World Building in Historical Fiction: Layering in the Details

A child’s stiff leather shoes still in the box. A stack of undergarments. Bags of flour. Bulk teas and spices. A license to operate a business. Chopsticks.

All things we would recognize today. Going about our daily lives, we wouldn’t consider any of them museum-worthy.

But put them alongside an abacus, assay equipment (for determining the amount of gold in a rock), a butter churn, a mustache cup. Then the layers add up to something not unfamiliar, but not quite in our lived reality.

Those layers of details make reading and writing history and historical fiction come alive.

Finding the details

I recently moved to Montana, and a couple of weeks ago, my family and I visited Virginia City and Nevada City, two preserved historic gold mining towns. Yes, there is some kitschiness, but if you slow down and look, you find the little details of history.

Virginia City is the bigger of the two, one main street with multiple shops and businesses preserved between functioning businesses (think: historic blacksmith next to a modern ice cream shop).

The local heritage museum was empty, so we had museum staff to ourselves. I was particularly fascinated by the relatively extensive collection of items from residents of Chinese origin. In addition to the chopsticks and abacus were ladies’ shoes and stockings, engraved signs from the Chinese masonic temple and, surprisingly, a preserved child’s birthday cake baked by a Chinese cook in 1889.

I asked the museum staff about this collection. She said Virginia City currently has 150 residents, but at its peak 10,000 people lived there, 30 percent of whom were of Chinese origin or descent. While western histories often mention Chinese laundries in mining towns, the intricate details of daily life brought the vibrancy and immediacy of the town alive for me. More than a data point, the residents were living, breathing people with all the complexity of emotions life brings.

Nevada City felt more like a historical site and less like an “experience”. The town is fenced off with a separate entrance. Its several streets intersect each other, the buildings preserved and open to visitors (with barriers to protect the artifacts).

The day we were there, re-enactors populated some buildings. In the women’s clothing store, we met a re-enactor who told us that the boxes that lined the walls were all full of “new” goods, untouched for over a century. The man who paid to preserve the two towns bought up entire shops’ inventories. The woman pulled a box containing children’s shoes to show us the contents. I have a bronzed shoe from my grandfather (born in 1914) that looks very similar: a stiff leather bootie with buttons up the side (forget trying to put that on a toddler!). She also took out some furs to show us (the mink muff with attached head and tail was most interesting to my 10-year-old daughter).

The little child’s boot and the box in the store in Nevada City, Montana

Layering the details

In reading and writing historical fiction (and history), those layers of details help immerse the reader. The familiar helps ground us. The less familiar transports us to a different time and place. I imagine that kind of world building would be similar in fantasy and science fiction as well. With historical fiction, however, we are constrained by reality, so seeing these unfamiliar things in person can help provide the spice needed to make the world come alive.

I loved the mustache cup, a tea cup designed to protect a man’s mustache while drinking. It’s not a stretch to envision people sitting around having afternoon tea, but the idea of the gentleman’s whiskers being protected—even in a pretty rough and tumble mining town at the height of gold mining—helps transport us there.

The mustache cup – amazing porcelain design. I can picture a bushy-lipped gentlemen perched on a settee drinking from this, the mountains rising in the parlor window.

My current work in progress is set in 1910 New York City. When I visited in April, I went to the Old Police Building on Centre Street, now luxury condos. They’ve kept the lobby pretty much intact, and the doorman let me in and graciously allowed me to pepper him with questions. Standing in that lobby, with my story in my head, looking at what my protagonist would see around her enabled me to describe it with an intimacy that I (hope) brings the world to the reader.

Our daily lives are made real by the small things: how I make my tea in the morning, what I have for breakfast, a route I may walk to the nearest coffee shop, what that coffee shop smells like, the sounds, the other patrons. These things seem forgettable because we live them.

Places like Virginia City and Nevada City may be touristy, but walking those streets, seeing the quotidian details of life in an 1880s mining town can add layers and shading to a world to make it come alive to a reader, the characters and their lives more relatable. The key is just enough familiar to bring us in, just enough historical to immerse us, and just enough world building to let the characters breathe life into the story.

Photo credits: All photos by Kate Zerrenner, Virginia City, Montana/Nevada City, Montana

Midyear Writing Check-in is a Reality Check

Somehow, we’re halfway through 2022!

I set myself some ambitious writing goals in January, so thought it’d be a good time to check in on those. Never mind that my family’s also going through a major life change (insert face palm emoji). More about that below.

2022 Goals: Reality Check

For my 2022 writing goals, I wanted to:

  1. Edit two manuscripts, hopefully with some research travel
  2. Write three short stories
  3. Write six blog posts
  4. Get an agent

For the first one, it must have been the blush of the new year to make me think I could edit two manuscripts! Especially with historical fiction, there is a heap of research that has to be done after the first draft is done. I have, however, managed a read through-edit (finding plot holes), a developmental edit, and a line edit (using ProWritingAid) of one. I recently handed it off to my first beta reader. My critique group is about halfway through reading it. If the stars align, maybe I can get it done by the end of the year.

Happily, I was able to do some on-the-ground research. My story is set in 1910 New York City, and in April 2022, we took our first airplane trip since COVID started and went to New York. I visited some spots, talked to people, and picked up my weight in NYC history books from some of my favorite bookshops (like Strand and the Tenement Museum).

