Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.

Framing and Finishing: Of Housebuilding and Writing.

Saturday morning at a few minutes past midnight, I completed my work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir. Or at least, the first draft. The first draft of a book is like a house under construction: the foundation is poured, the framing’s done, the walls and windows and doors are in, and the roof. (And you hope it doesn’t leak.)

But inside, it’s a mess. The detritus left by the workers is scattered all over. The floors are plywood; the walls not yet wallboarded, the wiring and plumbing roughed in.  There is a lot of work left to do.

And so it is with a manuscript. It’s as messy and incomplete as the house. The garbage needs removing: the scenes that don’t add to the story, the plot line that complicates or goes nowhere, the characters who add nothing.

Walk through the house with a critical eye. Maybe a framed wall is in the wrong place; maybe you want a window where there isn’t one. Changes can still be made, although they’ll add time and take work. Better now than later, though. Later is much harder (ask anyone who’s renovated: a house or a book.)

Then it’s time to complete the plumbing and wiring, the connectors that link themes and plot and story together, often mostly unseen, and get the wallboard up.  Inspectors – or structural editors – are a good idea at this point. (Actually, the inspectors are almost certainly legally required, the structural editor isn’t – the analogy’s not perfect. But you get my drift.)

And then it’s time for the finishing. The painters and carpet layers, the cabinet makers, the tile installers, making sure the colours blend or contrast, the fine carpentry is precise, the transitions from room to room, carpet to hardwood to tile, are smooth. Another place a designer, or friends with good eyes and aesthetic sense, can help. Maybe your first choices are too trendy, too minimalist, too overblown. Is every space used well, not too crowded, not too empty? In the manuscript, I – or my beta readers, or my editor, or all of the above – are checking description, dialogue, and the cadence and flow of language, looking for monotony, purple prose, repetition, and a host of other things that affect the story.

Now the finishers are gone. Time for a thorough cleaning: they’ve been careful, but they can’t help leaving some mess. Sawdust in a corner; carpet threads; a dropped finishing nail or two. Time to sweep, to vacuum, to wash all the counters and floors. Time for the proof reading, and like sweeping and vacuuming and washing, use more than one technique: hire someone, listen to your book, change fonts. (There will still be one or two nails on the floor, or a drop of paint somewhere: it’s inevitable, just like the typos that slip through.)

And now the house – and the book – are done. While the finishing’s been happening, so has the exterior. You know your neighbourhood: what works?  Brick? Siding? Shingle? Stucco?  Same with the cover. Neighbourhoods and genres have their conventions, and you probably want to fit in without looking identical to every house on the street, or book on the bookstore shelf.

Right now, what I have is that mess: something that looks like a book, but inside is an unfinished jumble. There’s a lot of work to do before Empire’s Heir is a book someone will want to live inside. I’m letting it settle, and then I’ll start.

Using Colour-Coding in Editing: #authortoolboxbloghop

“Show, don’t tell.”  Every writer has heard this axiom. But there are times when telling is appropriate, briefly – and times when too much definitely gets in the way of a compelling story.  In my work with developing writers, I ask them to analyze their manuscripts for two types of telling: exposition, and telling within conversation. Both can be problematic, when they occur in large clumps.

In this screenshot of part of a manuscript, red is expositional telling, and blue is conversational telling. By looking at his work in this way, the author could see two problematic areas: first, the large section of red (exposition) in the first eight pages of the story, and then the three-and-a half pages of conversational telling in the last row. (A closer look also shows us that in the first 10 pages, there’s a lot of conversational telling too, especially when considered alongside the exposition.  This is the classic mistake of a huge info-dump in the first pages of a book.)

I find that by having a writer identify this on their own, it’s less threatening, less of a style critique and more of an impersonal analysis. We’d had some solid discussions about what telling looks like, and what are alternatives, before he began this. He’s learned to recognize both forms of telling, and is better placed to judge his own use.

Colour-coding has other applications, too. Right now this same author and I are working through his stories to see if he’s included all the 12 steps of the hero’s journey.  (Do you have to include them all?  That’s a discussion for another day.)

Another version of colour-coding is using the Find & Replace function to colour words. (Instructions below.)  Here’s an example. Using the Advanced feature of Find & Replace, I asked Word to make every ‘was’ in my most recent manuscript red.

It’s a quick visual to show me which pages to analyze, without having to read the entire book again. (Plus, I tend to get lost in my own story when I do that, and miss what I’m there to edit!)

How do you use colour-coding? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Here are the screenshots showing you how to use Find & Replace to colour words:

From the pulldown menu, choose Advanced Find.

Then, enter ‘was’ in both the find and replace boxes. Click in the Replace box, and then go to the Format button on the lower left. Choose the settings illustrated, and then choose Replace All in the first dialogue box.

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Five Years an Author

Five years ago this month, Empire’s Daughter was published, the first book of my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. (Not that I knew, at that point, it was the first of a trilogy. I’d written it as a stand-alone.) I was 56.

I’d wanted to be a writer all my life, and I’d written all my life. And, to be fair, I was a writer, just not of fiction. In my first career, I wrote scientific papers for peer-reviewed journals, and procedural manuals, and monographs and chapters in highly technical books. Then I moved away from research and into education, and I wrote curriculum for the entire province, and a textbook, and many presentations and more technical manuals. Oh, and grant applications, in both careers: I was very good at grant applications.

