Historical fiction, or hysterical?

I’ve been approached to teach a new class: How To Write Historical Fiction. Flattered at first, and confident about teaching in general, I agreed to give the idea serious thought. How hard could it be? After all, I co-wrote a trilogy of lengthy novels set in the first century BC and followed those with two more written entirely by me — one set in colonial America and the other set in Georgia during WWII. If the reviews the books have gotten are any measure of success, then all five are doing quite well. Readers like them.

Then, just as I’d convinced myself I’d become something of an expert on the topic, I thought of a film which came out about five years ago based on a book which came out two years earlier. The title: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Was this historical fiction, too? Would I be expected to teach folks how to take real historical characters and set them to doing things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened, at least not in the world I inhabit? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Sure. Why not?


Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or watched the film about Lincoln’s vampire adventures, and I doubt I ever will. Vampire stories just don’t do anything for me. The old Bela Lugosi films were enough. But the very idea had me thinking about the role of history in fiction. What would be the point of trying to put limits on it? Why should historical fiction be limited to someone’s arbitrary constraints? Just because the books I write don’t portray actual historical characters doing bizarre things, doesn’t mean everyone else should follow suit. Why not write a story about a 19th century, American politician who chases vampires? Or Werewolves? Or unicorns? Hell, why not Pokemon, too? (Uh, no. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.) Evidently, werewolf and vampire stories sell pretty well.

I will venture to guess, however, that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the Lincoln story (and collaborated on the screenplay), took a great deal of care with the setting. Lincoln may be chasing vampires, but I’ll bet he isn’t doing it from the back of a Ford convertible, or checking his wristwatch to count the hours before midnight. And I’m certain the ol’ rail-splitter never tripped over Pokemon. All other fantasies aside, some things just didn’t exist in the 19th century. Something in the story must be historically accurate, and I imagine Grahame-Smith made sure there were plenty of such somethings. That’s what makes this kind of story fun. Is it great literature? No, but who cares?

There’s a great deal of charm in the idea that the history we know may not have happened quite the way we learned it in school. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. Maybe it was something far more sinister, something that merely adopted the appearance of a cherry tree. <cue evil laughter>

Does this revelation change my thinking about teaching the class? Nope. On the contrary, it opens up an array of possibilities — and possible stories — and anyone who wants to may write one. My job will be to help them write a better story, something I already do.

At its core, fiction is about entertainment. I like historical fiction because it adds the opportunity to educate and challenge preconceptions, too. That’s a wonderful thing. Books don’t need to provide the same mind-numbing pablum we get from television. More and better writers will generate more readers, and hopefully, more enlightened ones.

When I review my own history, much of which was spent in the company of heroes from books, movies, TV, and even a few 78-RPM records, I have questions. Who dreamed up the backstory for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans? Why couldn’t the bad guys ever hit a target? It’s a mystery to me. Do you suppose it was the presence of vampires which prompted the Lone Ranger to use only silver bullets?


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Formula for fiction? Back to the beginning…

formulaI had been writing fiction for several years before I had the chance to attend a workshop presented by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. This husband and wife team has achieved near legendary status in the speculative fiction writing world. They have both produced a prodigious volume of high quality fiction across several genres and under a variety of names. Fortunately for me, in addition to their professional editing and publishing efforts, they found time to lead workshops for writers at all levels of achievement. I didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but I sure learned a lot.

Arguably the most valuable instruction I received was on something called 7-Point Plotting. It was originally devised by Algys Budrys, himself a legend among Science Fiction writers. I have used it ever since and offer it to anyone interested in producing well-rounded stories.

Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s easy enough. Budrys, known to his friends as “AJ” broke this down further. He postulated that a good Opening (the beginning) consisted of three distinct elements: Character, Setting, and Conflict.

I find it easier to summarize these as: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem.

Beginning1. Person — Usually, but not always, the primary character in the story. People work best, although there’s no law against starring an animal, alien, machine, or vegetable.  Most folks like reading about… folks.

 2. Place — Where does the action take place? In a courtroom?  A spaceship?  In Captain Kangaroo’s basement?  An interesting setting will often grab a reader when the conflict is weak.

3. Problem— This could be the primary focus of the tale, or it could be a lesser issue. But every opening must have an element of Conflict, because that is what grabs a reader.

Next up is the Middle. According to Budrys, this consists of one or more paired concepts:

Middle4. Try — This is the effort usually made by the protagonist to resolve the main Problem of the story. Each such effort is paired with item 5: a Fail.