I opened the second manuscript, but I think it’s too heavy a lift for this year. It definitely starts in the wrong place, and I need to do some in situ research for that one to get a better lay of the land (it’s set on the island of Guernsey).

For the other goals: I’ve written one short story, but I’m not feeling the short story vibe at the moment; this is my third blog post of the year, so that one’s probably doable; and the agent… woof. Seems I picked a tough year for re-entering the query trenches. Take a look at twitter at the #amquerying hashtag to get an idea about the state of the publishing industry and querying at the moment. It’s not pretty.

Second-half 2022 Goals: Real Life

We recently found out that after 15 years in Austin, we’re moving to Montana. My husband got a job there, and my work is remote. Our daughter is big into the outdoors, and we all love Montana. We went on a family trip a few years ago, and my husband—a biologist and avid fly fisherman—has been many times over the years. Needless to say, it’s upended a lot of plans and made concentrating on creative work more of a challenge.

I’m excited about what the move means—for inspiration and, from what I understand, a vibrant writing community. Rocky Mountain mining towns have always fascinated me, so I’m looking forward to delving into local history and seeing what stories float to the surface (maybe one of those elusive short stories). After two and a half years of staring at the same four walls during the pandemic—in addition to the increasing Texas heat, which has always been a challenge for me—I can’t wait for Alpine meadows and towering peaks, even the snowy winters.

I have an idea swirling, which I think may be well suited to a novella. It needs more time to noodle around in my head, but it could be a next project until I can travel to the Channel Islands. Or I may write a follow-up book to my current one. Further, I envision there will be plenty to blog about in a new setting.

As for the agent, I still have dozens of queries out in the world. If someone bites, fantastic. But it could be this is not the year. I have a feeling that my current work in progress that’s out to beta readers may be my most commercial, so maybe that’ll have legs when I’m done with it. I’m just not going to worry about it right now.

Resetting Expectations

Sometimes life gets in the way of our writing goals. Occasionally, we can write around them. But other times, we have to accept that writing has to go on the back burner for a bit. Not forever, but we may need a little space.

I was ambitious at the start of the new year. Now it’s time to recalibrate.

  1. Finish the edits on the manuscript
  2. Aim for another three blog posts
  3. Figure out what’s next

The wide open spaces of Montana may be exactly the inspiration I need.

What are your plans for finding inspiration? How do your goals looks midyear?

Photo credit: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

Creating in the Midst of Chaos

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Leonard Bernstein

War in Ukraine. Climate change. Two years in a pandemic. Division. Anger.

The world feels scary, out of control. Creating something may feel like the furthest thing from your mind. But it can be a balm.

Many studies have linked the benefits of creativity to positive mental and physical health symptoms—from healing trauma to lowering blood pressure. But when the world feels overwhelming, inertia can set in. Call it writer’s block, call it media saturation, call it whatever you want. In moments like these, we can remind ourselves that we don’t have to create masterpieces in order to heal, soothe, or calm. Just create.

The benefits of the creative process

It’s easy to get stuck in self-criticism and imposter syndrome when creating. Like when you’re inspired by something on Pinterest, get the materials for a craft project, and once finished, your project looks like… well, like a craft project, all popsicle sticks and glitter glue that a four-year old could have made.

Unless you’re making something to sell, it’s ok that it looks like a homemade craft project. If it has a future, you’ll rework it, edit it, practice, whatever you need to do to make it ready. But the simple act of creating is what gives you a dopamine hit—that brain chemical that makes you feel good.

Creating as self-care

Creating concentrates your focus. Much like meditation, it can allow other thoughts to drift past without anchoring. I had a tangible reminder of this during the pandemic. In 2020, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—a community writing event every November—was not only eight months into the pandemic but also right in the middle of a highly stressful U.S. presidential election.

NaNoWriMo 2020 started on a Sunday. News and panic swirled and consumed everything. It was a warm day in Texas, warm enough to take my laptop outside, sit at the patio table and write. I had struggled to plot my story (hello, distraction!), so had a hard time getting started. But I was determined. I slowly tapped the keys. Then picked up steam. A couple of hours later, I had written 5,000 words.

When I closed my laptop, I had a smile on my face. I felt lighter and brighter. The simple act of creating blocked out everything else, sent those happy chemicals to my brain, and made me feel better. What I wrote was… well, it wasn’t great. But it wasn’t supposed to be. I could fix it later. In that moment, all that mattered was the creating, not the outcome.

Redefining creating

I’ve heard people say they’re not creative. I don’t buy it. Rather, I think we have too narrow a definition for what it means to be creative. Do you like to cook or bake? Knit? Weld? Woodwork? Arrange flowers? Make paper airplanes? Color? All of it is creating. You don’t have to be William Shakespeare to be a writer. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to be an artist. Everyone has something to create. It’s in our human DNA from the first cave paintings. Creating is humanity’s attempt to make meaning of their world—however it manifests.

Sometimes starting small can be the gateway to expansion. Lead with curiosity. Sometimes I make excuses that I don’t have time—too much work, too much house stuff, family matters. But I can also waste a lot of time staring at my phone. Ten minutes coloring soothes a lot more than doom scrolling. I don’t create a masterpiece—or even anything that I would hang on a wall—but I can create something pretty and colorful and block out the world for a few minutes and recharge.

