Monday, February 28, 2011

Digging for Details: Researching the Historical Novel

By Andrea Boeshaar

Research for a historical fiction novel has to move beyond watching Little House on the Prairie reruns. For instance, men in the late 1800s didn’t necessarily wear 1970-style haircuts. While the movie Sarah, Plain and Tall may be historically accurate on many levels, authors need to remember that women in the 19th Century didn’t have eyeliner and lipstick. They were, in fact, more “plain” than the way actress Glenn Close appeared in the flick.

In researching the antebellum period for my latest novel Unwilling Warrior, I read A Diary of Dixie by Mary Chestnut and Sarah Morgan’s The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman. I also studied books about photography process and purchased Mathew Brady’s Civil War, a collection of photographs from the Civil War. I also watched Ken Burns’ documentary about the American Civil War (PBS Home Video). Many of Mathew Brady’s photographs appear in the film. I also perused Shelby Foote’s expert texts on the Civil War and Michael J. Varhola’s Everyday Life During the Civil War (Writers Digest).

In addition, I used the Internet in my research. This can be unreliable because anyone can put anything up on a website. Bestselling author Tracie Peterson once told me a good rule of thumb is to find three different sources on a particular topic. If your references say the same thing, the info is likely reliable.

For instance, I found a site that had good information about fashion during the Civil War. I scoured the site and then read Godey’s Ladies Book, which is in my personal library, but found, to some degree, online as well, and I discovered the two sources said largely the same thing, except that Fanny & Vera’s site had more details about creating Civil War/Victorian costumes for reenactments and such. Then I found a third site, Garments by Glenda where one can actually purchase outfits for reenactments. It’s not just a sew-it-yourself kind of site. To me, as a historical fiction author, learning details surrounding fashion of the time period in which I’m writing allows me to add realistic description. Thus, I’ve found these two sites along with Godey’s to be valuable resources.

Besides the Internet and my ever-growing personal history book collection, I found the public library to still be a treasure trove of great information. Many references via the public library can be accessed online with a valid library card.

Why historical fiction?

For me, I’ve been enthralled with history ever since I was a girl in junior high. As a family we toured the battlefields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. My father worked in the University of Wisconsin’s Social Work Department and was a Civil War enthusiast. His interest rubbed off on me. I imagined myself a Southern young lady, hoping, praying that our soldiers would come back safely from battle. (I even wrote that last line with a Southern drawl in my head!) Basically, I believe it’s the Southern chivalry that enchanted me. Old fashioned, gentlemanly manners were something I never experienced, growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the ‘60s and ‘70s. My father worked hard at correcting social injustices and my mother was a feminist. (God forbid any man dare hold the door open for her!)

When I was in junior high school my family and I visited friends in the New Orleans area. The memories of those trips will linger forever. I felt mesmerized as we toured sprawling plantations. While I was appalled by the idea of slavery I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of those majestic places. The wide lawns, tall oaks, weeping willows and the verandahs. As an awkward pre-teen I pictured myself all grown up, wearing a silk ball gown with its full hoop skirt, accepting the hand of a gallant young man. Together we’d waltz across the mansion’s polished ballroom floor.

Which brings me to my next point. No reference book can replace personal experience. As historical authors we, of course, cannot go back in time – even if our characters do. But visiting restored plantations and viewing reenactments can be very inspiring – almost like you’re really there. If your chosen time period is World War II, for example, it might also behoove you to interview surviving veterans. Same with the Vietnam era. I have actually recorded my interviews with my grandfather’s cousin who served win WWII. Those are firsthand accounts. Personal experience.

But as historical novelists, we’re not after textbook drama. We want to impart that willing suspension of disbelief to our readers. That involves imagination.

And here’s where Hollywood can play a part in research. For instance, I’ve seen the movie Gone With the Wind only about 49 times. Novelists are warned about the GWTW factor and how historically inaccurate the movie is, and I agree. But I must admit that watching the story unfold on screen evokes my imagination. As a teenager, seeing GWTW fueled my romantic interest in the antebellum era.

And then, as a young mother, I read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind.   The novel is one of my favorite stories of all time. I fell in love with the handsome Yankee Army surgeon and sympathized with the deceitful Southern girl on a mission who blossomed into a beautiful woman. I knew I wanted to write a story just as powerful and beloved.

