Last year I was asked to contribute to the anthology Stories of Inspiration: Historical Fiction Edition, in which historical fiction authors share their journeys and processes for writing historical fiction. I wrote an essay about writing The Violinist of Venice, which is included. That book is out today, and you can buy it at the link below!
In the last few weeks, having finished the work-in-progress that I’d spent the last year on, I did two things: 1) I took a bit of a writing break, of about a month or so (one I at times had to force myself to maintain, and 2) when that was over, I started a new writing project.
As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I was a little nervous about starting something new this time around, having just finished something that I thought was/is probably my best work yet. Would my next project measure up? Would I love the idea, and love writing it, as much as I had my previous project? With writing, though, comparison is always the thief of joy – even if you’re comparing you to yourself, and your work to other examples of your work. And that isn’t productive or helpful. So I tried to remind myself of all of that and forge ahead with a new idea, one that had been brewing for a while. Actually, this idea was originally two separate ideas that seemed to magically come together to form one whole, filling in each other’s missing pieces.
So what is my process for starting a new novel project? Sometimes I make some notes before I actually start writing: character names, dates/timelines, a few lines that may have come to me here or there. Since I’m a pantser, there’s not too much of this, if at all, though I do make lots of notes as I go: reminders for things I need to look up/research, an idea for a new scene, notes for characters that have yet to be introduced, etc. There’s no rhyme or reason to this; I just jot these things down as they come to me.
Usually, though, the first step is to start writing. With this new project in particular, the opening of the novel suddenly started flowing through my brain as I was laying on the couch one night, reading, so I jumped up and grabbed my laptop and started typing until the words stopped. It’s a great feeling when that happens; when you’re just propelled to write, to drop everything and write. That’s what I always look for as a writer, and I’d venture a guess that others do, too.
Then I keep writing for a while. I test the idea out for a bit, needing to give it time to make sure it really has legs. There’s always a certain level of excitement when you first start working on a shiny new idea, but sometimes – and for a variety of reasons, I’ve found – that excitement can peter out, causing the project to stall. So I always make sure to give it a couple weeks of work to see how it goes before fully committing to the project. Am I still excited about working on it? Am I thinking about it when I’m not working on it? Am I still coming up with new ideas for scenes and character development and plotlines? Do I actually make the time to sit down and work on it?
After a few weeks, once I’m feeling like the project is definitely something I’ll stick with, I send what I have so far – usually the first few chapters, at that point – to my agent to get her take. I do this at the beginning of every project for multiple reasons: to make sure she thinks that the project is something that makes sense for my career trajectory as a whole and specifically for this point in my career; to see if she knows of anything similar that has recently sold and which would make my project a tougher sell; to get her take on the writing and story itself; and, quite frankly, to see if she thinks the project is something that she’ll be able to sell. Of course writing is a labor of love for me, but if I want to continue to be able to publish books, I need to be thinking about the market as well. And that’s one of the many things that an author’s agent can help with.
Sometimes my agent does have reservations on one or several of the above counts, in which case we usually get on the phone and talk it out and make sure we’re on the same page. She’s been doing this a long time and has way more knowledge of the business side of publishing than I do, so I always value her advice and insights – after all, that’s one of the things I’m paying her for. Sometimes, though, she loves what I’ve sent her without reservation and tells me to go for it. Then I keep writing to my heart’s content, and she won’t see it again until I send her a finished draft, which we both prefer. I love that she trusts me to get the work done and doesn’t need to look over my shoulder or check in with me about it; I wouldn’t work well that way. I’m sure perhaps some writers do, so to each their own!
Once my agent gives her blessing, I just keep writing – I don’t usually do any revisions until I have a full draft completed for several reasons, though there have been exceptions to this in the past. There’s usually a few mental/emotional milestones that I pass along the way: when I hit 10,000 words, which is when it feels like I’m not just playing around anymore; 20,000 words, when I realize that this is a real project I’m committed to writing and that this is really happening; and 30,000 words, which is always when a project starts to feel like a real novel to me. Then, of course, after 30,000 words we get into the middle of the novel, which is always the hardest part to write, for me; it’s when I’m in the thick of the plot and need to make sure everything is set up, and when it feels like I can’t see my way out and will be writing the book forever. But having written several novels at this point, I know that feeling is coming and am ready for it. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get through, but it’s helpful to know that I feel that way every time and always get through it.
Now, what about research, you may be asking? Shouldn’t research come before any writing gets done? My answer to that is yes, probably. I always do a little preliminary research before I start writing, to make sure the idea works in a historical setting and makes sense, etc. I have been known to do lots of research as I go, which I don’t necessarily recommend (see above note about revising in the middle of a draft) but for the most part it’s worked out for me so far. The period of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was something I had a solid background in before I started writing, so in that instance my research before and as I wrote was mostly a matter of filling in blanks.
