Tag Archives: historical fiction

Spinning a Yarn out of History: How to Craft a Plot from your Historical Obsession

By E. C. Ambrose

Some of the most compelling fiction arises out of the writer’s engagement with a narrow aspect of history.  It might be an event with an exciting impact on the people involved or the future of nations.  Many authors come to historical fiction because of a personal connection to a distant time and place, and their writing explores the experiences of people who lived in that milieu.  My obsession is early technology, and my latest novel was sparked by a footnote.

So how do you transform a passion for history into a compelling narrative?  

Begin by framing your concept: the specific niche in history you’d like to write into, and why it excites you. Are you most excited about the setting, the event, the people, or perhaps the transformation around one of those elements? Freewriting about your enthusiasm can hone your focus.  Capture this excitement in a brief statement to guide the choices you make as you brainstorm narrative ideas. If you’re developing a counterfactual or supernatural story, be sure to integrate that direction.

I organize my ideas using a spreadsheet for a timeline, characters, specific locations, scene ideas, etc.  You may prefer a notebook with dividers, or some other format.  The earlier you can settle on a system, the easier it will be to exploit your notes, both historical and fictional.

Now that you know where (and when) to begin, consider how to build a story about that concept.  Here are a few questions to guide you.

1. Where is the most striking conflict in this concept?

What is at stake?  A battle might be life or death for the soldiers on the field. It might be existential for the future of the region or intensely personal for the groom who tends the warhorses. 

Each of these levels can make an engaging narrative, and will suggest the character(s) involved as well as the breadth of the story.  A larger, more complicated conflict signals the need for a larger structure to fully reveal it. If you’d like to craft a short story instead, look for a more intimate view into the conflict and explore that impact.  Incorporating several layers of conflict adds richness, and shows why this character is invested in this particular conflict. That helps the reader to develop a rooting interest in what happens to them.

2. Who has the most to gain or lose in your concept? 

This suggests possible characters. To tell the complete story of the battle, you may need characters who have a top-down view like generals or nobility, as well as participants on the battlefield.  These affected characters may not all have a narrative perspective in the work, but the protagonist’s encounters with them will reveal new insights.  What additional layers of internal or personal conflict will these characters contribute because of who they are, the roles they play, or their own background?  Characters with opposing views illuminate the history in a more three-dimensional way.  Creating a cast list of the people most impacted, and how they relate to each other can help you imagine scenes and personal moments to build your plot.

Whose stories dominate the current narrative around the history and whose stories haven’t been told? Are you the right author to reveal lesser-known narratives? If you can respectfully present a new perspective, especially on a familiar or perennial historical moment, that can help to set your work apart.

3. What aspects of the milieu are most critical for readers to understand the concept and story? 

How can you reveal those aspects in the most engaging way?  Lectures, backstory and summary are the bane of historical narratives.  Instead, look for ways to embed historical details and context into scenes, through what characters experience, do, or understand. Deliver information through action or discovery, using sensory details to show the setting.  As your reader experiences scenes alongside your characters, they will absorb the historical backdrop those characters inhabit without needing lengthy passages of exposition. My spreadsheet includes a column for brainstorming how to deliver the historical context my reader will need.

In particular, avoid explanatory dialog in which characters simply tell one another the information you want the reader to have.  Instead, consider conflicts and opposing characters.  Can they withhold, discover or argue about the information instead of simply delivering it?

4. What expectations will readers already have about this concept? 

Reader expectations can enhance or distract from your story. For instance, readers of a Titanic novel are aware the ship will sink, and that creates added tension. Which of the characters will survive and how?  If your work contradicts reader expectations, either because it’s a counterfactual or fantastical narrative, or because those expectations are flawed, you’ll need to carefully frame the contradictions to draw the reader closer rather than losing their trust because the author appears to have their facts wrong.

As these questions spark ideas for scenes, add those to your notes. Look for ways to increase the conflicts and raise the stakes through arranging those scenes for maximum impact. I use notecards, dealing out possible story and character arcs until I arrive at the most compelling version, or know what I need to brainstorm next.  Spinning your historical grist into these narrative elements should deliver plenty of material to weave your concept into a story.

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Fiction Writing Exercises: Narrative Arcs

Today’s fiction writing exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises. This one focuses on story structure and examines narrative arcs within stories and across multiple scenes and installments of a story. Enjoy!
Narrative Arcs

An arc has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The events within an arc result in some kind of change for the story world, characters, or direction of the plot.

