Writing Tip

download-1013983_1280Be an Expert on Your Own Back Yard

Another area where you can be your own expert is where you live.  It can be impossible to travel to far-flung locations to do research on a setting for story.  You might as well take the cheap route, research your own community, and see if that research spark any ideas.

If you like history, research that aspect of your community.  Local libraries are great place to do local research.  They often have a local history room with sources you can not find anywhere else.  Many communities have their own historical societies.  Check out their resources.  Both libraries and historical societies may offer free programs on local history.  I have learned a lot about my town from attending programs at my library.  Reading through old local newspapers, which a library should have, can also stir interest.

But if history doesn’t spark any ideas, get to know your community as it is now.  Just driving around with your powers of observation turned to full strength will help you discover unique aspects.  Where I live, out in the country, there are a lot of quarries, some abandoned.  I got to visit an abandoned one.  Because of the digging, the landscape in the quarry is very different from the surrounding one.  It’s very stark, even bleak.  It would be a good setting in a mystery or a thriller.  Or, if you are writing about a character who is an outsider in his or her community, the quarry can serve as a symbol of the character’s differences.

My county has a split personality.  It used to be rural with a college town as the county seat.  The county seat still has the college, but the southern part is developing into enormous suburbs.  The north is still rural with farms and tiny towns.  A lot of compelling storytelling can come from creating tension between the two disparate communties.

Even if you live in a big city, like New York or Los Angeles of Chicago, which are often the settings for stories, you can find smaller qualities about it that aren’t well-known.  And since you are unique, you can take even well-known parts of city and write about it with your own personal touch.

For another use of historical research, read this article by my friend Sandra Merville Hart.



Writing Tip

nypl-digitalcollections-ba309cea-94f2-4288-e040-e00a18066c61-001-wDigging Deeper into Personal History

Even though I get a lot of inspiration from reading about important people in history, I still find intriguing stories within my own family.  Both sides of my family come from West Virginia, meaning I know a lot of stories about my extended family going back generations and I come from a long line of storytellers.

My dad has enough hilarious tales about what he did as a kid in the 1940’s and ’50’s to make at least a trilogy.  My maternal grandfather told all kinds of stories about growing up on a farm with seven brothers and sisters in the 1910’s and 1920’s.  I had a great-great-grandfather die in the infamous Civil War prison camp at Andersonville.  If I wrote historical fiction, this would be a story worth researching.  I have a great-grandfather who worked as a carpenter  in Moundsville, West Virginia, beginning in the 1880’s.  He helped support his widowed mother and a sister and her children because the sister’s husband had abandoned them.  He finally married, or I wouldn’t be here, when he was 47 years old.  His bride was 19, and they had two children together.

Their marriage was always stirred my curiosity.  How did they meet?  Had my great-grandfather always wanted to get married but didn’t feel he could because he was already supporting his relatives?  Did finding a wife come as a surprise?  Why did my great-grandmother want to marry someone so much older than she was?  Why did my great-grandfather want to marry someone so much younger?  What did their families think?  Their friends and neighbors?

Even though their story took a place a hundred years ago, their storyline is so good it can be translated to any time.  Placing it in a modern context would give the characters different reasons for getting married.  Such a May-December marriage would also be viewed differently by family and friends.  There is so much to work with here.  But I wouldn’t want to use my great-grandparents’s names and exact situation and fictionalize it.  Since I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t like to put words in their mouths and misrepresent them.

So ask grandparent, parents, any relatives for family stories.  Not only will you get great writing ideas, but you will gain a connection to your family’s past that makes your family unique.

Writing Tip

Digging Deeper into History

I have always liked mysteries of history.  Was King Arthur and his knights based on real people?  Were there really Amazons living near Ancient Greece?  What happened to the settlers o Roanoke?

The mystery that has inspired my own writing is the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in England, 1483-1485.

The Princes were Edward V, King of England, twelve years old at the time he came to the throne, and his younger brother Richard.  Before Edward V could be officially crowned, a priest declared his father’s marriage illegal and all his children illegitimate.  So Edward V and his brother and five sisters were no longer eligible for the throne.  His father’s brother, Richard, became king, Richard III.  The last sighting of Edward V and his brother Richard is in the summer of 1483.