And yet, one that was very different.

In 1991, I gave my heart to Jesus Christ. Soon after, I realized I was call to write Christian romance. My world changed. My writing changed. But my desire to write a romance set during the Civil War remained.

In 1994 my first novel was published. A grand attempt. But due to word length constraints, the story was only a shadow of what I really had wanted to create.

Sixteen years later, I was given my chance to write the story that’s lurked in my heart for nearly four decades. The first novel in my Seasons of Redemption series, Unwilling Warrior, is the result.

Worlds collide in my book – the North and the South, of course, but also city life verses prairie life – as well as good verses evil.

Unwilling Warrior is wrought from a childhood fantasy and encouraged by the classics and years of research. It captures the easy dignity of the antebellum era, the mayhem of the Civil War, and the simplicity of the prairie. But more, it’s an enduring love story of two people caught up somewhere in the middle.

So what about your historical novel? Are you feeding your imagination by watching movies, television shows, and reading stories set in the time period in which you’re interested? If you are, that’s good – but it’s not good enough.

Novelists must dig for those details that can lend reality to their stories. Doing so will captivate readers and leave everlasting impressions. It’s what bestselling fiction is all about.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Trouble With Conversion Scenes

The hardest thing about writing a "conversion scene" is that conversions usually aren't "scenes," they are processes. Often long, messy ones, at that.

One of the consistent raps against Christian fiction and Christian film is the inclusion of the "obligatory conversion scene" (see: Fireproof). But while a character's conversion to Christ may rally the troops, for most religious outsiders these scenes usually smack of propaganda and predictability, of a conveniently scripted resolution to whatever dilemma is facing the protag. However one might assess the current state of Christian fiction, there is still an unspoken expectation that conversion components, in part, are what makes our fiction "Christian."

One of my first breaks as a writer occurred when I was selected by Dave Long, acquisitions editor for Bethany House, as a finalist in his "conversion story contest." My short story When Bill Left the Porch was later published in Relief Journal 1.2 (you can, however, read the entire story HERE).

The theme of "conversion stories" inevitably led to some interesting discussion among the participants, a discussion that often veered into doctrinal dissertations and lamentations about not placing. Dave's November 11th post, Justification vs. Sanctification – Which Makes for Better Fiction? gave a good indication of the direction of the conversation.

My post a few days ago immediately led to some discussion. But it wasn’t so much about fiction as it was about the nature of conversion itself—which many of you had pretty definitive ideas about. There is a level of specificity that has come to our understanding of the doctrine of justification. And I wonder if that specificity has made it more difficult to write about. You’re writing within a tight theological box at that point and the room for two of the hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question—don’t seem to exist. (emphasis mine)

Many of the stories I read in that contest, quite frankly, lacked bite. They were missing the "hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question." The possible reasons for this (apart from the expectations conditioned by the industry) are even more interesting. Dave suggested that Christian authors are "writing within a tight theological box."

But is it possible to write a "conversion story" without a "theology" of conversion? And how can a Christian author contrive "surprise" when conversion is so well-defined in Scripture?

As Christian writers, two incredibly powerful dynamics steer our approach to conversion stories: Doctrine and Experience. Not only have we come to experience the life-changing, transformative power of Christ, we have a doctrinal grid to understand and measure it against. In one sense, this "tight theological box" is what marks Christian fiction. But in another sense, this "tight theological box" is what mars Christian fiction, removes elements of "surprise and question".

So when it comes to conversion scenes, does the "tight theological box" help or hinder Christian writers?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

God Supplied My Need

Autumn Song is God’s book. I say this because it truly came from Him.  This past Christmas I became ill with pneumonia and bronchial complications that took me out of commission for over three weeks. Even with a February 1 deadline, I was too sick to even try to write. I had seven complete chapters, a synopsis, and 18 chapters in a chapter by chapter summary. I’m usually not even that organized.

On January 10th I made myself start writing. I prayed every day for the Lord to give me the words I needed to reach my goal of at least a chapter a day. On most days I met that goal, but as the deadline approached, I knew I’d need an extension. When I asked for it, my editor gladly gave me extra time. That renewed my energy, and I finished it on February 1. I then took two days to read and edit then sent it in. My thought was that if they didn’t like it, I’d do some rewriting in the editing.