In serial or episodic storytelling, a story arc is an ongoing story line that spans multiple installments. An arc might last through several episodes of a television show or several issues of a comic book. In literature, an arc might stretch across multiple books in a series.

A narrative arc (or dramatic arc) is similar to a story arc, except it doesn’t have to occur across multiple installments of episodic storytelling. A narrative arc is any arc within a story, including the central plot and any subplots. Narrative arcs can occur within a single scene or span across a sequence of scenes.

Characters also experience arcs when they undergo a progression of transformation.

That’s a lot of different types of arcs. To make matters more confusing, the terms for story arcs, narrative arcs, and dramatic arcs are often used interchangeably.


You can use any type of story for this exercise: books, comics, TV shows, or films. Find a series that you’ve enjoyed, and examine a small sample of installments. For example, you can look at five episodes from a TV show or three novels from a series. Make sure you’re using serials, which use ongoing stories across multiple installments, rather than episodic installments, which are separate but loosely connected.

Make a list of three to five story arcs found across the installments you examined. Do the arcs intertwine? Are they occurring simultaneously, or are they consecutive? How does each arc relate to the central plot?

Create a set of three story arcs that would span multiple novels in a series. If you’re already working on a series, feel free to create arcs within your project.

For example, start by writing quick summaries of at least five novels in a series (about one paragraph each, highlighting the central plot of each installment). Then come up with the three arcs, each of which would span multiple novels.

As an alternative, you can develop ideas for a television or comic book series.

What is the difference between a story arc and a dramatic arc? Why are story arcs effective in serial storytelling? How is a character arc different from a narrative arc? What types of arcs are most important in storytelling?

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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History for Fantasy Writers: Pirates

Everyone knows about the pirates of the Caribbean. Let’s talk about other pirates. Since I’m a medieval historian, I’ll stay firmly in the European world.

Before we get started, a general comment: the lines between pirate, merchant, and rebel were blurry and ever-shifting. If you had a ship, it was sort of like having a pickup truck—you could use it for any number of enterprises.

Few pirates were exclusively that. The real interest lies in the variations on our standard idea of piracy.

Who were pirates? Given the comment above, pretty much anyone with a ship and a few followers could engage in piracy at one time or another, but there were a few places notorious for the practice of robbing other ships.

Frisian Pirates

Frisians were one. They lived along the coast of northeastern Netherlands; the region is still called Friesland. The Frisians were their own people, with their own language. Their land is made up of a complex of islands and marshlands that were rarely the object of ambition from other peoples, so they rarely were under the foot of invading armies.

The Frisians were constant raiders, not all that dissimilar to the Vikings, save that they did not try to invade and conquer. They were content to loot and go home. It just so happened that they were as content to do their looting at sea as on land.

Frisians are a fine example of the muddy lines between pirate, merchant and rebel. Under the Carolingians, their ports flourished and Frisian ships traded as far as England, France, Denmark and into the Baltic Sea. This trade was largely ruined by the Vikings, who hit this part of Europe hard. By the 14th century, we encounter them as pirates preying on ships from Hamburg and Bruges, calling the Vitalienbrüdern. Eventually, they annoyed the neighboring Germans and Danes enough that they were conquered and their sailing skills were put to use by others.

Cilician Pirates

Pirates were a constant problem in the ancient world as well. The pirates of Cilicia (southern coast of modern Turkey) once captured Julius Caesar. They later regretted that. The Great Pompey was given the task of clearing what Romans called Our Sea (the Mediterranean). He did so with Roman efficiency. He deployed a fleet and an army. Working in tandem, they moved along the coast from one end of Cilicia to the other. The navy destroyed their ships and the army destroyed their ports. Few kingdoms in later centuries had the resources to pull off an expedition of that scale.

The Sea Beggars

These fellows fall at the rebel end of the pirate spectrum. When the Spanish waged war in the Netherlands in the later 1500s, a number of ship owners decided to use their ships to harass the Spanish. They were sometimes effective, sometimes not, but they fairly consistently pocketed their prizes, arguing that they needed to cover expenses.

Whenever peace broke out, the brave, patriotic rebels became pirates. When war returned, they were once again patriots. Their most famous exploit was the raising of a Spanish siege of the town of Leiden in 1574.

