I recently found an incomplete novel I wrote over twenty years ago. I’ve decided to finish it off, but as I get into retyping I realize how little I actually knew about the history of the Caribbean as well as everyday life on plantations and aboard ship.
Decades have passed since that time and I have learned a lot about writing and the writing process. One thing that I feel separates me from a lot of writers is that I reserve my research for the end of a book. There are several reasons for this, though the biggest is my tendency to jump down rabbit holes. Research is fun, interesting, and entertaining. It is also a great way to procrastinate. So, if you are like me, research can place a huge obstacle in the process of writing a historical novel, yet it is also one of the most important things you need to do to write a good historical novel.
In this post I would like to share my evolution writing a historical novel. While I am focusing on a historical piece, this evolution can be used for any kind of novel to add to and import accuracy.
Write the draft
When it comes to writing novels, the one thing that is the hardest for me is that if I am not moving fast enough I want to move onto something else – I get bored. I find that if I can write the draft in a month, I will continue. If I don’t, then I will put the book aside, or take up more projects which slows progress. So, when I begin writing, my goal is to get my entire draft out on paper and fast. That means I don’t worry about the research, history, or even accuracy of what I am writing. What I want to get out is the story – the characters, plot, and general idea of the story.
What I find is that a month is plenty of time for me to write out a draft which can range anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 words. This will not be the complete novel, but will be the entire story, though there will be much more to add.
Comment as you go along
As I write out the draft I am focused on getting words to paper. That means there will be a lot of problems, loose ends, and poor historical facts. This is why I keep my editor’s style guide moving along with the book. My style guide will track places, names, dates, and much more such as areas I want to research at a later date.
In addition, I am adding comments to areas I know I will need more research or accuracy.
I think a lot of people will be surprised to hear that I tend to research toward the end of my books. In fact, here I am with an entire draft completed and my rewrites in place and I have not given a large chunk of my time to research. When I rewrite I am focusing on good writing, enhancing scenes, and building on characters. By the end of my rewrites I have a pretty good book going. Though, I would never ask a historian or expert in the novel’s background to read it. As I said, I have not yet given any significant research to this point.
Finally… the research and facts
After I finish my first rewrite I consider myself fully invested in my book. This is the point where I tell myself that so much has been put into the book I can’t put it away. During the research phase I go line by line looking for accuracy. I want to ensure that everything I put in the book fits with the time period from how people speak, to items used, place names, and everything. My job is to bring the reader to the time I am writing about. When I research, this is what I am doing.
Research for me is a little rewriting, and a lot of time spent looking for things such as what each piece of the boat is called, its use, and what it would have been called in different centuries or parts of the world. I want to know what would have been shipped from England to Jamaica, from Jamaica to Charleston, and from Charleston to London. I need to know the port names, building names, and so on.
Yes, another rewrite. For me, by the third rewrite I am close to being done. I have what I want written into the story. My research and hopefully accuracy is spot on. This rewrite is for me to add a little more color to the story, shorten sentences, and hopefully create a better reading experience.
I tend to edit as I go along, so as I complete the final rewrite I feel comfortable. However, that isn’t to say I didn’t mess up a homophone, use too many commas, or misuse my semi-colons. My final edit is often a mix of editing, small rewrites, and a proofread. If I feel that I am not giving myself justice, I will hire an editor to help me, but for the most part I stick to my own editing.
As I mentioned, this sort of novel evolution can be done with any novel, and to a degree should be. Books are not short writing exercises. There is a lot of information going into them. Even with a novel which is fiction, there needs to be significant historical accuracy. Remember you are writing a historical novel, not a fantasy where you create an entirely new world.
I’d love to hear how you go about writing your novels, books, and short stories. It seems every writer has their goals, focus, and rituals.
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