Historic!

Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!

My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.

Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.

We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.

But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.

The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.

We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.

Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.

When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.

Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.

Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.

Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.

We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.

I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?

Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!

Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.

More to come! Here are three prompts:

∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.

∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what your write!

  1. I have a historical children’s biography of Laura Bridgman, an epistolary novel, sitting on my computer, abandoned, but it still percolates in my brain. Thanks for great resources for gaining knowledge fir historical fiction! Love this blog format that is all you, Gail.

  2. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I love this post, but especially the prompts! I love dragons, Egypt, cats, blackouts… can’t wait to get writing!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Sometimes they just arrive. Sometimes they come out of the post itself, from the question or a hypothetical I set up. And sometimes I struggle. I’m ignorant of a lot that’s in the popular culture–I don’t know a lot of the books and almost none of the movies people mention, which is one reason I go to fairy tales and myths so often. We all know them.

      • I get my prompts mostly from dreams, and some from random lines in books. Every now and then, they just pop into my head, usually when I’m reading writing books. Wonder why? 😉

        • Kit Kat Kitty says:

          I have random conversations pop into my head between random characters. I’m never sure who they are and I’m hardly ever sure about what they’re talking about, but it’s very interesting. I don’t think it’s the same thing, but I was wondering if anyone else could relate? Or am I just crazy?

      • Of the 3 books I’ve finished:

        One (the published one) came from me misreading the definition of the word “cantrip.”

        One came from learning about acromegaly, and thinking that the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk gets a lousy deal.

        “Malak’s Book” (rejected by 2 publishers so far, but still making the rounds) came from a prompt in The First Line magazine and buts from The Crocodile Hunter and Iron Chef America.

        And, Kitty Kat Kitty, yes, I have characters pop into my head and start chatting.

      • I tend to come up with my ideas by saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a book that…” In my case, one had a deliberately dislikable MC, one is a cross between Jane Austen and Andre Norton in writing style, and one was based on a board game.

  3. A tip you mentioned long ago that I’ve used ever since when doing research is to make frequent use of a library’s juvenile section. The nonfiction books in the children’s wing aren’t bogged down by academic jargon and have lots of pictures. Makes it easy to take in a lot of information very quickly.

  4. The Whack-a-Mole game has struck yet again (although at least it’s a different story) and I need help. I’m doing a Snow White retelling, and I need to put in the glass coffin. The only problem is that the whole adventure takes less than eight hours, and her relationship with the dwarves is employee-employers instead of friends. Any thoughts?

      • The main problem is that they never think she’s dead. When the dwarves find her, she is clearly only unconscious. They get the doctor (Prince Charming), who creates an antidote to the poison in the apple. There is no time and no reason for them to make the glass coffin, plus they don’t really like her. The arrangement between Snow White and the dwarves is a purely practical one. They need their house cleaned, she needs money. They aren’t super close friends like in most retellings. Does that help?

    • It’s an incredibly untraditional retelling, and the glass coffin is a MAJOR part of the original story. Basically, I’m worried that if I don’t put it in, people won’t realize it’s supposed to be a Snow White retelling.

  5. Writing Cat Lover says:

    If you really do need it, maybe that could be a tradition? Or maybe you could have them be ordered to? (they’re not very good suggestions but I hope they work.)

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’d suggest a list:
      1. One of the dwarves is a glass blower.
      2. Snow White falls backwards into a laundry basket–the coffin–and the queen slams the door so hard on her way out that a pane of glass falls kerplunk on Snow White–the cover.
      And so one.

      • I like the laundry basket idea. Not sure it would work, but it’s kind of funny. I’d been thinking about a similar idea, where they put her on a glass-topped table for some reason or other, but I’m not sure that would work.

  6. That brings up a good point- What’s the tone? Is it meant to be funny, or serious?

    And actually, since it’s “incredibly untraditional,” if people don’t realize that it was originally based on Snow White, would that matter?

    • It’s supposed to be fairly serious, but it’s MG, so not too much. By “incredibly untraditional”, I meant that the dwarves are gnomes she’s working for because they can pay her in gems, which she needs to hatch the dragon egg that’s a major aspect of her coming of age, the evil stepmother is actually her stepfather, Prince Charming is a doctor who gives her the antidote to the poison, and the hunter is her botany teacher. I’d like to make it a clear Snow White retelling, but it doesn’t HAVE to be.

      • Botany? She could be trapped in a glass greenhouse. Maybe it’s nicknamed “The Coffin” because of a melodramatic student who shouts “Man, it’s so hot in here, I’m dyin!” every time they come in.

        Oo! Or in a cold frame…

        • That would be interesting. Maybe the evil stepfather poisons her, then kidnaps her and locks her in so they won’t find her in time. Of course, that raises the question of how they DO find her, but I’m sure I can think of something. Thanks! This might be the answer!

  7. Am I the only one who has a hard time writing my stories down? Both typing and writing by hand seem like a chore. I have these great ideas, and I do well narrating when someone is willing to type what I’m saying, but I just dislike writing down my stories. Any advice?

  8. Can you do a post on writing novels from a dog/animal’s perspective? I’ve watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books like that, and I would like to try it out, but I can’t find the words. Also, I love your books Writing Magic and Writer to Writer!

  9. I feel like I’m stuck in a rut— of fanfiction. Since I started writing it, I found it harder to make worlds of my own. I’ve got no problems with characters, but worldbuilding— specifically fantasy or sci-fi— has become much more difficult.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      Maybe look to other places of inspiration? Like Melissa Mead said, stay away from things that spark fanfic for a little while. I would suggest going on walks and perhaps walking through nature. Observing people might help, and I would also suggest reading myths and fairytales. They can inspire ideas, but it isn’t fanfic- these stories are free to use, however you decide to use them.
      Just a note, (Although I suspect you already know this) all writing is useful. Even if you can never get fanfic published, (for obvious reasons) it isn’t a waste. It’s still practice, and as Gail says, the only way to write better is to write more. I especially find fanfic helpful when I’m going through a difficult time and I can’t deal with the stress writing original work often brings. With fanfic, there’s no pressure. It’s purely for the fun of it.
      Also, have you tried creating an AU fanfic? This way you can get practice worldbuilding, without (hopefully) as much pressure.

  10. Anyone know of a good map-creating site? I’m looking for one that’s free and doesn’t make you subscribe to/download anything, assuming such a thing exists. I could draw the map by hand, but the smaller my handwriting gets, the worse it gets. Besides, I’d like to make more than one copy, which is almost impossible to do by hand. I know some of you make maps for your stories, and I thought you might know where to look.

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