5. Fail — Not all fails are fails! Sometimes a protagonist will succeed, only to find that the original problem has gotten worse. As expected, failure will lead to more difficulty, too. Most short stories use one or two Try/Fail sequences. Novels often go through dozens.

At some point, the story will reach the End. Budrys broke this down, too.

End6. Climax — This is the result of the final Try/Fail, the most dramatic and far-reaching. Success or failure here could mean life or death for the protagonist.  It is the culmination of all the efforts of all the characters to force a solution to the Problem.

7. Denouement — This is what Mark Twain called the “Marryin’ and the Buryin’,” and that’s a very succinct way to describe it. It amounts to a summary of who survived the Climax.

The point of all this is NOT to suggest that you should address each of these elements specifically while working. I’ve found the most effective way to use the scheme is to wait until you’ve finished a story. If it works, and you’re happy with it, move on. If it doesn’t work, then break out the 7-Point chart and see if there’s something missing.

Finally, here’s a visual interpretation of the 7 Points when fully incorporated:

Tension timeline

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A whole nuther chicken dance

Most of the fiction writers I know would rather work on new material than spend their energy promoting completed projects. I’ve had agents; I’ve had publishers, and I’ve generated material independently, but no matter how my stories went public, they all required that I do the chicken dance (imagine arm-flapping, squawking, and other anti-social behaviors) in the hope that readers would find them.

And, just so you know, the chicken dance is tiring. It might not be if I were any good it. But despite reading countless “How-To” articles on self-promotion and agonizing over a useful definition of my target market, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter to invest in lottery tickets on the off chance that I’d win big and be able to afford to hire a public relations agency to go out and honk my horn for me.


But then I’d worry about blasting out some poor schlub’s eardrums and thereby earning his eternal enmity. It’s not that I’m noble; I simply presume the guy who owns the damaged eardrums is bigger, meaner, and younger than I am. He’s probably got better insurance, too.

Still, I keep crankin’ out books. I’ve got two new ones this year, a novel and a textbook. And, since this is my primary marketing channel, I guess it’s time for yet another chicken dance or two. (Please be kind; don’t laugh too hard. I know I’m a lousy dancer.)

I started working on the manuscript that eventually became Oh, Bits! at a writer’s retreat in the North Georgia mountains. We had running water and electricity, but no TV or internet. My writing companions all had work in progress, but I was starting from scratch with neither electronic diversions nor excuses. At the time I didn’t have a clue what to write about. For reasons I’ll never understand I decided to do a bit of dialog between a gossip columnist and a gravedigger. I thought it might be fun to see some hoity-toity writer type kowtowing to a manual laborer in hopes of finding out some hidden secrets of the recently deceased. It didn’t dawn on me that a gravedigger would be the last person on earth to know anybody’s secrets, short of their casket’s dimensions. Blissfully ignorant, I started writing.

Very quickly, I had the gravedigger taunting the columnist with promises of juicy tidbits about the dearly departed, provided the columnist paid for them. I had no idea where said gravedigger was getting his information. After all, the guests of honor had all assumed room temperature long before he got near them.

And then it hit me; he had to be talking to the dead. Why and how came later, mostly as a result of the continuing dialog between the first two characters. I kept switching between their viewpoints and quickly realized I needed more people if I hoped to expand the story. As I added them and continued to fiddle with the idea of a gossip columnist with otherworldly contacts, the larger story evolved. Motives became clearer for all of them, and the difficulties they needed to face had to be planned and choreographed. In the process, I learned a lot about both urban and rural life in Georgia during WWII. There were POW camps housing German soldiers in my home state! Who knew?

Due to my teaching, blog writing, and editing schedules, I had less time than usual to work on the book, so progress came in spurts. I wrote while we traveled; I wrote when we weren’t packing up our belongings to move to the mountains after living in the same suburban house for 30 years, and I wrote when I had an occasional break between editing gigs. With about a fourth of the book still to be written, I decided a final push was needed. So I recruited a few friends and neighbors to start reading what I already had while I worked on writing the rest. The faster they read, the faster I had to write to stay ahead of them. Somehow, I got it done. I even managed to give our new pup a role in the tale, and a piece of the title and cover action as well.

