Last spring, one of my readers told me about an open submission call for a pirate anthology. Since I’m a historical novelist who has written non-fiction articles about maritime piracy for more than a decade, this story call sounded perfect. I knew most people would write about Caribbean piracy during the 17th into the early 18th century – what is known as the golden age of piracy and the one most people are familiar with (think Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard and you’ve got the correct time period). Somewhat of a rebel at heart, though, I tend to favor other eras. Before I decided to submit a story, I did what most authors do – I learned more about the publisher.
Dark Oak Media focuses on fantasy, dark fantasy, and steam punk, but I write straight historical fiction or historical romance. Being a member of the Historical Novel Society, I know there are many other subgenres to historical fiction, including historical fantasy. During my daily walks through the neighborhood, I struggled with how to step outside my comfort zone to write in this subgenre. It’s not that I don’t read fantasy; I do on occasion, but my preferences rarely follow elves and fairies. So what fantastical creatures do I like? Dragons!
But I encountered the same problem I faced when I began work on my first historical novel, The Scottish Thistle – what did I know about dragons? Not enough to fill a thimble. That fact, however, did not deter me. Before becoming a writer and editor, I was a librarian. I knew all the tricks and shortcuts librarians use to track down information, so I started compiling research on dragons. That proved tougher than I expected, but not impossible. The first book I ordered for my research library proved a truly piratical treasure chest. Ciruelo’s The Book of the Dragon provided all sorts of inspirational gems for an author in search of ideas. One of my favorite jigsaw puzzles, “Confabulation of Dragons” by Scott Gustafson, offered another. In this picture three young women visit a host of dragons. One lady carries a crosier with a dragon head carved on it; she served as a model for the Welsh woman in my story who is a dragon keeper.
Several more walks through the neighborhood provided me with a coming-of-age dragon named Rumble. Born of an earth dragon and a water dragon, Rumble is a misfit who only wants to belong. Now that I had my main character, I needed a time period when dragons and pirates might co-exist. Having just finished reading James L. Nelson’s Fin Gall, a novel set in Viking Ireland, I thought of the drakkar, the dragon warships of the Norsemen who plundered their way through the British Isles and many other regions of Europe. My personal library already contained a number of titles on the Viking Era from doing background research for a different story idea. As “Rumble” developed, I needed to know more about how the Norse fought. That led me to the Hurstwic website. These re-enactors, based in New England, are experts in Viking history and lore, and their website includes a series of videos that show what the sagas tell us about how the Norse fought.
Writing historical fiction, regardless of the subgenre, can be fun and illuminating, as well as frustrating and daunting. It is not for the faint of heart or for someone who hates doing research. We have to immerse ourselves into the time period until we wear it like a second skin. At times, our minds aren’t in the 21st century, but rather in medieval times, ancient China, or wherever else we’ve chosen to set our tales. Having been an educator and librarian for twenty years, I know how important it is to find the information patrons need. But there is so much information at our fingertips, how do we know where to look and how to judge the quality and veracity of that information?
My month-long workshop, Researching and Writing Historical Fiction, is written to help authors locate what they need and to make this judgment call. It provides hands-on experience and tricks of the trade librarians use to answer patrons’ queries. I also provide feedback on participants’ story ideas and characters, as well as offering a free edit of a sample chapter. If you’re thinking about writing a historical novel and don’t know where to start, this course is meant to assist you in that endeavor. If you’re starting a new story idea and need suggestions or help on where to locate for information, this course provides that. I hope you will join me in February here at Savvy Authors as we explore the realm of researching and writing historical novels.
When I started down the path of writing historical fantasy, I discovered there were many different sources I needed to explore. In addition to dragons and Vikings, I learned about riddles, Welsh caves, Icelandic shores, wizards, and magic. I searched not only the book world, but also the Internet. While navigating these resources, I evaluated each one to make certain the information provided was accurate, reputable, and worthy of use in my story. After writing the initial draft of “Rumble the Dragon,” I shared it with my critique partners. Their comments provided me with insight as to where I needed more research and where I had to focus on revising the story so the characters stepped off the page into your living rooms. After more polishing, I finally submitted the story to Dark Oak Media. After two months of waiting, they accepted “Rumble” for their pirate anthology and will publish it later this year.
Please join me next month as I open doors to reveal how to research and how to weave those gems discovered along the way into your historical novels and short stories. As a special treat, I’ll share excerpts from “Rumble” and The Scottish Thistle to show how I weave my own research into my historical fiction.
Historical fiction and its subgenres can be a stepping stone for readers who want to experience the past without actually living in the past. The author’s goal in writing such a novel is to recreate a time and place that comes alive for readers, whether they stand in the midst of a battle or feel the roll of a ship’s deck beneath their feet. In order for authors to craft such a world, they need to do research into numerous aspects of everyday life in the past and the historical events the story will portray. A daunting task for some, unless they know how to find out what they need to know. Researching and Writing Historical Fiction Workshop helps authors craft stories that transport readers back in time so the reader finds herself/himself somewhere in the past, rather than the present.
About the author: A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar writes feature articles and book reviews for the Historical Novel Society’s Historical Novels Review. She also pens the biannual “The Red Pencil” column where she profiles authors and compares a selection from their published historical novels with an early draft of that work. She is a freelance editor, the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, and a workshop presenter. She belongs to the Historical Novel Society and served on the Board of Directors for the 5th North American HNS Conference in 2013. She is the author of The Scottish Thistle, her debut historical novel about Scotland’s Rising of 1745; “Odin’s Stone,” a romantic short story of how the Lord of the Isles settled the medieval feud between the MacKinnons and MacLeans on the Isle of Skye; and “Rumble the Dragon,” a historical fantasy about dragons and Vikings, which will appear in the forthcoming short story anthology A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder from Dark Oak Press. She invites you to visit her award-winning web site, Thistles & Pirates, to learn more.
Loyalty and honor. A Highland warrior prizes both more than life, and when he swears his oath on the dirk, he must obey or die. Duncan Cameron heeds his chief’s order without question, but discovers his wife-to-be is no fair maiden. Although women are no longer trained in the art of fighting, Rory MacGregor follows in the footsteps of her Celtic ancestors. Secrets from the past and superstitious folk endanger Rory and Duncan as much as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his uprising to win back the British throne for his father. Rory and Duncan must make difficult choices that pit honor and duty against trust and love . . .