This new idea is a bit different for me in that it’s set in a period I’ve already written about and researched extensively (though I won’t say just yet what that is). That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of this new story I’ll still need to research – there absolutely are – but again, it will be more a matter of filling in the blanks, and in this case I already know where to go to find the information I need.
Maybe this new project will see the light of day at some point, and maybe not. That’s the risk we take as authors each time we start a new project – there are no guarantees. That’s why, as long as I love the idea and am having fun writing it, I can usually block out just about everything else.
For those of you who are on Goodreads, I’m giving away a signed ARC of THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE! The giveaway runs through November 11th. US only. See the link below to enter!
Stay tuned for more Goodreads and Twitter ARC giveaways in the coming months!
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing (unless perhaps it’s high fantasy or extremely autobiographical) you are going to have to research some aspect of your story at some point. And obviously, when it comes to historical fiction, research is an even bigger part of the process. But research isn’t all pouring over history books or old letters or diaries – though reading all the information you can find about your time period/historical figures is, of course, something you will need to spend a lot of time doing. But reading isn’t the only research you can or should be doing. There are lots of other methods you can use to learn the historical information and details you need to make your work come alive, and some of them can be unorthodox and actually a lot of fun. Below are some things you can do – many of which I have done – to approach your research in a different way and get away from the books and the computer screen:
–Look at paintings/artwork/photographs from the period you’re writing about: I’ve done this for both The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. Looking at artwork and especially paintings created during the period you’re writing about can tell you SO MUCH: what the clothing looked like that people actually wore; what homes/buildings/churches looked like; what personal effects people may have carried or had in their space; what hairstyles were in fashion; jewelry fashions; what religious themes were chosen/depicted and what that might say about the artist or their patron, etc. Of course, for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence artwork was especially key as many famous works of art appear in the story, so I looked at many of those online, in books, and in person. But those paintings were also helpful for the clothing, hairstyles, etc. And if photographs were around in the period you are writing about, certainly take advantage of those wherever you can find them.
-Listen to music from the period: Obviously, this was crucial for writing and researching The Violinist of Venice, a novel about music and Antonio Vivaldi’s music in particular. But even if your novel doesn’t explicitly include music, listening to music that was written or popular during that period can help you get a better feel for the atmosphere of the times.
-Look at/consult other primary sources or artifacts: For me with Violinist, this involved looking at the actual scores of some of Vivaldi’s music, specifically pieces I was describing in the novel. I also went to several museums over the course of my research and saw musical instruments from the period, some of which – like the viola d’amore – are no longer in use in modern orchestras. Look into the collections of museums in your area or places where you may be traveling and see what they have. There may be furniture, articles of clothing, pottery, household wares, etc. from your period that you can go and see (and possibly take pictures of, depending on the museum’s photography policy).
-Travel to the location where your book is set: If your novel is set in a specific city or area, try to go there for at least a few days and get a sense of it. I’ve done this with both of my two novels, and have been able to see exact locations where scenes and events in the books take place. I found those experiences to be completely invaluable and, in addition to helping with historical accuracy, greatly improved my sense of place and sensory details in my writing. Learning your way around the city or area can help with logistics in the novel as well, such as how a character would physically get from point A to point B, if it would be feasible to walk, etc. Obviously not everyone has the time or means to make such a trip, especially if your novel is set farther afield, but if you can it is absolutely worth the investment.
-Look at maps and photographs of your setting: Whether you can travel there or not, studying maps of a city or area is extremely helpful, especially maps that were drawn during the period your novel takes place so that you can see what it looked like then. Again, photographs from the period are helpful as well if they are available, but if not modern photographs can still give you a sense of a place you may not be able to travel to. And if you do travel there, take lots of photos of places important to your story. I always do this in my research travels and refer to the photographs later as I’m writing to help sharpen my descriptions or just generally give me some inspiration.
-Attend historical reenactments: I have not done this myself (yet), but I know other authors who have. Depending on what period you’re writing about, there may be a battle reenactment or something along those lines not too far from you that you can go and see. This can give you a great sense of everything from military tactics to clothing to weaponry to surgical instruments and medical care. Along the same lines, look for living history museums (something like Colonial Williamsburg) that may be relevant to your setting/time period. Such places can be an absolute wealth of information on all kinds of details.
Research can and should be about more than just reading, and these things and more can help you expand and enrich your historical fiction by presenting information in new and perhaps unexpected ways and contexts. The more period details you can include in your work, the more it will come alive for your readers and make them feel as though they are actually there, and the more they will be able to understand and relate to your characters. Always be ready to discover new information, by whatever means are available, even those that seen unorthodox. Even things you never thought you’d need can come in very handy when writing, so the more ways you can go about acquiring information, the better. Your work – and your readers – will thank you for it.