Then when the edits came to me, my editor asked how long I’d been working on it because it was the cleanest manuscript and one the most well written stories she’d worked on. She asked how long I’d been perfecting it and working on it and if it was a story I already had and polished up for this book.
As you published writers know, when you hear that from an editor, it’s music to your ears. The edits were done in just a few days and sent back. She was very pleased with the results and complimented me again.
Our God is amazing and so faithful. He gave me back the days I’d lost by giving me the story and the words everyday to write it. I knew I couldn’t do it at all without Him, and when I asked, He answered just like He promised. That’s why I say this is God’s book, not mine.

Once again He proved that He will supply ALL my needs through His glorious riches in Jesus Christ. How awesome is that?

My question for you is:  Was there a time that your needs were great, but God took care of them in a special way? I know there are lots of good stories out there on how God takes care of us. Let’s hear a few of them.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Do I Have a Target Audience?

Do I have a target audience?

I did a phone-in interview with Spirit Blade Productions’ Paeter Frandsen a few nights ago (I’ll let everyone know when it’s posted) and that was the question he asked me: What is your target audience?

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that in regards to my debut supernatural suspense novel The Strange Man, and I’m always stumped when it comes up.

After a second’s hesitation, I told Paeter the honest truth: When I wrote this story, I had no idea about things like the “market” or “target audience”. Would you believe I didn’t even know what “CBA” was?

I first began writing The Strange Man over ten years ago. I was barely into my twenties, still living at home, and was content to read comic books and watch horror movies—much like The Strange Man’s protagonist Dras Weldon. At the time, I was working with Christian filmmaker Rich Christiano with lofty ideas of breaking into the indy Christian film business and doing my own little film—one that would “change the world”. Up until that point (1998/1999) Christian film was mostly comprised of 20-30 minute “church movies” that youth groups might show at lock-ins or that a church might show at a revival or in a Sunday night service. They were short, high concept, but usually low story/low character/low budget pieces that had one simple goal: Share the Gospel. They were tools for evangelism, plain and simple, and didn’t really aspire to be anything else—certainly not “Hollywood”. I had plans to change that. Why couldn’t I share the Gospel and my faith, but in a dynamic, Hollywood way, in the genre I loved most—namely “horror”?

You see, I love monster movies. Scary stories, urban legends, monster books, you name it. I grew up in the 1980s where every middle school kid knew who Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers were—even if we were too young to watch their films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween respectively). Since high school I had a burning drive in my gut to create something that combined my faith and convictions with all those monster stories I had loved hearing ever since I was a kid.

I wanted to write a “Christian Horror” story.

The Strange Man began life as a film script, but when I realized I couldn’t raise the money for that endeavor, I adapted it (and greatly expanded it) into a novel. Beyond that, it’s grown into The Coming Evil Trilogy—a sprawling epic of ordinary believers who must combat an invasion of hell’s worst monsters. This series has been my passion for my entire adult life and it’s something that’s wholly me: 100% Christian and 100% monster nerd.

But who in the world was my target audience?

Many Christians are going to be turned off by the scary elements (and there are plenty) and the horror crowd certainly doesn’t want to sit there and read a book that’s got the spirit and word of the Gospel in it. Did I just shoot myself in the foot or what?

The truth is I didn’t have a target audience except for two people: Me and God. I wanted something that honored Him, and something that entertained me. I wanted carnage and explosions and lots and lots of monsters, but also wanted to write something that was just as passionate about standing for truth, putting our trust in Christ, and laying down our lives for our faith. I wanted a Hollywood-quality thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride with the powerful Biblical truths that challenge me as a believer.

Will anyone else read that? For the longest time I figured nobody would even publish the thing, but Realms Fiction—God bless them—proved me wrong. Now the book is out there and people are really responding to it in a positive way. This little story that I wrote to amuse myself seems to be finding an audience, in spite of me.

So, no, I never had a target audience in mind, but I’m trying to trust that God does and that He’ll get the book into their hands.

How important do you think it is to have a target audience? To the writers out there--do you have a target audience?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What if an angel fell by mistake?

"How does your mind work?"