The textbook was a different story. Like its predecessors in the series — Write Naked! and The Naked Truth! — it’s composed of sanitized versions of posts from this blog. The graphics have been converted to grayscale, and I had a cadre of talented people go over it to help me find and fix the errors I knew were in it. Fortunately for me and my readers, their efforts paid off. The resulting book, The Naked Novelist! is, I think, the best of my three textbook efforts.

So here I am again, right where I was when my very first independently written novel came out. I’m talking to many of the same folks, saying many of the same things. Buy my books, please. If you like fiction, buy my new novel. If you want to learn how to write novels of your own, buy my new textbook. Don’t make me fill up your email with offers and coupons; don’t force me to buy targeted ads that’ll pop up when you least expect it.

And please — puhleeze — don’t make me do the chicken dance next time.



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A Little Voice Exercise

In writer’s circles, “voice” is often discussed as if it’s some mystical element which seeps out from the heavens, or the depths of an adult beverage, to infuse one’s writing with the essence of truth, gravitas, or some other damn thing.

It’s not. Really.

Voice is a reflection of everything a writer brings to a work, typically manifested in the way a narrator puts things, but it can be broader than that. It can include the dialect of one or more characters; it can express an attitude or a distinct point of view. Your voice should be different from everyone else on Earth, and it will be unless you’re deliberately trying to sound like some other writer.

Here’s a little experiment you can try with this voice thing. The intent is to make you focus on content, and let your personal style — your voice — flow in whatever ways feel natural to YOU. Working quickly, write at least one paragraph based on each of the following scenarios (use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, past or present tense–whatever feels right):

1)  It’s your first day on the job as a remedial reading teacher in the maximum security wing of a federal penitentiary. Your class begins in two minutes, and you’ve just learned that one of your inmate students is a serial killer who targeted people “just like you.”

2)  You sell used cars, but you’re not very good at it. You see a car on the lot you know has already been sold several times. It looks great and runs like a Swiss watch, but never stays gone for long. Someone you know — but don’t really like — wants it desperately. The commission is substantial. That’s when you learn the last three owners died within days of buying it.

3)  Daryl “Sure Shot” Slade has come to town looking for you, and revenge. Dodge City doesn’t offer many places for someone famous — like you — to hide. Too bad your reputation is based on a lie. And now, here comes Slade, pushing through the double doors of the saloon, itching for a fight.

4) “Anything,” is what you promised you’d do. “Anything, for a million dollars.” The TV producer who took you up on your offer is filming a reality show, and you’re looking at a 2-quart saucepan full of live worms. The producer smiles, calls for action, and says, “bon appétit.

5)  You’ve been away from home for years. Your CIA job is so sensitive you can’t talk about it, but you never stop working. You’re constantly evaluating threats and assessing situations. That’s when you recognize that the man dating your widowed mother is a spy, and probably an assassin.

When you’re done, review your work, but not for grammar and punctuation. Review it for style and see if the approach you used for the content has a certain flare. That — more than likely — is your voice. You can wash it, comb it, even fluff it up a bit, but that’s your sound; that’s your voice.

If your response to one of these tidbits tickles you; if you think it captures your voice; why not clean it up and post it in the comments section? I’d like to see it. If writing about one or more of these scenarios interests you enough to do a full story, so much the better.

Go. Write. Publish!


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Show What, Exactly?

If there’s one piece of writing advice that predates all others, I’d guess it’s the “Show, don’t tell” mantra. And there’s plenty of proof that the tired, old adage is dead on the money. If anything, in today’s crash-bang-boom-sound-bite-MTV era, the need for showing over telling is more important than ever.

Consider these two imagees. Both depict a dog who is, well, dog tired. Which of these two photos is more memorable? Which one actually says something about how tired the dog is? This is a fairly typical example of the Show Don’t Tell concept. It’s: “the dog was tired” versus “the dog dropped to the floor and rolled on his back in exhaustion.” One informs; the other paints a picture.

The concept also applies to what goes on internally. What is a character thinking or feeling that can be demonstrated through their actions? How can we show those things?

One answer, I think, requires a bit of play-acting on the part of the writer. Consider a simple, domestic scene. Your character is a male, and he’s facing a task that deeply troubles him. How do you show that? Try putting yourself in his shoes and think about what you’d do. It’s morning; there’s a box of cereal, a bowl, and a banana waiting for you. You’re in a foul mood to begin with, when you notice the cereal box is all but empty. The banana looks more brown than yellow, and a whiff of the milk suggests it’s iffy. How do you react? How hard to you slam the over-ripe fruit into the trash? What about the milk? How gently do you dispose of it? Do you search for another box of cereal? What if the only thing you can find are Quaker’s Indigo Sugar Bombs or Kellog’s Stix and Twigs?

