Early in 2021, I woke up with a tingling sensation under my skin. The series of scenes that I kept seeing in my head over the last few months came together into a logical and compelling story. I recognized this feeling as an inspiration to write down what I was seeing. I ran to the computer that I use for my work in IT Compliance, opened a blank Word document, and started typing away. An hour later I had tears of joy in my eyes. The universe showed me what I needed to do to live a much richer life than working my day job and binging Netflix.
All I had was an idea for a book and a desire to write. I had no background in writing, never read a book on story structure, no knowledge of genre rules and best practices. English isn’t even my first language! Nor did I appreciate the complexity of writing about a country I haven’t been to, in a historical period I barely knew, and about a protagonist of a profession I’ve never studied. I started taking fiction writing classes and reading books on craft. I also connected with other writers working on their first historical novels. We formed a critique group and taught each other. A year later I published my first novel.
Now that I’m part of Paper Lantern Writers, I have an opportunity to learn from a group of established historical fiction authors. In their blog posts, they share their most important lessons on writing.
Theme – the Raison d’etre
Nutshell Elements of Writing: Characters – who? Plot – what? Setting – where? POV – who and why do we care? Style – how? Theme – Why? Anne Beggs breaks down the theme, which she calls the reason why we read and write. Her book, Archer’s Grace, has a theme of spirituality. Wolves and horses are not just animals in the story, they are symbols of power, freedom, and family. The protagonist, Eloise, is looking for female power that doesn’t exist within her society. Anne explains the organic nature of symbols in the story process.
I can relate to C.V. Lee’s confession that her first draft is heavy on dialog. I love figuring out what the characters would say to each other. I also love dramatic action and plot twists. But the setting can help draw the reader into the story. C. V. Lee shares how she uses the setting in her writing to amplify the scene of a Christmas supper or a woman drop spinning wool.
Secondary characters may play important roles in the story. They could be mentors, they could be sidekicks, they could be villains. Secondary characters must be fleshed out and multi-dimensional. They have a past, a desire they pursue, and possibly an arc of their growth. Pamela Nowak discusses her approach to developing secondary characters.
Putting Together the Puzzle: The Craft and Process of Writing
Rebecca D’Harlingue compares writing her complex novel, The Lines Between Us, to solving a jigsaw puzzle. She discusses the detailed research that went into learning what daily life for her protagonist—a woman in 17th-century Spain—would be like. Like most historical fiction writers, she occasionally finds herself going down a rabbit hole. At other times, she can’t find the information she needs. Check out her solution in her blog post on the process of writing.
Don’t Judge the Book by its Cover!
If only that were true. Even if the most brilliant story is hidden under an unattractive cover, the readers are uninterested or repelled. When I commissioned my cover for A Girl with a Knife, I wanted to see my character wearing a bloodied apron. That’s what a surgeon of her time would wear. Good thing I asked reader groups for feedback. Eww, blood. The cover is not an illustration of the story; it’s a tool to convey the genre and the feel of the book. Ana Brazil discusses the changes she made to the cover of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper.
What writing advice have you picked up in your writing journey?
Alina Rubin loves writing historical fiction about heroines with strong voices and able hands. Her debut novel, A Girl with a Knife, won the Illinois Author Project competition. When not working or writing, Alina enjoys yoga, reading and traveling.