New Historical Fiction Competition

Sharpen your pencils.  Buy a new biro.  Wipe down your computer keyboard.

The  next Association of Christian Writers competition is for historical fiction with a Christian element (for example, a Christian character or a Christian setting).  The deadline is 31 December 2017  and the word count 1200 words.  More information will be available on the ACW website any time now.   I’m giving you, my Dear Readers, the heads up, a little more thinking time.

The judge will be Claire Dunn (C F Dunn), author of The Secret of the Journal series.

Unlike Claire, I’m not a published historical novelist, but I do write historical short stories, some of which have been published online, and I am currently writing a novel set in a period which is just too recent to be historical.  I’d hesitate to offer advice, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned about historical fiction writing as I went along.

  • Write a story, not a history book.  The characters should lead, as in any other fiction.
  • Although you’ll carry out a lot of research into your historical setting, resist the temptation to include it all in your text; in fact, use very little of it.  Georgette Heyer, author supreme of Regency romances, rarely mentions any solid history (the Battle of Waterloo, once or twice, perhaps).  Your research may inform what your characters don’t  do and think.  For instance, in my novel, at various times, nobody could use a telephone, because the government had cut the lines.
  • Every historical fact must be accurate, especially dates.  Build yourself a historical timeline and write the events of your story beside it. https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/is a useful source for finding out the days of the week for specific dates in recent history.  Use Wikipedia for general schedules of world events in particular years.
  • Do a site visit, remembering that cities and places change.
  • As well as political history, research what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled, what they thought.  If possible, read contemporary books, and look at photos.  If you can find any cartoons, or any jokes, study them intensely.  Listen to popular music, including folk songs, paying particular attention to the lyrics.  Look up any words or phrases you don’t understand, as these may be the key to the hidden soul of the people you’re writing about.
  • Don’t bend historical happenings to suit your plot.  Use real history to generate confrontation in your story.
  • Consider what your characters are in a position to know, and, more importantly, what they don’t know.  The general British public didn’t know about gas chambers in concentration camps until some time after World War Two had ended.  And how they learned it; the characters in my WIP learned all that was important, listening to Radio Free Europe whilst leaning against a toilet seat.
  • In stories set in recent history (after about 1900), real historical persons should feature hardly at all.  Before 1900, use them if you wish, accurately, and without lapsing into biography.
  • Editors of historical fiction ezines and mags tell me that stories set in The Second World War and the Victorian era are in glut – avoid these settings.  Regency period, also, but certain markets can’t get enough of them.
  • Whereas people of every age have the same personalities, those living in byegone eras have their own worldviews and ways of treating servants, other races, animals, women, children.  They were definitely not politically correct.  No girl knights, please, or Roman families without slaves.  Also, European and North American characters in earlier eras are more likely to have strong religious views – a bonus, seeing as you need to include a Christian element.

(If you’ve read my last More Than Writers blog post, you will have read all this before.  Sorry.  It’s worth advertising the historical fiction comp again.)

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Resources for Writing Descriptions

I would answer No to both poll questions.  I find writing descriptions tedious, that they slow me down when what I really want to do is get on with the action.  When I’m reading, I often skip through descriptions.  When editing, I enjoy refining a piece of dialogue to get it just right for the character’s voice and, at the same time, to move the story on.  However, even I recognise – oh so reluctantly – that writing is much more effective when readers are shown how characters spoke, any hand movements, facial expressions and how they held their bodies, but, here I am, half way through a novel of characters who are all raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes (or so it seemed to me).  If you are an editor or publisher, please stop reading now.  The Novel won’t be like it when it reaches you. 

I have found some resources to help writing descriptions.  I came across Descriptionari – a website where other writers post their favourite descriptions – accidentally.  To be honest, at first, it felt like cheating, like one of those pay-for-GCSE-essay sites, but it isn’t because what fits the Descriptionari writer’s context doesn’t fit yours.  Yet, it is so helpful to be able to analyse what other writers have written in similar situations.   I also find the Macmillan Dictionary Online Thesaurus  to be better than other thesauruses as it includes related words too.