The spoon and bowl suddenly become players. What do you do with them? Do you go ahead and eat something anyway? How viciously do you chew? How angrily do you tear open the cereal box? How nasty is the note you write for whomever does the grocery shopping? Or, do you put everything back the way you found it and hope someone else deals with it? Either way, you’re showing, not telling.

The point is, any or all of these things provide a means of demonstrating a character’s feelings. A good writer doesn’t have to mention anger, frustration, displeasure, or even annoyance. That’s all perfectly clear, because it’s been shown.

If using props doesn’t work for you, try focusing on reactions. Your character could be late for a meeting, a lover’s rendezvous, or an assassination attempt. Traffic is terrible, or the train is too crowded, or the weather has created problems for everyone. How does your character react? More importantly, how would YOU react in such a situation? Would you slam doors? Scream at other drivers? Body slam your way onto the subway?

If that doesn’t float your showmanship boat, try costuming. Go to a second-hand store and look for garments that might appeal to your characters. How do they feel when wearing them? How do YOU feel? Try something utterly inappropriate. How does that work? Imagine yourself wearing it, not because you want to, but because you have to. How does that flavor your emotions? Simply donning such costumes provides a rich opportunity for expression. Yank the belt tight. Throw the scarf over one shoulder. Button the too-tight jacket. Translate your feelings, your actions, and your emotions to your characters.

Or, finally, imagine yourself receiving bad news. How do you react? Do you weep and tear at your hair? Wring your hands? Throw things? What if it’s good news? Do you shout? Weep for joy? Call your friends and neighbors? Whatever your reaction, it’s a safe bet your readers will have experienced something similar, and when they read how your character responds, it will trigger their own memories and feelings.

When you can do that, you’ll OWN your audience. They’ll follow you almost anywhere.

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Death, Doom, and Destruction

I am often suspicious of action movies. They’re not bad, as a genre. Far from it. I’ve seen some wonderful action films, and I would gladly watch them over again. But for me, that list is pretty short. I’m content to watch most movies once. It’s the same with books.

I know this will sound strange, but some action movies just simply have too much action. Hollyweird, or a goodly percentage of it, seems to think all one needs to make a great film is a story line that promotes non-stop action. All the more recent James Bond movies, for instance, have lengthy action sequences featuring one death-defying feat after another just to get the viewer to the title screen.

By the time the moving knothole featuring the intrepid “double-oh” agent rolls across the screen, most viewers are panting. They’re desperate for a break. And they always get one. In the Bond films, the action isn’t non-stop. Viewers get frequent breaks, usually for something funny and/or sexy. Or funny and sexy. Or just… n’mind.

If you’re writing a novel, or even something shorter,  you have a similar option. You can run your characters ragged, plunge them from one life-threatening scenario into another, and never let them — or your reader — catch a break. Or, you can build in something less hectic to tie those scenes together. I’d avoid filling these gaps with backstory (click HERE to find out why). Instead, I’d focus on something to make the character(s) in question more sympathetic. If that doesn’t work, there’s always humor. Or humorous sex. Or just plain old… n’mind.

Take a look at the tension timeline chart. Notice how the line marking the advance of tension is NOT a straight line. It rises and falls, then rises and falls again. It keeps doing that until the story’s climax, the pinnacle of tension. All those dips along the way represent rest stops for both the reader and the characters. They also provide handy introductions to the next bit of anxiety into which you may freely plunge your players. Sink or swim, y’all!

If, on the other hand, you try to push the action lever into full throttle mode, and never let up, as is done in any number of action films, the reader, like the movie viewer, will become numb to it all. Dropping the F-bomb into every sentence, as if no other adjectives or verbs exist has a similar effect. Whatever shock value it might have had quickly dissipates. Eyes glaze over, literally and figuratively, and the audience is lost.

Readers must have some reason to care. Characters who always win, never get hurt, and/or never have an emotional reaction to what’s going on won’t win any hearts. If they die, who cares? Why should they?

Characters can make bad choices now and then; audiences don’t mind that. And when the consequences of such choices prove funny, so much the better. But a character who never makes the right choice will quickly earn a reader’s scorn. The humor which attends the first or second such episode won’t extend to a third.