River Pirates

River pirates could be found on the Thames in England, the Ganges in India, and the Yangtze in China (the Yangtze Patrol was made famous in the book and movie, The Sand Pebbles).  There were even Cossack pirates, such as Stepan Razin.

Once, Razin was surrounded by a Persian fleet in the Black Sea. The Persian commander put his ships in a circle, chained together, to keep Razin from escaping. The pirate ships were smaller and lower, completely vulnerable to the Persian cannon fire. But Razin attacked anyway. A lucky shot set off the powder magazine in the Persian flagship, sinking it almost instantly. When it sank, it dragged the other ships down with it and only three Persian ships survived. Razin sailed away unscathed.

He rained terror and death along the Volga, the Don and into the Caspian Sea. He sacked Astrakhan and Samarra. At the height of his career he commanded several thousand followers and whole fleets of ships.

Other Cossacks also took to rivers. The most famous of these were the Ushkuiniks, who operated in northern Russia, around Novgorod. Their ships were remarkably slim and light (uisk in Russian means snake). Although they could hold as many as thirty men, the ship could be carried overland between rivers. Ushkuinik ships were frighteningly swift.

There was Alfhild, the pirate princess. Daughter of Siward, King of the Goths. Beautiful, of course, but she went about hooded and cloaked so men would not be provoked to passion. She was to be married to the handsome Viking Alf, who himself was a great hero at sea. But she refused to marry. She and some friends dressed as men and commandeered a ship, then embarked on a career as pirates. According to legend, all her crew were women.

Alfhild operated in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, not on rivers, so technically she doesn’t belong here. I just like her story.

Many so-called pirates were at least part-time merchants, glad to engage in peaceful trade when that was profitable, and equally happy to engage in piracy when that was the easier course. Stepan Razin’s pirates would enter as merchants and live in a place for weeks or months before turning on the population, stealing everything. In one case, forty of them entered as pilgrims. They went to the shrine, killed the guards, and opened the gates. In another case, the pirates posed as merchants bringing jars of wine. The weapons were hidden in the jars.

River pirates could form whole flotillas. They typically had an island or swamp as refuge. It’s rare to find river pirates operating at sea, and vice versa, mainly because the ships and techniques are quite different.

Pirates in Fantasy

River pirates would make a great target for an expedition of heroes. Ship to ship battles are always colorful, and the climax could be the assault on the pirates’ island fortress. Also, your readers are less likely to know the details of non-seafaring ships.

Since this is fantasy, why not add magic to the mix? River pirates might command currents, summon river monsters, or even be the ripuarian equivalent of mermen.

Even if river pirates are not the focus of your book, they could make a colorful side-quest or could provide a rich secondary character or two.

I don’t know of any fantasy tales that make use of river pirates. If you do, please let me know. I’ll update this article and give you credit!

As for sea pirates, I don’t think anyone needs encouragement there. All I’ll add is that there’s room for a story about the moral ambiguity of a pirate’s career. The pirate could see himself as a defender of his people, while his enemies see him as a … well, as a dread pirate (with apologies to Mr. Goldman).

How about you? Have you used pirates in any of your stories? Read any good fantasy pirate tales? The clear leader in that last category is Tim Powers (On Stranger Tides). How about any others?


E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

Source: mythicscribes.com

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Write Fictional Characters as Complex and Realistic as You Are—The MBTI for Writers Series

What’s the secret to writing fictional characters readers fall in love with? What makes us reread our favorite novels, revisiting the same characters through the years like old friends?

Some writers are naturals at it. Lifelong people watchers, they seem to “get” how other people work without trying. So of course their fictional characters are complex and realistic. Of course their characters leap off the page.

But not every writer is an expert in people.

That doesn’t mean your characters are doomed to be cardboard cutouts. There’s hope for the writers who have something to say but aren’t sure yet how to create characters realistic enough to say it.

If you struggle to create characters who are complex and distinct. If you find yourself scratching your head at every plot turn, unsure of what your character would say or do or think next—then you know the struggle.

You know what it’s like to want your character to become so real, she takes over the story—but every word you write just reminds you she’s still a stranger.

So how do you flesh out a character who falls flat? How do you fix cliched, unlikable characters? How do you define characters who are too predictable or distinguish the ones who act just like every other character in the story?

