Carla Acheson

Author

7 Tips to Writing Great Historical Fiction.

Are you considering writing a book set in the past? Maybe you’re already writing one and looking for a few tips.

Choosing to write a book within a historical period of time can feel daunting and is definitely not an easy task. There will be a lot of research to get through, and knowing how to correctly balance accuracy with your own fictional tale can be confusing. But keeping details realistic in your historical novel is absolutely essential. Accuracy is vital. For instance, if you want to write a scene set in an 1840’s kitchen you might not know that women generally cooked on a stove by the hearth rather than on a counter surface, and no such thing as a microwave or many of the modern gadgets we take for granted ever existed then.

Slipping up on details like this can make or break your story, so it is important to research your chosen period extensively. Having published three successful novels that are set in the past, I have compiled a few tips to help you on your way.

1. Known Facts Should Stay Factual.

If you are writing a fiction book where a scene happens to take place on or near a known landmark, you should always remember to make sure that your descriptions of the landmark and surrounding area are accurate. If you are not building a completely fictional world you should aim as a close to the actual description of the place as possible.

Readers can become easily miffed by inaccuracies because normally creative tolerance from readers only reaches a certain point. If you aren’t writing fantasy fiction where worlds are inventive and make-believe, then you should keep to the facts when it comes to historical details and events. Even though you are writing a fictional story, if you are setting it within a real place, then that has to be true to form to make it work.

An example is when I penned a book on the theme of Jack The Ripper. Even though my story was fictional I was careful to include the correct street names in Whitechapel where he lived, and I made sure that the names and dates of the murdered victims were factual too. Had I changed these well-known details and made them completely unbelievable, Ripper fans (or die-hard Ripperologists as I came to know them, plus general readers well versed in these facts,) would likely feel aggravated. However, my actual character ‘Jack the Ripper’ could be fictional because his true identity was never actually discovered in reality. But at the same point, had my ‘fictional’ Jack been a female dressmaker or a person with whom readers could not in any way associate to the famous male killer portrayed in the media, I remain unconvinced that this would be a popular character choice, even within a fictional realm.

2. Don’t Use Difficult Colloquial Dialogue.

It’s always a nice idea to include dialogue that is true to the period you have set your story in, but do you really want your readers to struggle to read what your characters are saying?

Many successful authors know how to drop in a just few accented words that are readable but steer clear from the dialect that is hard to comprehend. In my cockney based novel, my characters might say… ‘Get over ‘ere,’ which would sound a little more authentic and not be difficult to understand. But writing, ‘What a load of ole pony.’ may leave your readers stumped. Anyone familiar with London cockney slang will know this term means ‘what a load of rubbish’ but just as many English readers don’t, so best just to keep it simple.

3. Deliver Evocative Details.

By using ‘evocative’ details I mean using details which not only bring images but also ‘feelings’ to a reader. It’s okay to say, ‘Margaret walked down the street,’  but is this showing the reader what surrounds her?

Adding essential details to your narrative is vitally important. In my Victorian novels, I make a point of visualising the scenes. I look for old photographs and write down descriptive paragraphs as well as notes such as, room size and furniture layout, a person’s clothes, the colours and texture, hairstyles, posture, anything that will give me a broader view of who and what they are. I recall wondering what it might have felt like to be corseted? Would I suffer from heartburn or a persistent back ache? Could my character reveal an interesting detail about herself that way?

It’s also important not to bog down the story with too many details. Always offer some balance with plot progression/dialogue and description.

4. Mind Their Manners.

Just as our culture today differs vastly from the past, it’s a good idea to be sure you know the rules of etiquette (or lack thereof) amongst our predecessors. Etiquette was extremely important in the Victorian era. Look up the certain prejudices of the time period, the different social classes and their roles in society. A couple of centuries ago a man would be expected to tip his hat whenever a woman approached him. Today men barely wear hats! A woman would give a small courtesy to one above her status, such as her employer. The higher the status, the deeper she might courtesy. Widows were required to wear black for two years, so if your female character is strutting about in various garments right after her husband has just kicked the bucket, you’ll be unintentionally aggravating those readers who know the right social conduct.