I was asked this question at a book signing when the first volume ("Lucifer's Flood") of "The Reluctant Demon Diaries" was released a couple of years ago. I would soon learn that readers were both captivated and conflicted with the idea that an angel could have fallen by mistake with Lucifer as a result of having been standing in the wrong place when the war broke out in Heaven. He is so embarrassed by his plight that he refuses to reveal his name even as he keeps a detailed diary of the drama unfolding on the Earth between mankind, Satan and God.

"No name" (the angel) is awkward, a bit of a hypochondriac and a bundle of nerves who is sentenced to serve as a watcher for Satan while all the time secretly working on a legal brief to present before the court of heaven as a petition for his vindication and reinstatement to the angelic realm. The conflict for the readers begins when they realizes how much they have in common with the misfit demon. Christian readers particularly are uncomfortable with the idea of empathy with a demon.
What do you think? Could a fallen angel be redeemed?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Fact to Fiction

One of the most frequently asked questions authors get is, "So where do you get all your ideas?" My answer is usually intentionally non-specific and vague: "A million different places."

It's true, though. Ideas grow from conversations overheard, news stories, folk tales, true-to-life accounts, dreams, and 999,995 other sources. Ideas start as a seed, get mulled over, planted, fertilized, then tested to see if they'll grow and can support a full-length novel. Some are winners, some are losers.

A winner was when my uncle gave me a journal he wrote from the perspective of a Union captain in the Civil War. There were more than twenty entries, diagrams, and maps. Gripping stuff, too. Well-written, introspective, educational, and insightful. If I didn't know any better I would have thought it was an authentic Civil War-era journal.

Apparently, I didn't know any better.

What my uncle later revealed to me was the stuff of fiction, not fact. Several years ago, over the course of a few weeks, he had a series of dreams during which he penned the journal entries. He had no memory of writing them and the entries included things that even he, a Civil War buff, didn't know.

Weird stuff, huh? Even creepy. Like I said, the stuff of good fiction. And from those journal entries a story idea was birthed. I toyed with it for a while, tested it out, pondered it, and eventually set to work on my next novel, Darkness Follows, which releases May 3.

So how about you? Any real-life stories that may inspire a novel idea? Hey, I'm open for suggestions.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I Love Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is one of my favorite holidays, because I'm a romantic at heart. That's why all my books have a strong romantic theme woven into the stories.

Let me introduce myself. I'm Lena Nelson Dooley. Here's my latest bio:

Award-winning author, Lena Nelson Dooley, has more than 650,000 books in print. She is a member of ACFW and president of the local chapter.

Lena loves James, her children, grandchildren, and great grandson. She loves chocolate, cherries, chocolate-covered cherries, and spending time with friends. Travel is always on her horizon. Cruising, Galveston, the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Mexico. One day it will be Hawaii and Australia, but probably not at the same time. Helping other authors become published really floats her boat. And the high point of her day is receiving feedback from her readers, especially her fans. And she loves chocolate, especially dark chocolate.

You might ask why I'm on this blog. I'm very excited about the answer. In September, I signed a contract to write a three-book series for Charisma House called McKenna's Daughters. Book one is finished, and I'm in the rewriting stage right now. I love my editor, who is helping me really make the book shine. This book releases in October.

Then this month, I signed a contract to write another three-book series called Restored Hearts. I'm excited about this series as well.

If you've read all the romance books by the other Charisma House authors and want another interesting romantic book to read, you might try my latest, Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico, while you're waiting for our other books to release.

Tell someone you love them today. Show it in a tangible way.

What is the best Valentine you ever received? Leave a comment and tell us.