I remember years ago at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, a group of Tibetan monks spent days creating intricate sand mandalas, focusing and pouring the sand with precision. When they finished, they erased it and started over. I went every day (I worked nearby) to watch them. The entire point was the meditation of creation.

Creating as a way to build community

I’ve written previously about how important my writing community is for both support and improving my craft—and for helping it feel like less of a solitary endeavor. For many of us, though our families may cheer us on, they can’t drill down to the heart of the craft or commiserate when things go off course—like getting stuck on a plot point or the frustrations of querying for a literary agent. My writing group is made of women who are right there alongside me (as I am for them) at every point of the creative journey. My critique group helps improve my craft both through reading my work and our discussions.

As humans, we are drawn to create. Now we know that the very act of creation provides a range of benefits. We all hope we create masterpieces, but the process of creating something is in and of itself a triumph of humanity.

Photo credit: Steve Johnson/Unsplash

2022 Writing Goals: In With the New

2021 has ended, which proves that time flies even when you’re not having fun. Seriously, 2021 was a doozy.

2021 in the rearview mirror

I leaned into writing as self-care because, let’s be honest, our options remained limited. I managed three writing retreats at AirBnBs, which helped considerably—having a different view and being in nature. Also, in 2021, I joined the Great Resignation. I quit my comfortable job to produce a climate change podcast (fits neatly into my wheelhouse of research, writing, and podcasts!) and freelance/consult for the rest of my time. It’s scary and still in transition, but I am much more fulfilled on a daily basis than I was doing a job my heart wasn’t in.

My 2021 writing goals were to get an agent (nope), edit my 2018 manuscript (nope), and draft a fourth manuscript (yes!) But in taking stock of what I did over the course of 2021, I surprised myself.

I sent 89 queries to agents. I didn’t get an offer of representation, but I had six full requests and lots of positive feedback. In the end, I concluded that the novel I queried is a bit too quiet for an unknown author. I intended to write a quiet novel, and I’m ok with it staying on the shelf a bit longer until the world’s ready. Best advice I can offer people in querying trenches: Let those rejections roll off you. It’s not personal. You only need one yes, and that should be the right yes.

I finished my 2020 NaNoWriMo project, and, honestly, really love it. Six beta readers and my critique group made it all the way through and gave me some great feedback (always thank your betas and CPs!) I wrapped up my synopsis and query letter in the last months of 2021, and I plan to start querying it in January.

In addition to my critique group, my writing group has continued to go strong, meeting every week on zoom. And our leader added a new feature in the autumn: reading aloud from our work. I was in theatre for about a decade and have given dozens of public talks, so that part doesn’t bother me, but there is something about reading from your own fiction… and I did it in an accent (reading an Elizabethan suspense novel in an American accent seemed weird to me). The words transform when spoken aloud—a useful tool for editing as well.

I felt all over the place this year with writing. I started two manuscripts, only to abandon them. I will get back to them, but I struggled to focus. But in addition to finishing my 2020 NaNo project, I also wrote first drafts of two others (including my 2021 NaNo project). They are rough, but that’s what first drafts are for. So, now in all, I have two finished manuscripts, three first drafts, and two partial first drafts.

I wrote three short stories this year. I probably hadn’t written a short story since high school. All three were historical fantasy, which was fun to do. I liked not having to focus on the long arc of a story when my focus was all over the place. I found the short format helpful because you create a hint of a world without having to do the entire scope of world building required for a full-length historical fantasy. That being said, I have an idea for a future historical fantasy novel.

In my freelance work, I continued to write for TriplePundit. In 2021, I wrote 44 articles (46 in 2020). I had several favorites, including writing about surviving the winter storm in Texas, the mental health impacts of climate change, digital equity (I LOVED this interview), and a profile of the climate work by my beloved alma mater the University of Glasgow.

There wasn’t a magical formula to getting all of this done in such a tough year. It was part needing self-care and part sheer stubbornness. I often joke that I’m a Taurus in western astrology, an Ox in the Chinese zodiac, and a bull in Indian. But I’m also the product of a Montessori education. Call it stubbornness or determination, I will push myself, sometimes too hard. This was the year that I felt the burnout.

Looking Ahead to 2022

My five manuscripts fall into these categories:
1. American Civil War, follows three women, theme: abolition, women’s right, suffrage (2018)
2. Regency-adjacent, loosely based on my ancestor, one of the first female botanists (2019)
3. Elizabethan suspense, a woman works to overcome her past trauma to free her nephew from unjust imprisonment (2020)
4. Dual timeline Elizabethan/WW2, the same house, same family in the Channel Islands, two women who face similar odds in trying to protect the persecuted (2021)
5. 1901 New York City, first female detective, immigrant communities, prejudice, a shifting world (2021)

My goals for 2022:
— Edit manuscripts #5 and #4 (in that order). We’ll see how that goes. If travel is in the cards, I’d like to do some research to work on my two unfinished manuscripts.
— Write three short stories
— Blog more. In 2021, I wrote three blog posts (2020, six). I want to write at least six in 2022.
— Get an agent! This is a goal every year until it happens

Heading into 2022, we’re vaxxed and boosted and our daughter’s vaxxed. We’re hoping we can travel—for research, for feeding the soul, and for inspiration.