The way people acted during mealtimes is one area that really does need some thorough research, and it can be also be used to some good effect in a story. For a Catholic family there may be prayers before dining, there is also the case where the most important members of a household get to eat the most well prepared or most expensive dishes; and who served the dishes to them, the butler or the footmen? You may think details such as these are unimportant in a fiction novel, but every detail counts! Just a little more effort in research can add more authenticity to your story.

You needn’t include all the details in your novel but you do need to be aware of them, and whether or not they are essential to your scene. I always go by the rule, if it adds something; mention it, or simply use it to enhance a story.

For example, in one of my scenes a young servant, (ignorant in the ways of upper-class dining rituals,) is uncharacteristically invited to dine one evening with her employer and his wife. (In reality this would be unheard of, but this particular story lends itself to such a scene.)

To add a touch of authenticity and interest to the scene, I had the servant girl try in vain to emulate her mistress by picking up her cup and extending her little finger. Sadly the whole thing came off rather embarrassingly for her, and she was rewarded with only a fit of giggles from the young mistress in the family who had been watching all along. So you can use the various customs and manners to create some interesting scenes. Don’t be afraid to be creative about it.

5. Use History to Develop Your Characters.

One of the things I loved about writing historical fiction is the fact that I could enter the mind of my character and have him or her ask questions about life, their own past, their future, and what they thought about their surroundings; just as I think they really would do in reality.

In my novel which focused on prostitutes living in London’s inner city slums, my character tried hard to imagine a world far away from her own, where slop buckets, dirt and disease did not exist. She was inwardly hopeful for a better life, a life where women were not victims of their own gender.

She had hope, even when there was none.

Try to embed some true to life feelings or desires in your historical characters too. Make them ponder over their own existence, push them harder to analyse their surroundings, give them fears, flaws, and allow history not just to define them but to make them crave answers about their own lives. I guarantee it will bring your characters to life in your reader’s mind.

6. When In Doubt Leave it Out.

No matter how much effort you put into your writing there is going to be a point where you will slip up. That’s life. If it happens by adding some inconsequential erroneous detail, it won’t urge the reader to throw your book across the room. For instance, if your salt cellar is sitting at the wrong end of the dining table, don’t despair. Any reader who picks up a small detail like this and lambasts you for it really isn’t reading your book as a form of entertainment but rather trying hard to impress others with their knowledge. Fret not! A nitpick such as this will not make a negative impact. If your heroine whips out a smartphone from her Victorian ballgown, (again in the context of your story genre,) you can pretty much guarantee an inferior critique.

If you happen to be in writing mode, and cannot find anything related to a particular detail that you could rely on as a source of correct information, just leave it out. Even if you really wanted to use the detail in your book it is better to be left out if you cannot vouch for its accuracy. At the same point don’t strive to perfect every single detail at the cost of your story! Readers mostly read for story value, remember, but it is still good to be fairly prudent with your work.

7. Hit Fear With a Stick and Just Write it. 

When I sat down to begin writing my very first draft of a historical novel I feared almost every sentence. I feared that it would come out sounding wrong, daft, or just plain dull. In fact, I had so many fears about so many things that it was often difficult to get any words down at all. Then I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough of these fears. I don’t know if I can write well, but I know that I can type. And nobody is reading this over my shoulder as I do it.’

That mindset was a sort of liberation, a ‘free licence’ to write rubbish or various inaccuracies. It wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for, but I would not worry if it happened. I was prepared to learn along the way and I was surprised at the end of that draft that it wasn’t half bad once I had made the decision to just write it.

If you find that you are worried about taking the step forward, simply write your story first. Later read it through and make a note within each chapter of the historical details that you need to check for accuracy. Separating these two will give you the freedom to concentrate on one element at a time and not feel bogged down by both at once.

I hope these tips find their way into your writing world and help you to improve your craft!

 


Carla is an author from Edinburgh. She has worked as a reviewer, interviewing best-selling and award-winning authors. Her debut historical novel, The Last Gift, became an Amazon Kindle bestseller after receiving positive ratings and reviews. In June 2017 she signed a contract with Charlotte Greene Publishing. Her books are available at Waterstones, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.

