A Question On Writing: Part One
Recently, I had a friend ask me a lot of tough questions about writing that I really want to do my best to answer. Here is what she asked:
“Any advice to someone who’s writing historical fiction? I’m trying my best to add some inspirational stuff in the story but I’m having a hard time doing so. I want the character’s faith to be a big part of the story. What were the hardest parts of writing your story? What did you struggle with the most? Did you ever wonder if your story was too much like someone else’s? That is what I worry about everytime I sit down and write. I wonder if this is too much like a book I read last week. How can you separate yourself from your influences? What did you do? Did you ever struggle with any of this?”
I thought for a while about how to tackle all of these (very good!) questions. The first one I can think of an easy answer to is the last. Yes, I have definitely struggled with all of this and much more. As a writer, I am always second guessing myself and my decisions. Is this character too angry? Is this one too sad? Was that plot line too much of a stretch, or not stretched enough? In the end, it’s hard to feel satisfied when I finish a book or story, and I heavily rely upon the encouragement of my family members and friends to keep me going.
The number one most important thing about writing is to be confident in yourself. And yes, I do feel like somewhat of a hypocrite saying this, but it’s so vital. It has taken me years of writing and editing and writing and editing to finally get to a place where I can finish a first draft of a book and say, “You know what? It’s rough in some spots. It needs tons of work and hours of improvement and editing. But, in the end…it’s good. When all is said and done, I’m happy with it.” Needless to say, this confidence is not going to come easily.
Take writing historical fiction, for example (the first question in the e-mail). There is really only one way to get comfortable with historical fiction, and that is one word. Research. I have done extensive research on the mid 20th century. My book that is coming out next year is set in the 1940s. When I was planning and writing my first draft, I did all kinds of research in order to get into the mindset of my characters. I listened to who-knows-how-many big band records and watched dozens of black and white films. I read books and magazines both about and printed in the 1940s. I interviewed my great aunt and uncle and learned about life in post-Depression America. By the time my third set of revisions was done, I knew a whole lot about the 1940s.
Now, even though I know a lot about the big-band era, I know virtually nothing about Amish America in the 1800s. Because of that, I would never attempt to write a book set in an Amish town until I had done an equal amount of research about that. I wouldn’t know how Amish people thought, or talked, or lived. In other words, I wouldn’t be comfortable enough with the Amish lifestyle to be confident enough in my portrayal of it!
There will always be flaws with historical fiction for obvious reasons: We don’t live in the past, we live in the present! However, unless you are writing a book set in 3000 BC (in which case all I can say is “Good luck!”), there should be a substantial amount of historical data all around you, just waiting to be discovered. Check out your library for books published in the era you are interested in. Research the habits and fashions and lifestyles of those people. Interview friends or relatives who may still be around! Get into the mindset of that era and become in tune with your characters’ lifestyles.
In the end, the most important thing is just to be comfortable with your historical characters. I can pretty much guarantee that people aren’t reading your stories in order to scrutinize every detail for historical accuracy. They’re interested in your characters and their stories! And if you can portray your character’s feelings in a historically accurate yet highly emotional and intimate way, then your work will be successful. Remember that people are people and their stories are important no matter what the country or setting or time period.
Check back for parts two and three (questions about portraying spirituality and copying other writers), which I will post when I have spare time in the next few days. 🙂