What do your 2022 goals look like?

Photo credit: Unsplash/Etienne Girardet

NaNoWriMo’s Almost Here: How to Get Your Story Ready

Last year, I wrote about doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) during the COVID-19 pandemic. And here we are again in 2021. But this year we’re all a bit more ragged after 19 months of the pandemic.

Last year, I tried plantsing: the liminal space between plotting and pansting (as in, write by the seat of your pants). As a planner in normal times, someone who prides myself on my intense organizational skills, it was a challenge. So was the writing. NaNo 2020 started with the Presidential election in the U.S., which was—to put it mildly—very stressful. I wrote 50,000 words. Incoherent, garbled, pants-y words. Then I stopped. When I hit the magic 50k words, I wrote a bunch of bullet points about what else needed to happen.

I picked the draft back up in January. To my relief, it wasn’t as terrible as in my head (Isn’t that always the way with first drafts? Parts are terrible, but some aren’t!) I’m sure everyone remembers the trauma of January 2021, so suffice it to say, that editing didn’t go well. To make a long story short, I finished the first draft and two rounds of edits by the end of March (an objective edit followed by a copyedit using ProWritingAid, an AI editing software).

I won’t bore you with the details of trying to write during yet another summer of no summer camps and limited play dates, but I polished up the draft and got it out to beta readers. Initially, I wasn’t planning to do another NaNo (I’ve done it the past three years), but as November neared, I changed my mind. I find the community and accountability helpful for pushing me to the finish line.

Choosing the Right Story

One reason to prep, even if you’re not inclined, is to figure out if your story has legs. A kernel of an idea may never pop, so thinking through the trajectory of the story could help decide whether that story is the right one. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a few thousand words in before realizing the story has nowhere else to go.

Another conundrum is deciding which story of the many you have floating around in your head is the best one to tackle for NaNo. I had two stories I felt drawn to and had already done some prep. To help me decide, I did a high-level outline of both, and in doing so, one story called to me more than the other.

What’s needed other than an outline?

In my experience, two things help solidify the project before I even write: character and world.

Character

Although the story is central, I can’t wrap my head around it until I know who’s populating it. Character development—of at least the main characters—is the first thing I do.

Because I write historical fiction, I need to research period-appropriate names. The first thing I do is pull out my genealogy research. Sometimes I’m basing characters on a real person, which makes it easier. For other characters, I go to the time period I’m working in and see what names pop up that are interesting to me. If nothing fits, I turn to history books. Flip through and see what names resonate.

If your setting is the US, census records are online. If you’re setting your story in other places, check historical documents or birth, marriage, and death records (hatched, matched, and dispatched, as an Australian friend once said)—most of those are available online. Finally, google. I may search “common female names 1450 England” or “common surnames Channel Islands 1500s”. Likely, someone’s already done the research; you just need to figure out which name sounds right to you.

Character development is a personal thing. Some people like to get to know the character as they write, like you would when you first meet someone. But I want the characters woven into my thoughts so I know what they would do in different situations, how they would react.

My favorite resource is One Stop for Writers from the creators of the Emotion Thesaurus (and several other useful thesauri). Other helpful resources are Dungeons and Dragons character building websites (there are many; google it and use the one that fits you best) and The Novel Factory’s guide to personality traits (including Myers-Briggs and Enneagram). I also use several books to help build a psychological profile including:

  • Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey
  • 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
  • Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD
  • The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

When I talked about this in my writing group, some people’s eyes glazed over. This method sounds intense, but I use these as a guide to get to know characters. I rarely refer to them much, if ever, but do this work so I can picture them in my head. Their reactions and actions come more naturally as I write them.

World

For some stories, this will matter more. Science fiction and fantasy require deep dives in world building, and many other resources exist to help guide writers in those genres. For historical fiction, world building means research. Further, you often realize what you need to know when you’re in the thick of the story. Thus, you need a bit of a prep and a bit of grace once you’re writing.

So far, all the historical fiction I’ve written is set in time periods I already know something about. So my prep includes some research about certain details of history and the world I know will come up. My NaNo project for this year is set in 1910 New York City, so I’ve been looking through Sears Roebuck catalogs from 1909. That helps populate the world with what’s around my characters. Pinterest is also a great resource, and can help you make a world building mood board with the images.

Inevitably, things will pop up once I start writing that will require research. If you’ve never done NaNo before (or if you’ve done it and haven’t finished), one key to success is to keep moving forward. That means no editing as you go and, to the extent possible, no stopping to go down research rabbit holes. When I hit one of those bumps, I notate and move on. For fact checking, I type FCK. When I hit a speed bump, I type TK with a note about what needs to be done (e.g., if I need to describe a building as it was in that time period, I’ll type TK – describe building). When I’ve finished the first draft, it’s easy to search for those two combinations (they don’t appear in English words). This frees my brain to keep moving ahead.

Getting ready for November

With my characters, world, and outline, I’m ready to hit the ground running November 1st. The earlier in October I do this, the more time I have for research. I recognize I lean far into the planning mindset, and this may all sound like nonsense to the pantser. In a recent historical fiction virtual chat, one author said if she outlines something, in her mind, she’s already told the story so there’s no reason to write. I recognize everyone’s different. Hopefully, some initial planning can help make NaNo go as smoothly as possible for you—whatever amount you’re comfortable with.