Carla enjoys selecting interesting bits out of history and squeezing them into fictional characters. In addition to writing, she fuels her daily life with new ideas, inner challenges, and inspiring others to discover their talents and pursue their dreams.

The Novel Path To Success – How I became a best-selling author on KDP.

The Novel Path to Success

How I became a bestselling author on KDP.

by Carla Acheson

Having recently completed the popular 2017 NaNoWriMo competition, I was subsequently handed a few serious questions by Sarah, a writer from Seattle, (and a fellow Nanowrimo writing buddy.)

Sarah wanted to know all about my publishing success on KDP, as well as how it all began. I answered all of her questions with honesty. I also thought that by offering them here on my site they might inspire some creative flap to unfold for others, perhaps those who might be starting along the very same writing journey of their own.

Thanks Sarah for giving me a chance to look back… and forward!

—-

SARAH:  When you first started writing books, did you take writing classes? Or did you study some books on plot structure, character development etc?

I wanted to set off properly. I looked up a British college and took on a comprehensive writing course. I was living on the top of a hill in a valley in Andalusia, Spain, at the time. I had zero chance of being near any physical location that was appropriate for a writing course, let alone one in English, so it was a correspondence course all the way.

I also lurked in online writing forums and scoured articles on the internet. It all seemed a bit dull – those poopy elements of construction kept me awake, worrying, and procrastinating over my grammar-worthiness and story ability. These things can truly kill the buzz. I digested the elements but really wanted to get to the nitty-gritty, to see what sort of thing I could come up with. I didn’t buy books on writing, I just read piles of books on subjects and authors which interested me.

SARAH: How refreshing! So you totally went the journey on your own, then. No writing critique groups, writers’ conferences, or hiring an agent?

I absorbed everything I could in the publishing/writing world. I mean I spent literally hours every day. I read works which writers posted online, then studied the critiques that they were given. I made notes of what they did or didn’t do correctly. When I felt I had acquired a bit of knowledge, I produced a few short stories and articles about my singing/performing days. I wrote articles on the music industry, firstly. It wasn’t fiction, but it got me writing on a subject that I knew about.

Some articles were printed on music websites, then later musicians contacted me with questions. So people were reading! I also contacted book blog sites and churned out a lot of reviews. Then I got working with Books you love, conducting interviews with authors. I pestered publishers for the chance to interview any of their new successful authors. I asked the authors questions. I made friends with them. I learned from them. I had no idea what I wanted to write about even if I did write a book of fiction. I knew that everything would happen in time. I had to learn to walk before I could run. A person can’t just wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m a good writer.’

Also around this time, I set up my own writing group and somewhat successfully organised weekly sessions so that I didn’t feel like the lonely, stranded writer, out there on a limb.

SARAH: What was the most helpful to you in learning how to take your writing from good to excellent?

My writing isn’t excellent, I just express myself directly from my heart. I want my words to be like a finely tuned violin playing a melody that catches in your throat. It forces you to drop the outside world and pulls you in and I think that if you are an avid reader and have been touched by words like that, well then you already possess it. So I read a lot of books to steal techniques, but not copy. Any great writer will say… ‘you steal the method/art/quality of expression from other writers which you love,’ the other kind of copying is plagiarism. We avoid that. Just steal a bit of their brilliance.

My favourite book, (one that spurred me on to write my first novel,) was called, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, which famously went on to become a very good TV period drama about the downtrodden prostitutes in London’s backstreets during the Victorian era.

It was filthy and fascinating all at once. The author tormented me. He used phrases, words and scenes that made me cry, laugh and scream with horror and pity. And, God, would there be no end to such clever, refined, delectable sentences? Sentences which he somehow carved around such irreputable subjects. It was like swallowing life like some great big stone, yet still wanting more…

I wanted to write like THAT!

But it had to be my story and my style. I figured that my English was decent, I had a chance and I love a challenge. When I closed the final page of that book I wanted a taste of that authorship. (Even just a small slice!) . To provoke emotion like that had to be possible because he did it to me, and to get there I had to fully believe I could and that I would! I didn’t choose historical fiction, I think it more or less chose me.

