’s daughter, or whether it was a sorcerer or wizard your team encountered in chapter three. It is also good to have an outline so you can make notes on it where you want to make your changes before you do.
Step Four: Planning Your Changes
Novels are long. At least 50,000 words. Revising them is a lot of work. This is why planning is so important for me. Whether I am implementing my own notes on what I want to fix, or I am several drafts down the line and have critique partner feedback to use, it helps me to organize those changes based on their size and nature. I categorize the revisions I want to make from one to five. Level One changes are big picture revisions that affect the whole manuscript, or most of it, and often relate to the plot: I need an entirely new ending. Make the story take place over a weekend instead of a summer. Get rid of the entire drill team and move the action to summer camp, that sort of thing. Level Two is for changes that are still big, but not quite as all-encompassing, and often relate to characterization. Here, and with Level Three especially, we may be moving onto changes that are only at the scene level and related to pacing. By the time we get down to Level Five, we’re looking at grammar and spelling errors, removing filters and repetition, smaller changes like that.
When I’ve gone back over my feedback or notes and sorted potential changes into Levels one through five, that’s when it’s time to look over my outline and make notes on which changes need to be made where. It’s a lot of prep work, yes, but it makes the rest of the work go much more smoothly, and the task of revision is much less daunting after I’ve made a plan.
This topic was suggested by Brianna Gray. Auntie Kim says hi!
Editing, Rewriting, and Revising
I always approach writing advice, whether I am giving it or receiving it, as adding to one’s toolbox. Every writer has a different approach–in fact, every book may require a different approach–and I never want anyone to think there is one right way to edit/research/draft/etc. their work. If it works for you, it’s the right way. I am merely outlining some techniques that have worked for me, so if you are looking for a new method, you can try it for yourself.
Revising, editing, and rewriting (not to mention line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, which I won’t be discussing yet) are all methods we writers use to polish our prose. What can be confusing, however, is that we define these terms in different ways. It fills me with alarm when I see newer writers on Facebook announce, “I finished my first draft! I just have to edit it, and it will be ready to go!” Now, it’s possible these writers really do produce clean drafts, structurally solid and with few plot holes, all their characters well-developed, their world building solid, and nothing left to be fixed but tightening the prose.
It is equally possible they aren’t looking at the larger picture, will throw their edited–but not revised–books upon on Amazon, and wonder why they are getting bad reviews despite having few or no grammatical errors. A satisfying story needs to have more than clean prose.
I draw a distinction between revising and editing. Before I make any large-scale effort to correct my grammar and polish my prose, I take a holistic look at the manuscript to make sure it’s structurally where I need it to be. To make sure that every scene advances the protagonist’s internal and external arc. To evaluate all my characters for consistency, motivation, and necessity; to make sure my world building is clear on the page and makes sense. If any of this is lacking, and it nearly always is, I have revising to do.
Please note: much of what I call revising does fall under the category of Developmental Edits, if you are paying a professional editor to help. See how confusing it all is?
Let’s look at another hypothetical newbie writer. This one has just finished their first NaNoWriMo (congratulations, if this is you!) and wants to know how long they should wait before they rewrite their book.
See that? “Rewrite their book.”
“Rewrite” means starting over. Keeping the plot, main ideas, and/or characters of the story, but producing all new words. I have done this before; in fact, the novel that got me my agent was a complete rewrite of a novel I first wrote in 2010. I had grown a lot as a writer since then, studied my craft, matched with critique partners, all that jazz. Rewriting SIX EASY STEPS TO BECOMING AN ORACLE (since renamed FIRST MILLENNIUM PROBLEMS) was worth it; the original version allowed me to get the world building straight in my head, so that when I rewrote it, with the same premise and a totally different plot, it was a much stronger book.
Rewriting was also a lot of work.
Sometimes you really do need to completely rewrite a book. More often, you need to rewrite a paragraph, a scene, a chapter here and there. That seems like it would be less work than rewriting the entire book, but here’s the catch: when you rewrite that chapter (or, for that matter, add a new one), you then must go back and make certain it fits. You must harmonize the new or rewritten material with the rest of the draft, file down the edges, as I call it, to keep your novel consistent. You may find some overlap with what you’ve already written and need to delete. Or maybe your rewritten chapter six now contradicts with something you wrote in chapter two. You’ll have to decide whether Molly left her purse on the Ferris wheel or if it was at a Denny’s later that night. Then you have to look through every reference to that missing purse and make sure they all say the same thing. It may not be as labor-intensive as a complete rewrite, but it requires high-level decision-making, attention to detail, and you will probably have to slay more word darlings than you expect along the way. Small wonder some new writers would rather just scrap the whole thing and begin again.