As a last note, I recommend engaging in the NaNo community. If you don’t have writer friends who are also doing NaNo, finding a community to buck each other up when needed and support each other through the triumphs can make the entire experience better.

Please tell me what’s worked for you or if you have other areas you need help with in prepping for NaNo. Good luck to everyone!

Photo credit: Nick Morrison/Unsplash

Maps Orient Us In Historical Fiction

Historical maps are windows into other worlds.

They connect us to the past in a concrete way, allowing us to visualize how to get from the marina to the nearest thermopolium in Ancient Ostia, how to reach the King’s Apartments in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, or figure out the names of streets as they were in 1912 Shanghai. Maps allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of people in a different place and time, and they are immensely helpful in historical fiction world building. They anchor us in the reality of the time in which the story is set.

Maps have fascinated me since I was a child. My home office walls are decorated with framed antique maps of Ancient Rome, Pompeii, Bologna, and the Shetland Islands (all places near to my heart). I keep a physical world atlas nearby for reference. But, with more and more maps digitized, we now have the historical world at our fingertips.

Using maps to enhance writing and reading

Even if you don’t write historical fiction, if you read it, maps can help. It helps you place the characters in their physical spaces. For a writer, however, though we won’t include all the details in the story, having a visual idea of how your characters move is important to moor them in their world—and by extension, the reader.

If you are fortunate to walk through historical sites, the maps provided help ground you in the experience. Further, many sites look different now than they did during other time periods. For example, Hampton Court Palace in England is mainly a mix of Tudor and Baroque palaces, and centuries of building and rebuilding in places like Mexico City and Alexandria mean layers upon layers of history.

Historical maps to feed the story

I strive for historical accuracy in my writing, and maps are essential for that. Street names change throughout history, so finding a map that is as close to the time period I’m researching, preferably earlier, is important. Below are a few resources I’ve used in my work in progress.

Elizabethan England

My current manuscript is set in 1565, some of which is London. I had a few challenges, including:

  • Palace layouts, especially for those that no longer exist or have changed significantly in the intervening 500 years;
  • Streets and water landings (or water stairs for the boat men operating on the River Thames) in London; and
  • Roads from London to other cities and towns—and because people used the Thames as a kind of road at the time, I needed to know the course of the river as well as where the landings were.

Richmond Palace (no longer exists), Windsor Castle (modernized and inhabited sometimes by current monarch), and Whitehall Palace (mostly destroyed by fire in 1698) all feature. So, how not to only describe them, but also how my characters move within those settings? Maps, of course!

Plans for Richmond were hard to find. The palace began to fall into disrepair during the English Civil War and was, by the 18th century, nothing but ruins. After some sleuthing, I pieced together some floor plans from the British National Archives and academic resources that have worked to digitize historical documents.

Windsor proved a challenge because so many layers of modernization have been added since the 16th century, mostly from the Georgian period. With a history stretching to the Normans, this castle is a remarkable archaeological site. However, parsing out what belonged there in which century proved a struggle.

Further, in Elizabeth I’s time, Windsor was a pretty shabby place compared to some of the other royal properties. One invaluable resource for Windsor, as well as many other real places my protagonist visits, is the British History Online website, a collection of over 1,000 primary and secondary sources relating to British and Irish history, and histories of empire and the British world. While only some entries include maps, there is a wealth of detailed information. The Windsor entry has precise renderings of different parts of the castle, which, when combined with the text, make a sort of map. Sometimes, needs require using a later map, such as this one of Windsor in 1658 at the Royal Collection Trust.

Whitehall Palace proved an interesting case as we now associate it with the British government operations that sit where the palace once did. During Elizabeth I’s reign, Whitehall was the largest palace in all of Europe. Again, British History Online provided considerable information and illustrations for visualization. The British Library has a remarkably detailed plan of Whitehall from the 1680s. The Agas Map (discussed below) also has a decent overhead view of the Palace, and is especially important because it shows its relation to the rest of London.

The map I used over and over during research and writing is the Agas Map, a bird’s-eye view of London in 1561, originally printed on woodblocks. The version we use now is a 17th century copy of the original, and it presents the streets, water stairs, and buildings of London in excruciating detail. You can zoom in and view with perfect clarity the tiny cross streets of Southwark, the shops lining London Bridge, every public water stairs along the Thames, and more. It is an astonishing resource, and that we have free access to it as researchers is an astounding benefit of living when we do.

Resources

Sometimes we’re looking for something specific in maps, and sometimes it’s just fun to read one, allowing our minds to wander as our feet once could. In addition to the ones linked above, more great resources for historic maps include:

Please let me know what further types of historical research resources you’d like to read about, as well any maps tips you have! Happy map reading!

Historical Fiction Shines When It Reflects Our Diverse History

Every February, we celebrate Black History Month. Still, we haven’t yet heard many stories—stories that deserve to be told because they are part of our collective history. Understanding the complexity of the human experience requires inclusivity.

Resetting how we learn history

As a History major at the University of Texas, I took a writing seminar on the American Southwest. That seminar opened my eyes in a way I never expected.