Inevitably, I have also discovered, on the internet, many many articles saying, in so many words, ‘Don’t do descriptions’… and then told you how to do them.  These demotivated me.  As I put my computer down and picked up my book, wondering why all other writers could do descriptions and I couldn’t, I realised that the biggest resource of all was staring at me in the face.

Coincidentally, when I was doing a bit of clearing up at home, I found a copy of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (actually awarded to my father as a school prize in the 1930s).  As this book was falling to bits, I downloaded it on to my Kindle and I’m still reading it.  I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that nobody reads The Forsyte Saga, but those people who watch the box-set are missing some of the most vivid word descriptions ever, of characters,  how they move, how they look, how they speak, how they react without speaking.

Soames looked very real, sitting square yet almost elegant with the clipped moustache on his pale face, and a tooth showing where a lip was lifted in a fixed smile. 

Accidental/Deliberate Use of Personal Information

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Wednesday is the day for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group.  I’m writing this post early because I’m about to go on holiday and my iPad is refusing to charge.  (I’m sure computer equipment has a mind of its own, as well as a memory.)

This month I have managed to carry out quite a bit of editing of The Novel, although I’m nowhere near the point of submitting, or even sending to a professional editor.  I wonder why it is we always feel more secure about our writing when we’re at this stage.  I wonder, wonder, wonder…

This month we’re asked if we have ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose.  Well, my main character in The Novel lives in a town very close to me, the town where I say I live when people ask, and where I worked for twenty years – although she’s there in the 1980s, when I wasn’t, which means I have to check that schools, hospitals, roads etc were in the same place then as now.

The real problem for me is that, if I’m not careful, all my characters tend, after a few chapters, to become me.  I’m on my guard against this more than I used to be, because I’m aware of the problem.  Someone once said to me that I should let my characters just develop on their own, and become who they become, but everything comes out of my imagination, doesn’t it?  Possible strategies for dealing with it (seeing as I’m a woman) might be to write about a male leading character – perhaps.

Looking forward to reading other writers’ posts, iPad permitting.

 

Family Meals – a Resource for Historical Fiction Writers

Hope this title is not too pompous.  When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s always the little details that you crave, and can’t find, like what people ate and drank.  Including these can bring your story to life.  Having been around longer on this earth than many writers, I’m setting down some of the things I remember about food in the 1960s Britain.

Fruit

Older people insisted that strawberries must be eaten with bread and butter

Strawberries served with sugar, which was stirred into them in the bowl hours beforehand, drawing out the strawberry juices which sweated into it, generating pink goo.

Melon (always hard, always honeydew) as a starter, with a glace cherry on top, and served with a little dish of ground ginger?

How rare pineapples were.  I remember seeing one for the first time in Sainsbury’s in about 1967, priced 3s 6d.

Blueberries were for Americans only.

Tinned fruit as a treat.  One tin did the whole family.

A lot of rhubarb.  Every family grew rhubarb (always very tart, made your teeth go chalky).  Stewed rhubarb was often used to eke out other more expensive fruit.

Puddings (Desserts were for Americans)
Queen's Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)
Attrib BBC Good Food.
Queen’s Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)

Queen of puddings:  breadcrumbs mixed with egg yolk, vanilla essence and jam, topped with a light meringue crust.

Cabinet pudding:  like bread and butter pudding, but using slices of stale cake.

Apple pie, baked in a pie dish, with the apples swimming about in juice at the bottom and the crust several inches above it, held aloft by a pie funnel. Also plum pie – as for apple pie but with tinned plums.

Manchester tart:  pastry case baked blind, spread with jam at the bottom, then topped with custard (see below).

Chocolate tart:  pastry case baked blind, and with chocolate goo on top.

Custard:  mix 2 dessertspoonfuls of custard powder and 2 dessertspoonfuls of sugar in a very little milk at the bottom of a pudding basin.  Pour on boiling milk and stir vigorously until it thickens.  This was an essential condiment for every pudding.