I hope I have clarified some of the terms I will be using in this series on revising. Tune in next week for how I get started!
 I do pay attention to the little squiggly lines Word makes and try to use my best grammar while drafting. It’s a habit I can’t break, and if it leads to fewer errors getting through to the final draft, it’s worth it.
 You do not, thankfully, have to do this alone. I’ll be talking about beta readers and critique partners later.
Maybe it’s premature of me to write this. After all, I haven’t sold a book yet. Voice is an extremely subjective thing and while I generally get a lot of compliments on mine, the sample size of my agent, writing group, critique partners, etc. is still rather small. It may turn out that the rest of the world doesn’t like my voice after all. Think instead of these suggestions as ways to increase the flexibility of your prose, with the bonus that many of them will also enrich your life.
Please note: we all have brains that work in different ways. We all have different methods and muses, emotional and physical spell lots, schedules, and financial circumstances. If any of my suggestions are out of the question for you, please do not feel obligated to follow them. These are ideas, not commands (and feel free to share your own ideas below).
Write. Write more. Write often. This is the advice I’ve most frequently seen for how to develop your writing voice, and it holds up. Write for (eventual, hoped for) publication and for not. Free write and write fanfiction if that’s what floats your boat. Journal, if it appeals to you, but don’t feel obligated to journal like you’ve seen anyone else do. Include sketches, poetry, snippets of dialogue, or however the muse strikes you that day. Imitate, as children do when they first start trying to write fiction. Write pastiches of your favorite authors or genres, see if you can copy their voice. For fun, combine an unexpected genre and voice: epic fantasy written like a noir, for example, or a western written like contemporary YA. Be experimental whenever you can.
Read. Read within your genre and outside of it. Some authors are afraid the voices of other authors will bleed into their prose, so they avoid reading in the genre they’re writing. That’s a valid approach, although it’s not mine. I prefer to read so widely within my genre of choice that I (hopefully) don’t allow any one voice to take over my own. I also read genres I have no intention of writing (murder mysteries, for example), non-fiction, and poetry. Devour books, binge read favorite series, allowing yourself to get lost inside them, love them without a thought for how they’ve earned your love. Dissect books and study them, critiquing them, analyzing the prose and the story structure. Keep a notebook and jot down any interesting phrases or quotes you’d like to treasure for later.
Study. Take writing courses if you can, check out writing books from the library, read blog posts and author’s websites for writer advice. (My favorite may be Susan Dennard’s, whose revision method I have adopted and used frequently for my own books). Don’t stop at studying fiction, either. Study poetry, even if you don’t care to become a published poet. Learn to appreciate different poetic forms and pay attention to how poets use their language. Be sure to study poetry outside the western canon, too. Different cultures play with language in different ways, not just meter and rhyme.
Learn a new language, multiple if you can. This will improve your understanding of how English grammar works and open your mind up to combining language in new and original ways. It can also increase the quantity of literature out there for you to devour.
Volunteer when you can. Giving back is one of the richest experiences you can have, as a writer and as a human being. And, despite being an introvert myself, I encourage you towards volunteer activities that involving interacting with other humans. It’s a good way to get out of your own head but also out of your own demographic. I was a volunteer tutor for many years, working with K-12 students of various backgrounds. It was hard work at times, but I loved getting to know these kids, their struggles and background, the unique way they think. Which leads me to . . .
Spend time with children. Again, if you can. Younger minds have a different way of looking at the world, kids put sounds and words and concepts together in different ways than we jaded adults do. Embrace this. Embrace the newness, exploration, and enthusiasm of the young toddler. Talk to story-telling elementary school kids and notice how unbounded their imaginations are. See if you can create as bravely as they do.
Spend time with English language learners. Be patient with unfamiliar accents and what we think of as “incorrect” grammar; the rules are always changing anyway. Don’t make fun of those who learned English as adults, for this is a brave undertaking and it’s HARD.
