The Purgery

A Writer's Blog & Resource Repository

Quick & Dirty Tips for Drafting a Historical Novel

It is just another weekday morning. The sun has not yet risen. I walked and fed my dog, and I have my coffee in hand. I also have a few hours to spare before I leave for my day job, a record of real people who lived during a fascinating period of my hometown’s history, and a desire for feedback.

Today I am sharing with you a rough and tumble strategy that I hope will enable the smooth completion of this passion project. With 10+ years of experience reading “how to” guides, but with no actual experience of ever having written a novel, I believe if I stay true to the following six points I will succeed in developing an entertaining and authentic historical novel that people inside and outside of Brazoria County, Texas might want to read.  Here is my plan:

1. Hold fast to inspiration. It is important to begin with an idea of the story I would like to tell. My two favorite books are Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I re-read them periodically, and every time I finish I cry just a little at their magnificence. As Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” I do not mean to imply that my work will be great— let alone good—but with this in mind, I feel a little less guilty about recycling the most compelling themes and atmospherics from these works. I reckon one of the trickiest challenges to upholding my enthusiasm for this project will be staying on topic to key events that comprise my narrative arc. But I only have an idea for a story at this point, and no narrative arc. So what comes next?

2. Fuse the bones first, flesh out with details later. Hammering out an outline to establish the narrative arc early in the process will help curb any tendency for excessive creative meandering that might occur later on. Many novelists begin with an outline, or they claim they wish they had. I admit I do not like the sound of it, but the truth is I have never finished a piece of writing without one. If outlines help me to succeed in writing technical and professional pieces in the real world, how could they fail me in my la-la land pursuit of fiction writing? Build the skeleton of a story first; flesh out with details and dialogue when I am certain the bones have knit. Time is no issue for me, but I may take advantage of an outlining method touted by The Guardian back in 2012 (Google search “How to Write a Novel in 30 Days”).

3. Conjure authentic characters. In theory, this part should be easy. My story is based on the real lives of a sugar planter and enslaved people who lived in my hometown between 1830-something and 1850-something. Their story practically writes itself, though I will take liberty to fill gaps between the verifiable events of their lives. In the earliest stages of my research, I contacted the research librarian staff at the Brazoria County Historical Museum in Angleton, Texas, who quickly connected me with materials relevant to the lives of my characters and the world that they lived in. It occurred to me then that information gleaned through story-relevant field trips and interviews with local historians should provide enough contextual fodder for me to summon my characters back from the dead.

4. Get in the weeds. Know the period. So many factors come into play here, and it is important to remain as true to historical chronology, geography, and 19th century social mores as possible. I will have to know what frontiersmen and colonists carried with them on their treks to Texas, as well as the overland and watercourse routes they took to get there. How did antebellum sugar plantations operate? Why do we not use the Spanish pronunciation for all the Spanish place names along the gulf coast (e.g. Brazos – bræzəs/ braz-es; Palacios -pəˈlæʃəs / Pah-lash-es)? How were kitchen and farming implements in 1833 different from tools we use today? These are great questions to ask, and knowing the correct answers is vital to the integrity of my story. I will need to eat, drink, and breathe 19th century Texas. I intend to do this by:

  • Building timelines and maps. Use online sources (Google, Wikipedia) to create a timeline of national or global events, leaders, and ideological, political, and/or social movements of my historic period. Construct a timeline of local events to compare side-by-side against a larger-scale chronology to cultivate a general sense of the world my characters lived in. Since I do not have the benefit of living in the geographic area I am writing about, I will find most of my local historical information in books, journals, articles, etc. kept at my local library (which for me just so happens to be the Library of Congress. La-di-da). Most recently, I downloaded Google Earth to overlay GIS shapefiles obtained from the Brazoria County Appraisal District to understand precisely where tracts of land granted to U.S. immigrants in Mexico were located in the 1820s.  Before I knew it, I had created a digitized map of early 19th century property boundaries that I can now label and manipulate however I see fit!
  • Considering artifactual evidence. Research archaeological excavation reports and surveys, visit local museums and dig sites, scour free Library of Congress online articles and sound/video offerings. I reached out directly to the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas State Historical Association to obtain various reports that I think are relevant to my research. They were happy to oblige! I gave them a little love in return by purchasing a small membership.
  • Reading historical fiction. A no-brainer. Read literary and popular works written about the period and during the period.
  • Listening to period music. Works by Mozart and Rossini were parlor room favorites among moneyed east coasters of European descent, but I have a feeling these classical greats did not enjoy the same level of fanfare among enslaved populations or leatherstocking-types on the wilder side of the Cumberland Gap. The Library of Congress has an endless collection of online sound clips in their American Folklife Center collection that might reflect their tastes more accurately. The Association for Cultural Equity has an incredible sound archive, including hundreds of American folk song recordings by Alan Lomax. Once I even found a fascinating archived C-SPAN special on Appalachian music of the 1830s. Contact me, and I can send you direct links to access any of the resources mentioned above.
  • Seeking out primary and surrogate sources. Research as many of these sources as possible to gain a better understanding of how people wrote, spoke, and appealed to others. These sources might include period maps and reproductions (see Figure 1 below),  journals, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, broadsheets, court records, church records, oral histories, vertical files, and other papers. Some of these resources are accessible online, and here is a great tip – many works published before 1900 are available for free in the public domain. For more detailed info about copyrights, check out my January 2017 Lesson Learned post.