All the writing I did in my previous two careers was very structured; there were protocols to follow. In scientific writing, precision of language was required: the exact scientific or technical term had to be used and the explanations needed to be accurate, unembellished, and follow a logical, clear, order. In writing grant applications, all those restrictions still applied, but I also needed to know what the ‘buzz’ words were, the terms that met the priorities of the granting agencies. Those terms had to be included in a natural way, not forced into the wording of the application.

In my career in education, I had to write for different audiences. A middle grade textbook uses different language than a guide to assistive technology for parents. A curriculum written for high school teachers, following the template provided by the province, is different again. I learned to match my word choice and sentence structure and the layout of the project to the audience.

Very importantly, none of this was done alone. I might be – and often was – responsible for the actual writing, but the final product had always gone through peer review, editing, rewriting, more review….and from that I learned the value of other eyes and minds, and how to take feedback (leave your ego at the door) and how to throw out something I loved.

So by the time I’d written Empire’s Daughter, and decided it was worth sending out to the world, I’d already learned a lot of the lessons a writer of fiction needs. (I’d written two previous novels during this time, too. They’ll never be published: they were practice in the craft.) I’d learned about structure and tailoring language to an audience. I’d learned ways to describe concisely and accurately. I’d learned about embedding concepts seamlessly into narrative. And most importantly, I’d learned about listening to those within my field charged with improving the work, and how even a competent and confident writer needs an editor.

The editors I worked with at the small, now-defunct press that first accepted Empire’s Daughter for publication taught me more about writing fiction, but much of what I learned was an extension of what I already knew about writing. I have four books behind me now, and I continue to learn: I hope I always will. But I don’t regret the years I spent in my other careers, the years spent absorbing and practicing how to use words to convey a message precisely, concisely, and with impact. They helped make me the writer I am now. Something else did, too, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Reblogged: Scene by Scene Revision of the Novel, by Robert Bruce Young

There are dozens (hundreds?) of writer’s how-to guides out there, but for the processes of editing and revision, this article from my friend and fellow writer Robert Bruce Young is one of the most concise yet informative pieces I’ve come across, and one I’m going to keep in my favourites for easy reference.  Take a look!

Scene-by-Scene Revision of the Novel

  In the iterative process of drafting a novel — and especially during the final draft — I’ve found editing at the scene level to be most comfortable and efficient.

That is, I proceed scene by scene, going through the following eagle-eye checks. This article presents a step-by-step guide to the elements you need to address….read more

View at Medium.com



Currently, I’m working on three different writing processes at the same time. I’m writing the first draft of my next novel; I’m doing a heavy copy-edit on a manuscript-in-progress for a client, and I’m doing a substantive edit (I prefer the term analytical edit) on a finished manuscript for a different client.

Let’s look at the differences. In the novel draft I’m writing, I’m mostly concerned with getting the story-telling right, although I will rewrite awkward sentences and will go back to add or subtract from an earlier part of the novel if it no longer agrees with how the story evolves. But I’m certainly not trying to write a finished product – it will need a lot of work once the first draft is done.

The first client’s got a good story to tell, but he’s not a natural writer. Here, my job is about grammar, style, and flow. I rearrange sentences and paragraphs, cut things out, occasionally make suggestions about things to add. I change punctuation where needed. This time round we’re working together from the first chapter, so I’m also keeping track of things I’ll need to know for the next type of edit, the analytical edit.

The analytical edit, in my experience, is the most demanding. With the second client’s manuscript, which has been fairly well copy-edited, I’m mostly looking at it scene by scene, and, within the scenes, action by action. I weigh every sentence, and almost every word. Does the sentence matter? does it add anything to the action, the story, the mood? If not, it goes. Does the action within a scene contribute? “I turned my head to look at her,” tells me where the protagonist’s attention is. “I turned my head to look at her, picking up my sunglasses as I did,” may tell me the protagonist is eager to leave, so that her attention is divided (or many other things), but if the sunglasses have absolutely nothing to do with the scene or a later scene, out goes that phrase. At this point, I’m talking to the writer a lot – because those sunglasses might be important twenty chapters later, especially in a mystery novel.

At the same time, I’m analyzing for changes in value: if the protagonist is happy at the beginning, she should be in a different mood at the end of the scene. Conflict, even little changes of mood, is what keeps a reader interested. The conflict also needs to build progressively, peaking to a greater conflict, dropping down again (pacing), peaking again to a higher level, until the final crisis, the climax of the novel, is reached.

Meanwhile I’m also doing a next-to-final copy edit, because sometimes removing phrases and sentences requires that, keeping track of clues (it’s a mystery novel), and checking continuity. I use a lot of notes in an analytical edit!

The more I do this, the easier it is to write that first draft of my new novel. In part, it’s why I accept editing projects while I’m writing. I’m almost automatically checking my own writing as I write for many of these considerations. I seriously under-write in a first draft, adding emotion and sometimes description in the first re-write, adjusting the pacing, adding and subtracting, doing my own analytical edit on the manuscript.

I like editing almost as much as writing (and some days, more). There’s something deeply satisfying about working with another writer to bring out the best story they have it in themselves to tell. When the shoe is on the other foot, I thoroughly enjoy working with my editors, as they go through the same process with my manuscript. What we produce together is better than anything produced alone.