Have friends outside your own age group. Boomers versus Gen X versus Millennials vs. Gen Z all have different ways of communicating. While trying to sound young and hip can sound very forced, learning how other generations express themselves can enrich your own communication skills. Plus, it’s crap to think you can only learn from those who are older and more experienced than you, or that people from previous generations are all out of touch and have nothing worthwhile to say. You can learn from ANYONE.
On that subject, live. I don’t want to rehash the Twitter discourse that keeps popping up about whether you can be too old to write (you can’t) or too young to publish (ditto), as it tends towards ageism in both directions, and is always lacking nuance, the way Twitter discussions do. There are advantages and disadvantages to both publishing when you are a fresh college grad or even younger, and when you’ve reached middle age or later, with a career or two under your belt. All I will say is that I am fifty-three and have learned so much from just being alive that long. My current WIPs are those I could not have attempted at a younger age, and all that life experience means I have read and spoken and studied and written in so many ways. It has definitely helped my writing voice.
Go out “among the people,” as I like to call it. Travel if you can afford to and when and where it’s safe. Go to the shopping mall, ride the bus, sit in the park or a busy downtown square and just listen. Bring a notebook and jot down the dialogue you hear (in a way that does not violate their privacy, of course). Notice the rhythm of the conversation, the relationships of the speakers, the things they put in and the things they leave out. Pay attention to space fillers like “um,” “uh,” “like,” how many times they use each other’s names (probably less often than you’d think), the slang they use, how much or little the speech follows the rules of grammar. Listen to how they cut each other off and when they pause to breathe. I live in an apartment complex, and sometimes I can hear my neighbors’ conversing through the walls. I have a game I like to play wherein I try to guess whether they are having a conversation or watching TV. When there’s a long soliloquy with no pausing for breathing, I generally assume it’s the latter.
This post has gone on very long, and yet it’s just a starter on how to develop your writing voice. What are some tips that have worked for you?
 This is expensive, I know. I’m currently unemployed and generally pretty broke. But scholarships and volunteering have allowed me to attend writing events I could not otherwise have made it to. I also go to writing workshops offered for free through my public library system, and this weekend attended a free online writing retreat called Write Hive Lite. But you are not less of a writer if you cannot take writing classes. I hate how capitalism closes off so many opportunities to those who can’t afford the expense.
Please note: I do not intend this post to be an exhaustive list of the research materials available, but just enough to get you started. My specialization was in ancient history, with comparative fields in medieval Europe and the Ancient Near East. My writing has taken me as recent as the Early Modern period but that’s it. So I won’t be covering things like newspaper articles, photographs, sound recordings, or other resources available to those studying the more recent past.
One of the trickiest parts about incorporating historical research into your writing is knowing where to start. When I began my historical fantasy novel EYES OF WOOD, HEART OF STONE, I decided to set it in mid-14th century Scotland, approximately 200 years before the earliest mention of the ballad of Tam Lin (1549, The Complaynt of Scotland, for those who might be interested). At the time, I wanted the story to focus on Tam Lin’s ancestor, and though I later changed this to his father, I had done too much research to bring the story forward in time. I also had medieval Europe as my comparative field in graduate school, which should make the research that much easier, right?
Cue maniacal laughter.
EoWHoS was my project for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2019. Writing it during NaNoWriMo may have been a big mistake. Trying to write a complete draft of a novel (even zero draft, as mine tend to be) in thirty days is a big enough challenge on its own. Trying to do this when writing outside one’s expertise makes it that much harder. I would not attempt to write historical fiction or historically based fantasy for NaNoWriMo in the future unless I did considerable outlining and research ahead of time and it was a period I knew very well already. It’s also a good idea, whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or not, to have a system down for marking the places you need to research later, like an asterisk or a TK. That way, you don’t have to break your writing flow to do research; you can look it up and come back later.
When it came time to revise EoWHoS, about four months later, it was 2020, we were in the midst of a pandemic, and the libraries were mostly closed. Wheee!!!
So here are some of the resources I used while researching EoWHoS and how I used them. Hopefully this may give you a starting place as well.
Wikipedia is a great place to start your research. It is a terrible place to finish it.