There’s a tool for that.

It’s called MBTI. And it’s your new secret weapon for creating fictional characters as complex and realistic as you are.

This is The MBTI for Writers series.

Fictional Characters Made Easy: What We Cover in MBTI for Writers

  • What exactly MBTI is (the quick and dirty version for writers)
  • A simple overview of the 16 MBTI personality types (i.e. what’s really going on inside the heads of each personality type)
  • Quick tips for getting into each type’s head so you can see the story through their eyes—even when the character is NOTHING LIKE YOU (Because what better way to know how they would act and respond to the plot than to see the world how they see it?)
  • How to use each of the 16 MBTI types as a character mold to build out an endless cast of truly unique, surprising, and ultra-realistic fictional characters your readers will love (and love to hate)
  • What so many people get wrong about MBTI and how writers can use it to their advantage
  • Ways to build out each personality type so each one is new and unique—no matter how many times you’ve reused the mold

Series Contents

Out Now:

Coming Up:

  • See Through Your Character’s Eyes: How to ‘Experience’ the 8 MBTI Functions Like Your Fictional Characters Do
  • How to Make Each Character Type Unique—Even If You’ve Used That Type Before
  • 11 Smart Reasons to Create Your Next Fictional Character Using MBTI
  • Do You Really Understand Your Character? Cheatsheets for Writing Each of the 16 MBTI Types
    • ENTJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • INTJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ENTP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • INTP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ENFJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • INFJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ENFP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • INFP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ESTJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ISTJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ESTP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ISTP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ESFJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ISFJ Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ESFP Character Design Cheatsheet
    • ISFP Character Design Cheatsheet
  • Common Arguments against MBTI (And Why They’re Dumb)

Source: mandywallace.com

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41 Tips for Transporting Your Readers Back in Time

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

From the folks at Seekerville

By multi-published historical author Keli Gwyn!

I’m excited to be back in Seekerville. Ruthy invited me in response to a comment I left on her thought-provoking post, “Writing Contemporary vs.Historical Books: Must We Choose?”  Since I think Ruthy is the bee’s knees, I said yes.
Ruthy suggested I blog about giving a historical story a dated feel, a timely topic I was eager to explore.

In an April 16 post on the Bethany House blog, Ask Bethany House: WhatDo Editors Look For in a New Author?  BH editor Raela Schoenherr listed 13 items she looks for. I was excited to see this bullet point as the first in her “laundry list.”

  • Interesting, varied word choice and use of the English language in a way that is appropriate to era, setting, characters, etc.

As an author of historical romance, a command of period-appropriate language is important to me as well as my readers. It’s nice to see that it ranks so highly on an editor’s desired elements list as well.

But how does a writer go about creating that period-appropriate language? I have a few tips to share, but I wanted to give you more than I could come up with on my own.

Because my stories encompass only a narrow slice of history, I got brave and sent out a zillion emails to some of the best and brightest stars in inspirational historical romance, asking them to provide tips for their periods as well. The generous authors flooded my inbox with a wealth of information, resulting in a post so meaty that I’m issuing each of you a virtual steak knife and fork. Enjoy the feast!

Basic Tips for Creating Period-Appropriate Language

Here are eight techniques used by many writers of historical fiction.

– See more at: http://seekerville.blogspot.com/2015/06/41-tips-for-transporting-your-readers.html#sthash.FipGBzR2.dpuf



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Turning Truth Into Fiction

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From the good people at Seekerville
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Turning Truth into Fiction
Anne Mateer
As novelists, we are always adding “real life” happenings to our stories. Bits and pieces. Here and there. Mashups of truth layered with fiction. But have you ever come across a real life story—your own or someone else’s, historical or contemporary—and wanted to use it as the plot of your entire novel? My guess is yes. And yet attempting to actually translate a true story into fiction is not as easy as it sounds.
I ran up against this problem fifteen years ago when I wanted to write my great-grandparents’ story of love amidst the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic. Wrangling it into fiction proved unwieldy, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I set the story aside for nearly ten years. When I came back to it, I’d learned a few things that helped me take a story from my family history and turn it into a readable novel.

– See more at: http://seekerville.blogspot.com/2015/01/turning-truth-into-fiction.html#sthash.zF9C2ghO.dpuf


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