The royal family at this time was broken into two factions, the York branch and the Lancaster branch, who were warring with each other for the throne.  Richard III was a York.  In 1485, Henry Tudor, a Lancaster, killed Richard III in battle, declared himself king, and married Edward V’s sister.  He said Richard III murdered his nephews to tighten his hold on the throne.  Of course, if Henry Tudor had found the boys alive and well when he took over, he would have a good reason for making them disappear and blaming their disappearance on a dead man.  Both men had motive, means, and opportunity.  Other people have also been suggested as the possible murderer.  No bodies were found until nearly two hundred years after the crime.  Skeletons have been unearthed near where the boys were living, but no modern examination of the bones has been conducted.

I became interested in this crime when I read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.  Ms. Tey believed the Tudors used Richard III as a scapegoat for Henry Tudor’s crime.  She uses fictional characters to conduct research on the real crime and it becomes an exploration of how history is recorded and how accurate it is.

I am working on a mystery where my main character is a seventeen-year-old history buff and is reading about the Princes out of curiosity.  When a series of murders strikes the leading family in his county, he sees a pattern with a murder from over fifty years ago.  Using The Daughter of Time as a guideline on how to do research, he discovers parallels between the current crimes and the disappearance of the Princes, specifically that a dead man makes the perfect fall guy.

If you are interested in the Princes, many books have been written about them, but I have discovered a very unusual aspect about them.  Many of them are very pro-Richard III — he couldn’t have possibly killed his nephew — or very anti-Richard III — he is the only one who could have committed the crime.  For a crime over 500 years old, it stirs strong feelings in people like it was committed last week.  So you have to read a lot of books to get a balanced understanding

Side note:  Many tales revolved around what happened to Richard III’s body after he was killed in battle.  It was recently discovered and reburied with a service in 2015.  For more on Richard III, click here. Here is the Wikipedia article on the Princes.

Writing Tip

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Digging up History

I have never been inspired to write historical fiction, primarily, I think,  because I am intimidated by the idea of trying to write about a time in which I never lived.  I worry about getting it wrong and not doing justice to the people who lived then.  But that doesn’t mean history doesn’t inspire my contemporary stories.

I like reading history because it gives me real world examples of how people act and I can use those actions to build characters and their motivations.

As I wrote in a previous post, I have read a lot about the Victorian and Edwardian periods in England.  The relationships within Queen Victoria’s family could inspire dozens of plots.  For example, Queen Victoria was crazy about her husband Prince Albert.  They were both crazy about the oldest of their nine children, Vicky.  They devoted a lot of time and energy to groom and educate her into being the ideal queen consort.  Their second child, a boy nicknamed Bertie, was not nearly as well trained, even though he was in line for his mother’s throne.  Victoria and Albert were very critical of Bertie.  Their third child, Alice, was probably the most original thinker in the family but was overshadowed by Vicky.  She and Bertie were close.

This family dynamic can easily translate into modern times.  Mom is a celebrity CEO of a successful family business.  Dad is her right-hand man.  First daughter, whose personality matches Mom’s, is groomed to take over the family business.  Son and second daughter feel left out and become each other’s best friend in the family.

My historical inspiration doesn’t have to trap me.  I can change it.  I can make second daughter deeply jealous of first daughter.  I can make son a rebel.  By the time I’m through, my story may look like nothing like the historical inspiration, but the history was need to get my imagination working.

If you are interested in reading about the Victorian and Edwardian periods, these books are ones I have read and enjoyed: Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney, Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Brown, and Queen Victoria’s Family: A Century of Photographs by Charlotte Zeepvat.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageOld Photos

I double-majored in history and English.  Some people thought that was an old combination, but I always explained it this way, “One is about real stories.  The other is about made-up ones.”  The disciplines seemed related to me.

I have never seriously considered writing historical fiction, but my friend Sandra Merville Hart does and she has an article on how to use old photos for research. Click here to see it.

I have been interested in the late Victorian/ Edwardian ages since I discovered Sherlock Holmes at seventeen.  One reason, as another writer pointed out, is because the Victorian age is as far back in history as you can go and still find every day life somewhat similar to our modern era.  I’m also interested in it because it was the last hurrah of a way of life that disappeared during World War I.  One of the best books I have read on this period was actually a photo album.  Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren by Lance Salway shows photos with short histories of all 40 of her grandchildren.  The book would be confusing without the photos because it covers so many people.  But the photos also let these people become real to me.  Seeing their faces helps me make a connection to them.  Which is one of the goals of historical fiction.

I won’t be posting again until after Thanksgiving.  I’ll talk more about how history has directly affected my writing.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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