When it comes to research, Wikipedia gets kind of a bad rap. This is to some extent well-deserved. It is maintained by volunteers, has been censored by world governments, and found guilty of systemic bias, although the latter has been said to improve over time (“Wikipedia,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified September 21, 2022, 07:51, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia). However, what I would say is the best feature of Wikipedia is its list of footnotes and references at the bottom of the page. Here you can see the sources used to produce the Wikipedia article, so you can read them and decide whether you agree with this interpretation. It is also an excellent place to find resources for future exploration and research. For example, when I visited the Wikipedia page on the ballad of Tam Lin, I found a link to Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle’s entry on Tam Lin from Folklore The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotate Bibliograph of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World (https://web.archive.org/web/20171201033318/http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/C039.html), which then, of course, gave me further links to explore.
Academia.edu: How to do research without leaving the house.
Like I said before, I was researching EoWHoS and attempting to flesh out the historical setting of medieval Scotland during the middle of a pandemic, which is hardly the ideal time. I could check out ebooks from the library (more about that later), but some of the most relevant books I needed were too old or not popular enough to be available in ebook. There was also information I needed, say on medieval obstetrics or bread-baking, that was too specific to warrant an entire book but was still necessary for me to know. Enter academia.edu. This website was an invaluable resource for the kinds of articles I needed for my research and is available for free. (There are even more resources available when you use the paid version, which I haven’t opted for yet.) I use Scrivener for drafting, which gives me the opportunity to save the articles, websites, and other online sources I need into a separate file in my project. That way, when I’m in the middle of a scene and need to remind myself exactly what powers (and mischief!) the Amadan Dubh was credited with, I have it easily accessible. Below is a screenshot of my research folder in Scrivener:
Books: when I invested, when I didn’t, and how to decide.
As I mentioned before, my comparative field in graduate school was medieval Europe, focused on England, France, and to some extent Italy. I actually started out as a medievalist in undergrad and while the “churchly bits” rather turned me away from medievalism as a specialty, I still find daily life in the Middle Ages a fascinating topic. Therefore, even before I started EoWHoS, I already had quite a few of the Joseph and Frances Gies books, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village, etc. on my shelves. I also found A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer quite helpful, and worth the purchase price. These books are intended for a general audience, not to be purchased by research institutions, so are relatively affordable, as well as being books I might find helpful for other projects in the future.
“Ah, but aren’t these books on medieval England, Kim?” you may be asking. “And didn’t you say you were writing about medieval Scotland?”
Well, yes, that is true, although the particular region of Scotland I was focused on was the Borders region, sometimes English, sometimes Scottish, all times stubborn as the Dickens, or so I hear tell. But I did need some specifically Scottish reference materials. Academia.edu and JSTOR helped, but I needed more and wasn’t able to find anything at the library (remember; it was closed to browsing at the time). I found Medieval Scotland, 1000 to 1600 edited by Edward J. Cowan and Lizanne Henderson on sale for around $30 paperback (as I recall), not too much to invest even if only for this project, which in turn led me to Henderson’s own Scottish Fairy Belief. That one I purchased in part because I knew it would be helpful now, fascinating even later, and might inspire another book or two.
YouTube, re-enactors, and living history.
As a historian, I know well the value and essentiality of primary sources. As a novelist, I know contemporary authors do not always tell us what we most need to know. These authors take for granted the aspects of daily life we most need to flesh out our fictional worlds, particularly if they are more interested in the great deeds of the 1% than the habits of 99%. Of course, there are agricultural manuals such as Varro’s De Re Rustica, Le Bon Berger (The Good Shepherd) by Jean de Brie, medieval cookbooks etc., and I do recommend the author of historical fiction check them out. However, I would also encourage those attempting to write historical fiction and fantasy not to overlook the work of modern recreationists, who post videos on YouTube, participate in the Society of Creative Anachronisms, and the like. Historical reenactors take their work seriously: you can find people who have studied medieval blacksmithing, sewed their own 19th century gowns, or recreated the hairstyles of Roman empresses using period-appropriate tools. To research my fiction, I have watched videos on spinning nettles into yarn, sacrificing a piggy bank to the Greek gods, and medieval court dancing. YouTubers will often share their source material in either the video itself or the box below, might respond to comments or even have a website where you can contact them and pick their brain.