The professor was a charismatic, blue-eyed Mexican-American man. We started with the history we had all heard before: the cowboy and Indian history written by white, straight, cisgendered men. Then, each week, he introduced us to a different perspective on the same source material: a white woman, a gay Mexican-American man, a Native American man, an African-American woman. With each reading, the view of the American Southwest became more nuanced, more tangled, more human.

In my second graduate program, I took a China Studies class. My professor wanted to bring real world policy making into our class. As an illustrative example, he noted the trip then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was taking to Asia. She wore military-style clothing when visiting a U.S. Army base on her way there, and visited Japan before China, which some Chinese leaders viewed as insulting. In using her insensitivity as a teachable moment, he entreated us to “put on our Chinese ears and eyes” and consider how her actions looked from their perspective. Always good advice, and it stuck with me.

Writing inclusive historical fiction

Putting on someone else’s eyes and ears is what we must do as writers. Historical fiction is often centered on the Western world and the “winners.” I set my work in the Western world, but the whitewashed history we have been taught is not what I write about.

Diverse societies are not exclusive to the recent past. Ancient Rome was a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Africans worked and lived in Tudor society. Georgian England was a dynamic society with men and women of color living their lives, some of them pushing for the end of the Transatlantic slave trade. White abolitionists never would have found success without the help of black men and women, many who had escaped from slavery themselves. People of African origin were leaders, artisans, musicians, merchants, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Though many of these people have been erased from history, as writers, we can write them back in.

Nathaniel Wells, Georgian Gentleman

In my novel set in Georgian England and Wales, one character is a historical figure named Nathaniel Wells. He was the son of William Wells, a Welsh sugar planter and merchant in St Kitts, and his enslaved house servant Juggy, who took the name Joardine Wells upon her manumission.

His father had at least six illegitimate children and several legitimate daughters, but Nathaniel was the only son and inherited the bulk of his estate on the death of his father in 1794 – three sugar plantations and money estimated at £200,000. His father sent Nathaniel to be educated in England, and later Nathaniel bought an estate in Wales.

Nathaniel was an integral part of Monmouthshire high society, becoming Justice of the Peace in 1806 and Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1818—in those positions, he sat in judgment over white people. He also served as a church warden. All of that would have been denied to him had he returned to St Kitts. Through his second wife, he was brother-in-law to William Wilberforce, a leader of the abolitionist movement in Britain.

He must have been a complicated man, the son of an enslaved woman and her owner, who continued to keep slaves, though there are indications it disquieted him. For example, an abolitionist case named one of his overseers, highlighting the harsh treatment of enslaved people in the West Indies. We don’t know what action he took, but records show he did not censor or suppress the information in the courts. Regardless of his feelings, the financial implications of outright freeing enslaved people on his plantations would have been dire. Indeed, he waited until Britain abolished slavery to free them, and was compensated for the economic loss.

According to English Heritage, a nonprofit that cares for historic homes and buildings in England, Nathaniel is not identified in the records as a person of color. Since the vast majority of slaveholders were white, we can assume record keeping did not note someone’s race, and therefore we do not know whether he was unique in his position.

History is not black and white. What fascinated me about Nathaniel Wells was the nuance of his life and how high he rose in society. Although some contemporary sources comment on the color of his skin, all note his elegance and manners, requirements of a Georgian gentleman. His race and background seemed to matter less than his wealth – class beat race in his case.

Writers Can Open Historical Discussions

Writing historical fiction requires a monumental amount of research. It also requires a lot of detective work when traditional histories have left out stories such as Nathaniel’s. He left no memoir, so I don’t know what he thought of his life and the twists and turns he must have made in his mind. But learning about him led me to dive into legal documents related to slavery in the early years of the 19th century, and what other men and women of African descent said about their experiences in Britain at the time.

It takes effort to find these histories, but it shouldn’t – and writers can play a role in bringing to life these characters and making their stories more accessible. History is complex and fascinating, full of people who do terrible, wonderful, and mundane things that are worthy of our time and attention. As readers, we should seek out writers of color. As writers, we put on others’ eyes and ears to make them fully fledged characters. When we write in ways that encompass and reflect the fullness of history, we invite readers to see that too.

A Writing Plan for 2021: Taking Stock and Setting Goals

Like most people, I won’t be sorry to see the back of 2020. Setting goals for the new year feels odd when I know we’ll still be in quarantine for several months. In some ways, 2020 has shifted the way we view goal-setting overall; allowing ourselves some breathing room to do the best we can. With that in mind, I wanted to take stock of how 2020 has gone for me in terms of writing, and figure out what I want to accomplish in 2021.

Taking Stock

In order to best figure out reasonable goals, I think the best place to start is looking at happened over the past year. This year has felt like a never-ending slog, so making note of what I’d done this year was strangely gratifying.