Traditional Egg Custard
Attrib http://www.paleopantry.org
Traditional Egg Custard

Egg custard (the genuine article).  Egg and milk, with nutmeg on top,  prepared in a pie dish and baked, at a very low temperature, for several hours.  Exquisite!

Meat

Ham with a yellow crumb rind.

Potted meat.  A sort of basic (and very cheap) smooth pate, sold, by the piece, from a blue rimmed enamel dish.

Stews, very watery, flavourless and generally disgusting.

Liver casserole, liver with the texture of blotting paper, but served with bacon, which gave it some sort of taste.

All hot meat served with gravy, from a gravy boat on the table, which always dripped nasty congealing droplets on the outside of its spout.

Curry served in ‘duo-cans’, one portion of the tin containing cooked rice and in the other a curried meat sauce (looked like dog food).

(Wonder why I became a vegetarian?)

Fish (a rare treat)

Watery (topped with yellow breadcrumbs – from a tub).

No prawns.   Occasional shrimps, from a tin.

Tinned salmon, brought out on special occasions and served with salad.  One tin would serve a whole family and guests.  There were two sorts, pink (cheaper) and red (more expensive).

Boil-in-the-bag fish, mostly a watery and greasy sauce, with a small square of fish (usually coley).

(Still wondering why I became a vegetarian?)

Vegetables

Green vegetables predominated.  My parents didn’t seem to like carrots, parsnips and swedes much (but that maybe was their personal taste).

A lot of frozen peas.  Even before the age of freezers, a bag of frozen peas could be kept in the ice compartment of the fridge.

No courgettes.

Mushrooms rare.

Peppers were for the French.

Freshly grown vegetables from someone’s garden gratefully received.  If you had a good crop of a particular vegetable (eg runner beans) you ate runners every dinnertime until they were finished.

Bread

Sliced and always white.  Delivered by the breadman daily.

Cake

Always lots of it.  Yum.

Snack Meals
Welsh Rarebit
Attrib Wikimedia Commons
Welsh Rarebit

Welsh Rarebit (cheese on toast, but with a touch of mustard).

Everything on toast (egg cooked in various different ways, cheese, tinned tomatoes, baked beans).

Salad.  Yes, you all know about salad, but in those days they consisted of several different vegetables laid out on the plate, separately and not touching each other.  There would always be lettuce (leaves pulled apart and washed in a bowl containing cold water and a piece of coal), except in deepest winter when it might be replaced by garden cress or just left out.  Also tomatoes and cucumber and, if you were lucky, beetroot, or even watercress.  No pepper, no grated carrot.  Coleslaw was for Americans, until it took the supermarkets (and my grandmother’s table) by storm in the late 1960s, in small white tubs.  At Christmas, you got small white pickled onions or huge brown pickled onions with your salad.

Soup (always out of a tin or from a packet).

Fruit jelly.

Powdered sweets in packets, reconstituted with milk (instant whip, angel delight etc).

A loaf of sliced bread would also be on the table.

Timing of Meals

Breakfast was the full English, always.  Even when my parents were both ill with flu, it was felt necessary that I should go to school on cereal/ egg and bacon/ toast and marmalade.  I cooked it myself, setting fire to the fried bread in the grill, then making things much worse by moving the grill pan to the sink and turning on the tap.  Flames leaped up to the ceiling.  I ran out of the kitchen screaming, dragging my poor father out of his sickbed, only for us both to return to smoke and steam.

Dinner was generally served at midday.  Many men and schoolchildren went home to eat with their families in the middle of the day.  In the evening, at about five thirty to six, the family would eat high tea.

Foreign Food

Was generally considered nasty.   Foreign food was often cited as a good reason for not going abroad.  “You don’t know where it’s been,” was a common comment.

I could go on.  I’ve always been fascinated by food and cookery and still am.  If I’ve been working on the computer, writing or preparing a lesson (work), I often break off, after lunch, to prepare our evening meal.  I find doing something physical, particularly chopping vegetables, is therapeutic and refreshing.  I occasionally think of running a cookery blog, but I can hardly find the time to maintain this and the Dear Reader blog.