I hope I have provided at least a decent starting point for your historical research. One of the greatest things about and also the biggest challenges of researching your historical or historical fantasy novel is that reading one source often leads to reading another, and the job can grow exponentially as you do it. You might learn fencing to get your fantasy fight scenes down, and suddenly you have a new hobby! An encounter with a glassblower at the local renaissance faire might lead you to joining the Society for Creative Anachronisms, or maybe you’ll take riding lessons and become a proper equestrian yourself. Have fun! Just don’t forget to come back to finish your story when you’ve learned as much as you need.
I apologize for neglecting this blog as long as I have (as my niece Brianna was kind enough to point out), and especially for breaking away from my series on writing and historical research. My current job hunt, and some nasty scammers I’ve been dealing with, stole my thunder for a while there, and it’s been difficult to get it back. I promise I have more to say about historical research and fiction, and will post on how to get started soon, as well as sharing some tips for editing (per Brianna’s request).
The current post started as a Twitter thread, something that popped into my mind as I am outlining/drafting a fairy tale retelling. I’m attempting to transform a typical flat fairy tale trope–the wicked witch who is also the evil stepmother–into a fully fleshed out and believable character. Here’s why I’m making the attempt.
I hate cardboard villains. Mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash types who are bad just because they want to be bad annoy me so much. Part of it stems from the fact I want characters to have a personality, full stop, and that includes villains. But I also think if your villain is a baddy who’s bad for no reason, you may be shortchanging your story’s arc. If the villain has no complexity, whether that includes redeeming qualities or not, your protagonist’s attempt to defeat them may feel like throwing themselves repeatedly at a brick wall, in hopes that one of the times they might actually break through. The conflict between these two opposing forces may all come down to a matter of strength, the kind of conflict that interests me least, or cunning, which is more interesting but can still lack emotional juice. If your villain is complex and fleshed out, however, your protagonist can use their strengths and weaknesses against them, much as the villain is doing themself.
Understanding your villain’s motivation is key to understanding how your protagonist can defeat them–or not. Allowing the main character to figure out what makes their antagonist tick can give them more room for a try/fail cycle, for mini-successes followed by epic defeats, and that can make their entire journey that much richer. If your villain is motivated by greed, your main character might try to bribe them to be left alone, only to find out the villain’s notion of wealth vastly outstrips their resources. If the villain seeks revenge against someone else, the main character might offer to join forces and help to defeat the greater threat (then have to hope the antagonist is trustworthy). If the villain’s quest for vengeance is against the main character, perhaps they will have to apologize for past deeds, allow themselves to be soundly beaten at some point & hope that’s enough, or offer the villain stronger incentive to drop it.
These are super simplistic examples, of course, and most people have more than one motivation at any given time. I have an exercise I like to use when creating a villain character that you may want to add to your toolbox. I imagine my villain witnesses a terrible car crash (carriage crash, chariot crash, shuttle crash etc. Make it fit the world of your story). What do they do? If they don’t help, are they lazy, self-centered, or worried about getting dirty? If they do help, how? Does the villain make a call from the safety of their own vehicle, then send a chauffeur or minion out to investigate? Does the victim’s identity make a difference in whether they will help or not? Maybe your villain has a weakness for children, or the elderly. Maybe they will help anyone who might give them clout. If your villain does offer aid, will they then try to make the victim pay for it? What other scenarios can you come up with?
Whether or not you use my villain prompt, it’s important to understand what makes your villain tick. Their goals and motivations will inform the actions they take against the protagonist, and their flaws will help map the road to their defeat. By fleshing out your antagonist as fully as you did your protagonist, you’ll create a villain readers love or love to hate, and make their defeat that much more rewarding in the end.
I hope you found this post helpful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a fairy tale to tell.
As with any writing tips, these are what work for me and may not be what work for you. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.
Remember who your audience is. By and large, it is NOT your thesis committee. Nobody is going to steal your degree from you if your novel gets things wrong. Yes, there will be those who absolutely nitpick and look for mistakes in your historical research. Who will fault how you treat your fictional horses, that you wrote about the plague 30 years earlier than it happened, that you have no business trying to describe carding wool. You absolutely SHOULD try to head these people off at the path. Do your best not to make these mistakes. Then stop worrying. Most people do not go into a novel, even historically based, with the desire to pick apart all the details. They want to enjoy themselves, and understand the concept of literary license, which leads me to tip #2:
Remember you are telling a story. Even when you’re writing historical fiction, the needs of the story come first. Resist the temptation to spill all your research out onto the page. Parcel out what you need when you need it. I still remember attempting to read (at the time) a very popular historical series set in the Roman Empire two of my professors recommended to me. There was so much info dumping, I couldn’t make it past the first page. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the HBO series Rome though they took liberties with the history, including misplacing an entire Octavia.* I understood why they made the choice (Roman naming conventions are confusing), and Octavian having only one sister named Octavia did not hurt the plot. This was always intended to be an interpretation of the historical events, not a word-for-word account.