Lena Nelson Dooley

Friday, February 11, 2011

When Opportunity Knocks

I hope you all haven't forgotten that this is Valentine's Day Weekend. Don't forget your sweeties. Other than going out with my sweetie I have an event to attend.
Tommorow, February 12th, I will be attending Reader Appreciation Day with fellow authors at Barnes and Noble. This is an annual event. Many authors will be signing books. Alas, I have no book to sign yet, since Secrets of the Heart does not release until May 2011. But there is always opportunity if one looks for it. Here are a few things you can do even when your book isn't out there yet.
  1. Get your business cards ready for distribution.
  2. Ask your publisher for mock ups. Realms kindly gave me three.
  3. Prepare to talk about your book.
  4. Distribute a blurb about your book along with endorsements.
  5. Hold a raffle. I'm going to raffle off a lovely piece of jewlery.
  6. Have pieces of paper ready that people can put name/e-mail on for the raffle and tell them it's for your newsletter. Everyone may not want to do that, but the readers who are comfortable with it get a shot at the raffle.
  7. CHOCOLATE. It's close to Valentine's Day and lots of us love a piece of candy.
  8. A few pens for convenience. I didn't order any of those pens with my name on it.
  9. Bring a camera. I just thought of this one. I'll want pictures for blog purposes.
  10. Dress professionally.
I've never done this before. I'd like to know from readers and writers alike if you have any other thoughts for an event like this that might help advertise your book. Personally, I think it's more about talking and less about gadgets but I might be wrong.

I recently was blessed by two blog posts that gave me a lot of these ideas. If you go to this post on my blog  Blog Pick Friday you can easily find those posts. (I hope). Great advice.

If you are a reader that has attended an event like this or has attended a book signing what did you like and what didn't you like? What would you recommend?

If you are a writer and have done individual book signings and signings in a group as well what did you like and what didn't you like? What would you recommend?

Reader or writer, are book signings worth it? Please take a piece of chocolate as you leave the blog. :)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Keep your day job. Seriously.

There’s a misconception that once a person gets published they become rich, famous, and interesting. This is a falsehood. The dream is to write full time and to make a living exclusively off of our craft, but there are also some arguments against this approach.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard for published authors was the following: keep your day job. Crazy as it might sound, it keeps you financially stable, helps you maintain a healthier perspective on life, and allows you to remember what day-to-day life is like for your readers.

Success changes people, and yes, getting published is form of success. It can cause you to lose sight of reality, and for authors (who already have dual citizenship with the People’s Republic of La-La-Land) this is a hazard. As a result, one of the things you have to remember to be realistic about is money.

Publishing is a business of feast and famine in which you will have your times of plenty and your times want, and keeping your day job is good way to stay financially stable when you find yourself between royalty checks. You never know what’s going to happen next in this business, and it’s better to have a job you can leave than to need to find one after being out of the job market for three years.

When you write full time you can lose some things very important to your health. Like your actual health. A sedentary lifestyle of sitting at your laptop at home, or in a coffee shop drinking lattes is a great way to gain an unhealthy amount of weight. It’s also a great way to allow any sense of consistency to slip from your life.

Lastly, if you aren’t living like a reader, how on earth can you expect them to appreciate what you write about? But I’ll just remember, you think to yourself. In fact, human memory is prone to distortion and nostalgia which does not resemble the facts. Unless the only people you write for are other fulltime writers, you may find yourself out of touch with the people who are (temporarily) making your existence possible.

Writing is a beautiful passion with so much to offer. But one of the things that helps us remain real people with real lives, are the mundane grind of a desk job.

It builds our character, and maybe that's the best way to create them too.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Write What You Know ~ Know What You Write


I’m thrilled to be posting on this blog with so many fabulous authors. My experience with writing for Realms, an imprint of Charisma House (formally Strang Book Group), has been extremely positive. My editors and all the staff on the Realms team are truly supportive.

The first two books in my Seasons of Redemption Series, Unwilling Warrior and Uncertain Heart, were released last year. The third, Unexpected Love, released last month and so far the reviews have been great. Here’s what reviewer Lori Twichell of Fiction Addict had to say:

“With each successive book in this series, Boeshaar’s writing seems to strengthen, building to what I’m sure will be a fantastic climax to the series in the next book. I’m excited to see how she draws out the series finale.”

I felt both thrilled and humbled by the review. Read its entirety by clicking here.

Book four, Undaunted Faith, will release in May. Wait for it! I'll be giving away books on this blog.

Undaunted Faith is the last book in the Seasons of Redemption series and as I turned in the edits of my manuscript, I felt a bit sad to say good-bye to my characters. I enjoyed writing about the McCabe brothers, Jake and Luke, so much. In many ways those two characters remind me of my adult sons. They smart off to each other, poke fun at each other and even compete to outdo each other. But if push ever comes to shove, they’ve got each others’ backs.

Well, I guess that old adage is correct: We write what we know. I would add that a good writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, researches the rest.