— Finished my book! I handed my manuscript off to my first beta reader around New Year’s 2020. After that, I had an additional ten beta readers. I edited using software ProWritingAid and several helpful books, including The Novel Editing Workbook by Kris Spisak. I also joined a virtual critique group—5-8 people who show no mercy. My final product is version 21. And it was recently a finalist in a fiction contest.
— I wrote 46 articles for Triple Pundit, a publication that focuses on sustainable business with a monthly readership of 450,000 people. The articles I’m proudest of focus on climate justice.
— With a manuscript done, I shifted gears toward finding an agent. I hired an editor to help with my first 20 pages and the dreaded query letter that every author has to send to hook an agent into asking for more pages to read. I took a class through my local writer’s organization on writing a synopsis, with personalized feedback from the instructor. In early December, I participated in a book pitch event. Three agents liked my pitch and asked for more. After the sometimes painful effort to get to this point, I am ready to query in January.
— I participated in NaNoWriMo. NaNo was tough this year. I struggled to get my outline in order, gave in and called myself a plantser (part planner, part pantser—as in, by the seat of your pants), and dove in November 1st. What I didn’t expect was the stress of the election on top of the pandemic. I had a great first day and then tanked. I couldn’t focus at all. And then the election seemed like it would never end. I booked a solo writing retreat in mid-November and powered through. I “won” – I finished my draft, but I’m a little terrified of what it’ll look like when I open it back up.
— Inspired by conversations in my writing group, I have an idea for the next project. And I’m excited about it.

I did most of my writing in the evenings after my daughter went to bed. Writing is my creative outlet and self-care—something that is always important, but doubly so during quarantine. We must be gentle with ourselves and with the people we live with. Taking a couple of hours a few nights a week to write or edit is not too much to ask for your own sanity. Every writer will have different needs and different distractions. Figuring out what works best for you and then making the space for yourself to do it will help ensure success.

Setting Goals

As this year closes, I have one completed manuscript, two drafts (one I wrote in 2018 and have been editing in fits and starts), and a rough idea of the next one. It’s better than I thought it would be when I first started thinking about 2020.

Setting a big goal with smaller milestones works for me. For example, say I want to have a manuscript done in one year. My one-week goal would be to write down five ideas. At one month, I have chosen one and started to outline, plot, and develop character profiles. Then write with smaller, achievable milestones along the way.

My goals for 2021:
— Get an agent for my completed manuscript – Send 10 queries a week until I get through my target list. If after the first week, 10 is too many, I’ll adjust accordingly.
— Edit my 2018 manuscript – It needs another developmental edit and a copy edit, then one more time through before identifying beta readers. The plan is to have it in some readers’ hands by June.
— Draft fourth manuscript – Set research goals for each week. I need to do enough research to draft a decent outline. With historical fiction, research is ongoing. So, with a goal to start drafting in, say, April, I can set up some milestones along the way: note particular research needs, obtain any required books, make a list of online sources, etc.

I typically set a writing/editing/research goal each week. During NaNo, it was every day. In other months, with a day job and a family, I set that goal at five times a week. If that gets to be too much, I may ratchet that down and, importantly, not give myself a hard time for not meeting that goal that week.

I’m stubborn and love checking things off to-do lists, so I know this works for me. As much as I dislike management speak, there is something to SMART goals: smart, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Vague and unattainable goals are setting yourself up for disappointment. Figuring out what’s doable requires some looking back to see what we’ve already achieved to know how much we can push ourselves to do more. Whatever your goal is, make it work for you and your life. And have some fun with it. Now, out with 2020 and onto 2021!

Puzzling My Way Through Research

Research is an essential component of all the writing I do. Both my fiction (historical) and nonfiction (science policy) require a lot of upfront research as well as what seems like continuous research during writing and editing. Luckily, I enjoy research. But sometimes it can seem endless. There’s always more to research.

I hand-write my research notes. I find I retain the information better, but I also end up with a lot of random notes. At a certain point, it begins to feel overwhelming and I know it’s time to organize.

Dump out all the puzzle pieces

I hit a critical point a couple of weeks ago when the myriad notes for my upcoming project became overwhelming. I have more preparatory research to do, but I needed to organize my notes so I could begin to more clearly see the story in my head.

I went to Montessori school through the sixth grade. I don’t know whether I’m wired this way or Montessori molded me—probably a bit of both—but I am a tactile learner. I’m also a detail person, which is why the sheer volume of notes was setting me on edge. I approach organizing my research as a puzzle to solve. Just like building a puzzle, you’ve got to dump out all the pieces first to see what you’re working with.

Put the puzzle together

My family went camping for the weekend, so I had the house to myself. I spread all my papers out on the floor and began to group them in themes, which is similar to how I start work on a puzzle. I didn’t realize I did this until I was teaching my daughter how to deal with frustration in solving a puzzle when she was about four. We were doing a dinosaur puzzle and she became overwhelmed, pushing the pieces away in frustration. I talked her through it, saying we would focus on one dinosaur at a time. Let’s only build the stegosaurus, find all those pieces first. We did that one and then moved onto the next one, one section at a time. At eight years old, she has internalized this. When we get a new puzzle, she announces which section she will do first and which one she has delegated to me.

It’s the same way with my notes. I organized my research one section at a time. I made a sheet for each character and each location. Then I figured out the timeline—it’s historical fiction, so I needed to pinpoint the date where I wanted to start and write down the real historical facts that happened in that time frame. As I built each section, the story began to crystallize in my head.

With a rough storyboard in my head, I started to jot down scene ideas. With previous projects, I was able to come up with a timeline with relatively little stress. But with COVID brain, things felt muddled and squishy. Now that this process of building my puzzle was bringing clarity to my story, I needed to connect some dots. One scene here, another here—what would it take to get from one to the next? Where was that piece that connected two sections? I was solving the puzzle. The pieces were all there, I just needed to take them one section at a time.