The same holds true for unrelenting doom and gloom. Your tale may focus on the moral, physical, or psychological decline of a character, and that’s fine. But if it doesn’t offer some relief along the way, readers are likely to abandon it well before the end. There has to be some way to bring a smile or a laugh to the table every once in a while. It may not be easy, but then, writing isn’t supposed to be easy.

Dark humor can be your friend.


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Weed Out Weaklings

Imagine sitting at your computer or (for the Luddites among us) at your typewriter. Your newest sparkling prose sits comfortably in view, and yet no matter how much you love every carefully crafted syllable, you still have an inkling that there might, just possibly, be room for improvement.

Thus forewarned, you poise one trembling digit over the keyboard. Is it worth it? Can you do it? Will pulling the trigger on it now cause angst and regret later?

No, of course not! Now is not the time to be timid. You hold your breath, make a determined face in case anyone’s looking, and initiate the keystroke.


You instantly launch the literary equivalent of a Nuclear Weed Whacker. Its mission: hunt down weak words and march them to the gym where they’ll become buff and spiffy — shiny stars amidst the magnificentness of your other verbiage.

[Sigh] If only it were that easy.

It’s not. There are no easy cures for poor writing. Weak writing, on the other hand, can be improved without a great deal of stress. It will require some effort, and a willingness to use some imagination, but that’s what writers are supposed to do. It shouldn’t require a cadre of toughs to make you do it.

So, let’s assume you’re willing to make the effort. What, exactly, should you be fixing? What is it that causes writing to be weak? My best guess is it’s the use of passive voice, in which no one actually does anything to anyone else — things just happen to people. The all-time best example of this is: A good time was had by all. Whoa! Really? What could possibly be more clear and to the point, short of a suction needle in ones cerebellum? A better question: can you read that without yawning? I can’t. My gag-reflex kicks in too fast.

I can give you three closely related things to look for. Keep in mind, like all my advice, the Spice Rule applies here. (Spice rule? Whut? Look here.) Oh, and don’t mind the bugs. They’re merely meant to underscore my feelings about the words in question.

Long-time readers of this blog, and/or folks who’ve suffered through one or more of my classes, already know I’m not a big fan of so-called “stative” verbs. These are the simple verbs we use to indicate the “state” of something. He is fat, f’rinstance, or she was tired. It includes the plural versions as well, such as they were frustrated. I urge you to search your text for these, especially “was” since they make it easy to rob your prose of active verbs — words that actually contribute to the whole by being descriptive. Rather than slide by with the statement, “Booger is fat,” use something that paints a picture. To wit: Booger’s spare tire droops over his belt for a full 360 degrees, or Booger’s fat hangs off him like a fleshy life preserver. Whatever. Paint a picture.

Next up are adverbs. The easy way to sniff these rascals out is to look for words that end in “ly.” When I’m searching, I look for the two letters followed by a space. Adverbs usually signal there’s a weak verb hanging around, a word you were too lazy to find and replace. For shame! Why in the world would you take the easy way out when finding and fixing such words isn’t that difficult?

You want examples? Okay. Imagine this line in your prose: Delores wore an extremely pretty dress. No kidding? What, exactly, are the extremes of pretty? Why not spare a sentence or two that actually describes the slinky, off-shoulder shift that hugged Delores’ elegant curves like a satiny second skin? Get the idea?

Here’s one more, in case you’re still head-scratching. Look for words that end in “ing.” As with the “ly” example, you’ll have better luck if you search for the three letters followed by a space. There’s no sense looking for words with “ing” smack in the middle. More often than not, “ing” words are paired with a stative verb, assuming you haven’t already nixed as many of those as you could find.

Again, the problem with such words is that they invite the writer to abandon their creativity. Little Portnoy was running across the palace lawn. [Eye roll] C’mon! Gimme something memorable, fer cryin’ out loud. How ’bout: Little Portnoy loped (skipped, meandered, schlepped, wiggled, twirled, danced, whatever) across the palace lawn, leaving a trail of sticky cuteness behind.

That’s enough for now. I’m not trying to make your life difficult; I’m trying to make your prose more interesting. Some day you’ll thank me. In fact, you can do that right now! Show your love by buying one of my books. Here’s a handy link: Click me, baby!

Just for giggles, send me some examples of how you’d fix the wretched sample sentences above. Post ’em in a remark.




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