Do not let yourself fall down research rabbit holes. If you are the type of person who will do this, maybe set a timer and only allow yourself an hour of research at a time? Do not bookmark, print out, save for later, etc. articles or books that are not relevant to the project you are working on now. You will get overwhelmed, and this can be an excellent way to get so bogged down in research and never actually start writing.
DO let yourself fall down research rabbit holes–occasionally. Chances are, you have more than one book in you, and you never know where inspiration will strike. So be honest with yourself. Am I on deadline, or in the generative state of the writing process? Do I have time to explore these other ideas now, or am I using them as a procrastination tool? Use whatever technique you have to keep track of story ideas-notebook, spreadsheet, Scrivener file, etc.–and jot down those articles you want to read, books you want to buy, historical figures you would love to write about. You never know what inspiration might strike you later.
Write “as if.” No matter how much you research beforehand, it is impossible to anticipate ALL the historical details you may need to know: what did they call this gentlemen’s outer garment, is there a less jarring word I could substitute for “teenager” here, and so forth? If you are drafting, writing along in the “zone” and you come across something you don’t actually know yet, leave parentheses, an asterisk,TK, or whatever signal works for you as a reminder to come back to it.
These tips are just a starter, of course, what happens to work for me. Do you have any tips that help with your historically based fiction?
*(They also misplaced an entire Fulvia, Antony’s wife, but gave much of her personality to Atia? I’m not sure why, but a scheming Polly Walker is always fun to watch.)
In recent years, my writing journey has taken me to a bounty of wonderful places, both real and imaginary, from a fantastical version of the Mediterranean with a ruthless sea king and worship of the Syrian goddess Atargatis, to the 14th century Borders region of Scotland, with the realm of Faery lying just beyond. Although I am a writer of fantasy, my degrees are in history, specifically the history of Classical Greece and Rome. I’ve drawn upon my historical background and my love of research to flesh out these settings I write about, and the undertaking has been rewarding and terrifying in equal parts.
You see, my degrees make me that more terrified to “get it wrong.”
I’m not writing nonfiction. To be honest, I’m not even writing historical fiction, and I am not trying to put my personal spin on well-known historical events. There are other authors who do that much better than I can, and how they strike the balance between world building and plot is a miracle to me. I have always been less interested in great leaders and important events than on how people actually lived. Cicero’s suppression of the Catilinarian revolt interests me less than how, at the age of sixty, he divorced his wife of nearly thirty years to marry a 16-year-old heiress, and the strain that caused in his relationship with his then 29-year-old daughter. I mean, don’t you want to read a novel about that?
I want to know what people saw in the morning when they woke up, what they ate, how they spent their days, who and how they loved. When you read my work, whether it’s set in a fantasy world or our own, I want you to taste the baklava, feel the chicken squawking and struggling in my peasant girl’s arms, see the sunlight overhead as a mermaid breaks the surface for the very first time. Wherever I am taking you, I want it to feel real and authentic, and research, wherever it comes from, is a terrific tool in all of that.
I’m hoping to make this the first in a weekly series of posts about my research process, philosophies, and yeah, just whatever cool things I dig up. Welcome aboard!
At the beginning of April, I submitted draft 3 of my Tam Lin prequel/faery queen origin story EYES OF WOOD, HEART OF STONE to my agent. It was about 8 months of hard work, overhauling much of the second draft and doing additional research into 14th century Scottish life (which was not fun during a pandemic, let me tell you). As a reward for finishing the draft, I commissioned this portrait of the Faery Queen from Dae Nir (www.etsy.com/daenir), who did a wonderful job! The physical painting is on its way to me as well.
If you write, have you ever commissioned a character portrait? If you’re a reader, do you appreciate character art?