SARAH : If you had to guess, how long do you typically spend in the planning phase?

I’m not a big planner now. The first novel had to be planned down to every last detail because I’d never done it before. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Being methodical and thorough made a whole lot of sense. I think I had several hundred drafts before reaching the final one. I got into each of my character’s heads and sculpted their personalities, the plot and my style and voice. I wrote for a year (not until it was perfect because nothing can be,) but until I was satisfied that it would make people FEEL. I would not stop until I did that.

Now I have a more simple preparation for writing up character profiles, ideas on the storyline and working out a point of perspective. For this recent novel, I have basic notes with questions such as: Who is the narrator(s)? What is the theme? What are the struggles they must overcome? Just the bones of the story. I then write a sort of blurb (not a full outline) which gives me a basic, skeletal idea of the plot. I might then write a test chapter or two and give the characters a bunch of flaws and inner or outer issues, then the rest starts to come to you. I get an idea of where it’s heading and so on.

SARAH: What originally interested you in the lives of impoverished people in Victorian England?

The period fascinates me. Never in British history has the class division been so great; the treatment of citizens by their very own citizens, so vulgar. The wealthy attended church, punctually, every Sunday. They liked to believe they were Godly and charitable, but they would rather not be seen within an inch of a pauper or diseased waif.

I particularly focused on the lives of young women. I wanted to emphasise how important chastity and obedience was as a female back then, and particularly, how devastating it was to become an unwed mother. The father was often let ‘off the hook,’ and more especially, if he was of a higher class. Many of these central issues of the time were included in my story.

The heroine in my novel gives up her baby under the typically hardened glare of iron-fisted nuns. Society scorned unwed mothers to the point where they were forced to give up their child for adoption or to baby farmers. The latter often neglected or poisoned them to death and walked away free. Look at that contrast compared to today.

Sarah: I can see that you must have done quite a lot of research about that era for your books?

I did at least six months research of the Victorian era before starting the first draft. It was eye-opening, to say the least, considering most of my research was focused on the lower class and impoverished victims of the slums. Depressing, but essential none-the-less. I discovered a few little-known gems like ‘phossy jaw’ and ‘baby-farming.’ I just knew I had to include them in my story.

One thing I did with my first two novels is weave in quite a few historical events and facts, such as the ill-fated Titanic and Jack the Ripper. This was always going to bring in an interested ‘audience’ of those subjects. Once I had notched up over ten ‘5 star’ reviews I knew that my debut was going to do well. It was such an eye-opening story because it was more about unknown facts and real life than simply a book of fiction, in a huge way.

Sarah: Once you start the first chapter, how long do you spend writing/editing before it’s ready to publish?

It’s extremely random. I tend to go off with a bang, then life or other interests start to drag me away from it. I have to push myself to stay focused because I am so interested in many creative things, music, piano, crafting, digital drawing and I spend a lot of ‘family time’ out too. I just can’t be on top of it all.

My husband recently purchased one of those fancy digital drawing tablets for my birthday, and I thought… that’s it, my next novel will never get finished. A couple of weeks later I stumbled on the Nanowrimo competition link and I entered before I could stop myself. It worked as it got me to the end of the first draft of my fourth novel. I have to say that I always get there in the end, I may be a bit ‘flitty’ but the writing bug never leaves me. Just like the pianist might get tired of playing, but she can’t ever stop for good!

Sarah: Did you originally self-publish on Amazon, and when your book did well, you got contacted by a conventional publisher?

I spent five years as an independently published author on KDP. I plugged away at it by producing three novels for Amazon over that period of time. I used every free promo tool that I could and never used tacky sales talk. Instead, I learned how to direct an audience of traffic to my book pages by blogging about the very Victorian subjects I had written about, and, I always thanked my readers individually.

Suffice to say, I was really proud of myself when my novel reached a classic bestseller status on Amazon with the majority of reviews being amazing. It took a while to get to that point but six months after publication I had a steady flow of sales, a steady income each month and a growing readership that appreciated my dedication. It wasn’t something that just took off but built up gradually. I hit a record number of sales over the Christmas holidays a year ago, something like 2,000 kindle downloads in a week. It was all so unexpected.

