Friday, March 6, 2015

Why Historical Fiction Writers are a Wily Lot by Guest Peter Leavell

Historical fiction writers are a wily lot. To write HF takes faith, and here’s why.

They take an average (to them) story and thrust the plot into a complex historical backdrop that forces them to read two-dozen historical books that have been relegated to university microfilms and/or used bookstores. Dusty tomes of mind-numbingly dull rote and rhetoric is sizzled and fried into useful tidbits to give a rigid outline, and the HF writer uses coat hanger wires and duct tape to plaster the run-of-the-mill story into a fascinating corner of history. And then rewrite after rewrite melds the two into seamless glory.

You would imagine there’s raging torment inside the HF writer. It takes years to learn the art of historical research, and yet more time to study craft. All the while friends dash off manuscript after manuscript. But yet, deep inside, the angst comes from secretly harbored hopes that 1960’s NASA and FBI black rimmed glasses become the rage again (they are!). And yes, there are tears that the historic Library of Alexandria was burned in early Anno Domini. Painful.

I knew what I was doing when I received my history degree and chose a demanding historical fiction career. Why did I do it?

Two marshmallows, instead of one.

In 1970, Stanford professors gave preschoolers a marshmallow and told them if they waited fifteen minutes and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would get two. Yum.

Two thirds of the children couldn’t wait and ate the marshmallow. One third enjoyed two well-earned little white angels of yumminess. Of course, their lives were watched in earnest as they marched from childhood to job-hunting adults, and the results are stunning. One hundred percent of those who waited for extra marshmallows were successful in whatever they decided to do with their lives.

Delayed gratification for the HF writer is the hallmark of the trade. But here’s the catch that the famous ‘Marshmallow Test’ couldn’t coax out. Combining both fiction and nonfiction into a fascinating story is daunting. And what’s worse, there’s no promised two of ANYTHING waiting at the end. The HF writer could be left bookless and with one million facts bouncing in their head about a time period that few care about, as well as an undying fury the Library of Alexandria burned.

Faith is the answer. Faith that God has put you on a path specifically created to make you a better person, not just writer. Faith that the promise of two marshmallows—it may not be a grand publishing contract and movie deal—will be delivered, even if it’s not what you expected. Faith that you will never, never, never give up. Because it’s delayed gratification. Wait. Upon. The. Lord.

Come hang out with our wily lot! And if it takes you a while to join our group, that’s okay. We’re a patient cluster of writers pining for a lost library from Alexandria. Gotta run, my new glasses are in.

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner
of Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing's Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter's books, research, and family adventures at


kaybee said...

Good points, Peter. I do Oregon trail and post-World-War-I. I happen to like the research, although I can get carried away and be kept from the writing. I've been afraid to use a real historical person in my work, but decided to try in one of my WIPs and brought in Father Francis Duffy, the priest who served with the combat troops in France. I may also bring in Gangster Frankie Yale, but just for a cameo, I have enough bad guys of my own.
I like historicals because people in earlier times were up against SO much. Like the heroine in my Oregon Trail story loses her teaching job because she got pregnant (SHE REPENTS) and she has nowhere to go so she is forced to sign on as the wagon train cook. People in contemporaries usually aren't that desperate.
Agree about the need for extensive research, although authors of contemporaries don't get off the research hook. If I did do a contemporary I'd have to go out and research what it's like to be an aerospace engineer, software engineer, beat cop or registered nurse, whatever. Research is research, ours is just more fun.
Thanks for an interesting post.
Kathy Bailey

Peter Leavell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kathy! Your time periods are so much fun! And brutal. It would be cool to visit back then, but I'd hate to live there. And you're right, contemporary writers are NOT let off the hook for research. And yes, ours is so much more fun!

Nancy Kimball said...

YES. Exactly.

Unknown said...

My first time reading your blog and my first attempt at a historical novel. Side note: Yes, I am one of those who grieve the loss of the library at Alexandria. I have been a history buff for most of my life and have been writing historical stories in my mind for the same amount of years. (I have a few half written ones on paper) Finally at age 60, I am going to give it a go. (A lifetime of delayed gratification). I liked this article but find the task daunting in face of all the "what ifs". However, nothing is impossible with God. Is there really any other fiction writing than historical? I rarely read contemporary myself. Looking forward to the task of bringing historical story to life in spite of all the obstacles! Hoping for both marshmellows or maybe more!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

I have tremendous respect for historical writers. I'm all for research for my romantic suspense but all those fact and date checks would leave me dizzy. I know I'd botch it! Props!!! And good stuff, Peter! Glad to see you here on our alley!

Michelle Massaro said...

I love this post! I'm not a historical writer but I'd like to think I'm still in the two marshmallow category. Then again, maybe not?