I am writing the story of real people who lived in plantation-era Brazoria County, and most day-to-day human happenings from that time period are not verifiable via the historical record. True, there are dedicated experts out there who make a living giving voices to the voiceless and deducing whatever information on frontier women and people of color from the archaeological record they can, but I am still limited by a dearth of primary source material that is representative of the Native American and enslaved African American experience. Thank goodness for the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives.

Figure 1:  Map of the Republic of Texas, 1844

License obtained through Shutterstock

Map of the Republic of Texas and the countries adjacent, detail featuring the location of Fort Alamo. United States. Topographical Bureau of the United States. (Source: Shutterstock)

So what exactly am I looking for while eyeball deep in the weeds? Family names; property and community boundaries; evidence of cultural skirmishes; details providing clues as to how people lived. Basically, I am looking for anything at all that will breathe life and authenticity into my narrative. I have heard that many aspiring first-time authors spin themselves into oblivion in the research phase. I will have to exercise some restraint, and keep in mind how unreasonable it is to incorporate every interesting factoid into my story.

5. Get organized. This is the hardest part for me, and I know I am not alone. Here is my strategy for staying organized while I process eleven months of research:

  • Blogging research findings. I find this option appealing because I can share with the world all of the useful bits of information gathered through my research. I will not need to feel guilty if I do not incorporate every ounce of research into my novel! Besides, some high school student may thank me later.
  • Using an action item log. As I power through, it will be useful to keep an action log, or a “to do” list, on items that require more research or task tracking. Lately I have found Making Ideas Happen  by Scott Belsky to be a handy little gem in helping me keep organized while planning and executing professional work projects.
  • Creating topical précis or abstracts. For example, if I have all of my historically accurate information on Karankawa Indians curated in one place, complete with a bibliography, I can refer to that document any time while fleshing out my novel.

6. Suck it up. Bang it out. Writing is war. After going through the motions of creating an outline, researching, organizing, and processing information obtained through my research, the thorniest part of the journey – the part that I am always most hesitant to pick back up again – is the part where I actually have to write. Pros like Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg swear that resisting the urge to edit while drafting is the hardest part of writing. And then when the time comes to edit, I will have to “kill all my darlings.” Odds are I am the only one who will find them cute anyway.

Now is the time to get over my fear of rejection and prepare to battle my own misgivings. Just like our own personal memories are prone to fail us, so is our culture’s collective human memory.  Wealthy white Texans who succeeded in the mid-19th century world achieved most of what they did using African and African American slave labor, and by oppressing native people who inhabited the area prior to Anglo-American colonization. There are folks living today still wistful of those times. I will have to woman up and bravely address uncomfortable or upsetting issues using language in a context appropriate to the period.

My work will be imperfect, as art is imperfect. Jessamyn West said it best: “Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground. Writing of the past is a kind of resurrection; the past then lives in your words and you are free.” I will need to find a balance in keeping faithful to facts preserved in the historical record, while proffering a new narrative that truthfully conveys the spirit and horror of westward expansion in the 1800s.

This plan is by no means fail safe, as I am well aware that I have not yet fully thought out things like voice or point of view.  Still, I am putting my money where my mouth is that these steps will help me to succeed in completing a first draft – even if it is ugly.  If anyone out there has ideas I have not considered, or can offer constructive criticism on my approach, please be in touch.

Thank you for reading, and wish me luck!

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  1. mendellrachel7

    06/12/2017 at 10:55 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful and challenging project! May I make a small suggestion? While I was writing for the paper (Galion Inquirer, Ohio) I did a series of articles dealing with The Battle of Olentangy. I found out it was the last battle in the Revolutionary War because it was British plus Indians against American Militia. My absolutely best resources were the members of the BAR – The Brigade of the American Revolution – everything they do is period, every outfit is handmade, tools are handmade, all the encampment events are as true to period as possible. You might have to search but there are re-enactors everywhere (Civil War, Alamo, Spanish-American, etc.) – and they live and breathe history. Many of them I spoke with knew things you can only find in those original sources you spoke about. They would be more than happy to talk to you and send you photos of their events. These guys brought it all alive for me and infused reality into my stories. Good Luck!!

    • Krystal Mercer McLellan

      06/13/2017 at 7:58 pm

      Hi Rachel, Thanks for your comment. That is a fantastic suggestion, and I’ll keep it in mind as I move forward. So far the most valuable information I’ve taken in has come directly from other people – experts, hobbyists, etc. – and absolutely, I think living history actors fall within these categories as well. They are so passionate about keeping our history alive. I appreciate the tip! By the way, are those articles you worked on for the Galion Inquirer searchable online? I’d love to check them out if you have a link!

      • mendellrachel7

        06/13/2017 at 8:55 pm

        Alas, no. The website for the Galion Inquirer has been changed over so many times all those stories are lost … unless someone has collected the print editions. … interesting … every time we changed websites the tech people said, “Once it’s on the Net it’s there forever” … but I have found that that is just not true. Most of the stories I wrote over the 11 years I was reporter and editor are not found online. Only print. Thank goodness the Galion Public Library puts all editions on microfilm. sorry. rhtm

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