John Morris contacted me. He was impressed with my stamina and what I had achieved on my own without having thrown tons of money on marketing or having the media “push” that a publisher can offer. I told him I simply had faith in my work. At the end of the day, I was always more interested in the quality of my work than the financial stats, but you see, one brings in the other. John was able to bring my work into those author ‘elite’ places like Waterstones and National libraries such as Oxford and Cambridge. Though for one minute I don’t doubt my books, even if they had stayed inside KDP.

John and I speak regularly and have developed a strong relationship based on respect for what we both do and how we will go about working together in the future. He has great faith in my work, yet he knows that I am still something of a free spirit and will not do anything that does not suit my own moral compass. He listens and gently encourages me. I cannot be more thankful.

With regard to KDP and the Kindle success, it’s all been a great challenge. I am currently working on the production of a KDP self-publishing audio course focusing on the KDP platform and offering new authors an insight into my own journey. This is a collaborative effort with a friend of mine, Jodie Crook, a pro-blogger at creating content for website and online marketing. The One Hour Audio Course will be available to purchase online in 2018.

But for now, allow me to leave all writers with this…

There is no such thing as a magic formula. Don’t listen to marketing stuff about writing ‘bestsellers in 30 days.’ What they mean is you CAN write a manuscript in 30 days, but a bestseller? Sorry, no. True quality work takes time, effort and passion. Those who jump in for the money will fail time and again. READ what you love and write from your heart. Every time. After all, your books are a big part of you! And believe me when I say that if you have never wanted to quit, or had at least one migraine from start to finish, the passion just isn’t there.

Article Book link:

Imagine life in a damp and squalid room with death and disease lurking at every corner.

The year is 1866. Maggie Tanner is a young girl born to an impoverished family in the slums of London. Pregnant at the age of fifteen years she is plunged into the social stigma of bastardy and shame. As her life unfolds into every Victorian girl’s worst nightmare she does all she can to save her baby from a disease-ridden orphanage and takes drastic decisions to save both the child and herself, but when her pain and loss continues to haunt her for years to come, one unexpected day one last gift changes everything.


 

Nanowrimo 2017 – 30 Days to Success

I’m committed to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. This is Nanowrimo. The National Novel Writing Month of December where each year thousands of writers participate on the Nano website in the hope of winning. What are the prizes, you ask? Well depends on what you’re looking for.

For me Nanowrimo is just about discipline – I’m the kind of girl that can go off track. I lose momentum, wander off to crochet a jumper, and before I know it I’ve forgotten what my outline was about. I need that discipline now and then, especially when I’m interested in so many creative pursuits. It can drive a girl nuts!

For many participants, the prize is just the glorious moment when they hit the 50K mark and upload their novel to the Nano site. That in itself is a huge achievement. Just doing it is winning. You even get a badge and certificate, yay! Writing a book is hard work and in 30 days, it’s even harder.  It’s a goal fought and won even if it’s a first draft of nonsensical slush – and slushy it often can be, but the gem lies beneath. Did you know that there are many famous nano winners who went before us?

I’ve always wanted to do Nanowrimo and never quite had a ‘good’ November in order to do it. There’s always been some other distracting stuff going on in my life. Last year I moved 2,000 miles to Scotland from the med. Yep, not great nano timing. And this year I even arrived at it late. I got sick and flu-ey, took some mopey days out, felt a bit better, hit the nano website by chance and realised that it was Nov 8th. Was I too late? Hell no, some writers have only just signed up too. I would just have to get going. Fast.

I’m over halfway there,  but I digress, I had a few chapters written before I started, but my goal is to ‘finish’ the novel and trust me, I still had pleeeenty of words left to write.  That’s why I entered and that’s my challenge! Completion. I know that it’s hard for people to find time to sit down and write. I’ve been in that place too, where I’ve wanted to do it and found so many excuses, but eventually, you find yourself growing tired of hearing yourself. One day you realise that things just don’t get done until you do them. If I knew I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t. But I know that I can and I’ve spent years overcoming blocks, doubts and obstacles, learning about what kind of writer I am. It can surprise you what you discover about yourself when you just keep on going.