Once writing begins, it’s hard to resist the urge to do research deep dives. As I mentioned in my NaNo prep newsletter, writing and editing are different processes. For me, I want to get the first draft down. So, I’ll mark a section with “TK” (to come), make a note in the notes section in Scrivener, and keep going. Research in the editing phase can be more targeted—you’re in the engineer mode rather than the artist mode of creating.

Organizing my research works well for other parts of my life as well. We’ve been in quarantine for over eight months with no end in sight on top of a looming election, climate change, and everything else. Some things we have no control over, but some things we do. When things feel overwhelming, break them down into smaller sections. Build the puzzle one dinosaur at a time.

NaNoWriMo in the Time of COVID

National Novel Writing Month is almost here!

But this year feels different… because it is different.

Preptober—getting ready for November

In NaNo terms, you’re either a planner or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants with no plan). I’m definitely a planner. In 2018 and 2019, I not only spent time developing detailed outlines for my books, I had them plugged into Scrivener (my preferred writing software) and ready to go on November 1st. Since I write historical fiction, I have to do a fair amount of research in just developing the outline. That’s where I am now.

But nothing is the same this year. I have struggled to focus on my research and my outline stalls out periodically. I’ll have bursts of inspiration, only to be thwarted by a black hole of creativity.

I was recently talking to a friend about “COVID brain”—that feeling like you’re operating at about 60 percent capacity—and it occurred to me that it was time to cut myself some slack and shift my perspective. I may have to become—shudder—a plantser for this NaNo, a hybrid between a planner and pantser. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but what isn’t this year?

I will continue to research to the best of my ability, while juggling family, work, and the constant low-level anxiety of COVID, the election, climate change, and everything else. And I will give myself a break. I am still very much looking forward to NaNo because writing is not only a creative outlet, it is also self-care. I plan to use the same tools that have led me to NaNo victory the past two years and remind myself that if things go off the rails, that’s ok.

NaNo is writing together

Writing is typically a solo sport and in quarantine, it’s easy to be isolated. The fun thing about NaNo is that even though the act of writing is done alone, you’re doing it with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. I have at least one writing buddy who I check in with every day—for words of encouragement, to update each other on our word count, and just general support. There is something very special about the writing community and when we’re all in the same boat at the same time, even more so.

Five tips for a NaNo win

There are a gazillion lists of how to succeed at Nano. Here’s what’s worked for my two out of two “wins”:

  1. Write every day. Even if it’s just 100 words, write something. If you’re struggling to get your word count on one day, don’t beat yourself up. Make it up another day. Some people like to schedule a time to write. I have an eight-year old. I write whenever I can, usually after she goes goes to bed. But also any other moment I can. I talk to my family in October about it because I need support and space to be creative.
  2. Don’t edit anything. Writing and editing are two very different processes. When you shift into editing, you’re shifting into engineer mode. You need to stay in artist mode. Your first draft will be terrible. Writer Julia Crouch calls it Draft Zero. You can always fix it in edits when the draft is done. Sometimes I need to take a detour to fill in an historical fact, but typically I just mark it to work on later. I start each day reading only the last sentence (possibly paragraph) I wrote to remind myself where I left off then it’s onward!
  3. Silence your inner critic. We’ve all got one. That voice that tells you everything you’re writing is rubbish. Ignore it. I write because I need to—for my own self-care and because I’ve got to get these stories out somehow. Remember, you can edit later. In November, focus on the fact that you are exercising your creative muscles and doing so in a community of other people doing the same thing. No judgment, no criticism. Just writing.
  4. Take advantage of the NaNo (and writing) community. Through the NaNo website, you can choose buddies, set your home region and find groups. In normal times, your city may have in-person write-ins (I did a couple at my local public library in years past). This year there will be virtual write-ins. Check the website for those. There’s a bigger world out there too. NaNo is very active on Twitter, with news and word sprints to help people move their story along. They are also active on Facebook (and have a private Facebook group you can request to join) and Instagram. Beyond the official stuff, it’s worth checking hashtags on Twitter like #NaNoWriMo and #writingcommunity, both of which are typically positive spaces to be in—something that’s not often the case on social media.
  5. Set up as much as you can before November 1st. I recognize not everyone is a planner, or even wants to be. If you work better without an outline, great! Do whatever works best for you. But figure out how and where you’re going to write. Do you have a space you can dedicate to writing? Set it up with what you need to feel inspired and supported. Before the end of days, we could write in a coffee shop if we didn’t have the space at home. That’s not an option this year, so figure out where the best space is for you to work. Also, it’s important to know how you’ll be writing. Do you want to use a writing software? Use Google docs or something else? Scrivener offers a 30-day free NaNo trial for their software. If you participate, you get 20% off the license and if you win, you get 50% off (it’s not that pricey to begin with). If you plan to use Scrivener or one of the other writing apps or software out there, get familiar with it before November. The last thing you want to do is have to fiddle with tutorials when you should be writing.

Above all, remember that “winning” NaNo just means hitting the 50,000-word goal by the end of the month. But winning is more fundamental than that. It is participating in the writing community, setting up a daily writing practice, and being proud of yourself for taking care of your creative needs. This year we need it more than ever.