Here are some things about me, they help me to succeed and stay on track.

  • I’m confident.
  • I self-talk myself into making things happen.
  • I always write what I’m passionate about. It fuels the steam for longevity.
  • I choose a story that I want to explore and know that only I can tell.
  • I look at the big picture and have total belief in what I write. Even when I’m actually unsure about it I still have faith in it.
  • I don’t look back at what I’ve done, just keep going forward.
  • If today wasn’t so good and things all went to hell, well tomorrow is another day and I can write a really moving chapter.

Most days I can get anywhere between 2 to 6,000 words down. Then I’ll read over them at another point in the day and try to swiftly improve any obvious crazy grammar or typos. Trust me there’s going to be loads. But that’s fine, I’m human. The 30 day deal makes a perfectionist learn to swallow some imperfections.

The best thing nano will give you is that it will eradicate the ‘fear’ of making a mess of things. You will. There is no way you can write a novel in 30 days and come out with a polished story. So with that worry gone, all there is left to do is WRITE.

So what’s this story all about? Ah, that’s another blog post.

Friends who know me well enough will know what to expect with regard to my style of writing, but I’ll throw in a little bone and reveal it’s not historical fiction! I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone here and trying a new direction.I love a risk and I love a challenge. My novel has a new voice, a new generation, and I love the idea of that! Plus, it’s like diving into a different pool when you’ve got a bit tired of swimming round and round the same one, and by the time I’ve done all the laps I’ve learnt something new about life.

So I’ll see you all soon on the nano side!

 

 

Happiness, Tears and New Ideas

Well, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster this past week. I returned to Gibraltar to visit family and friends only to find myself giggling one moment and crying the next, and so I’ve learned that it’s completely and humanly possible to be happy and sad at the exact same time. Suffice to say, I have returned to Edinburgh with a real need to feed my soul a little tenderness and love.

When it came to questions about my latest writing project, I found it difficult to offer much other than, it’s not historical, which  elicited some shocked expressions plus a few raised eyebrows. In truth, I expected that kind of response. It’s quite common to be pigeonholed into a particular ‘genre bracket’ whether it be historical, romance or thriller. Look at poor Ms Rowling having to write a detective thriller under the pen name of  Robert Galbraith, and yet still… some readers are unforgiving. 

I used to have very mixed views about whether an author known for one particular genre should indulge in another, but I also know that the internal creativity tap does not flow into one story, century, or plot idea, alone. I absolutely believe that if you can create a good story in one genre you are just as capable in another. The talent is in the execution of it. 

So, it’s definitely going to be a little more challenging to write a contemporary novel, (which is ironic because historical books require so much more in terms of research,) but alas, I’m testing new waters, developing different cultural ideas aside from those which are distinctively “Victorian,” and… demanding a little faith from my current readers!

But bear with me dear friends – nothing ventured, nothing gained. What I do know is that my story will still have my style, my voice. And what I need to possess the most I always seem to have within me – inner confidence.

It’s time to get on with it.

I’ll  be back soon with more news, and I wish you all a great end to the summer!

 

‘Success for Quitters’ by Jodie Crook

I’m very proud of my fellow writer and friend, Jodie Crook, who has recently made available her short story GIRL RED. The  story was entered into a writing competition which I organised in Gibraltar a few years ago. Girl Red was chosen as the clear winner by Ruth Dugdall, an award-winning author of psychological thriller novels, and one of the judges of the competition. If you aren’t aware of Jodie’s work, she has also just recently published her new ebook Success for Quitters: 5 Mindset methods for Success (Hello CEO Book 1) available on Amazon. I have reviewed the e-book and give it a definite thumbs up.  I am also personally touched that Jodie mentioned me in her acknowledgements.
To discover more about Jodie and to feast your eyes on her excellent short story, visit her website. Well done Jodie, keep us all informed of your great work and I wish you many positive blessings and a successful writing career.

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