Tag Archives: history

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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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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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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Ancient Marginalia: Yesterday’s Naysayers

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Reposted from Digital Book World
Categories: Expert Publishing Blog
July 25, 2013 |  | 0
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This is an historic day.  Today, the reputable news source The Onion has announced the death of print at the advanced age of 1,803.  The piece reports:

“Print, which had for nearly two millennia worked tirelessly to spread knowledge around the globe in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and numerous other textual materials, reportedly succumbed to its long battle with ill health, leaving behind legions of readers who had for years benefited from the dissemination of ideas made possible by the advent of printed materials.”

I would like to remember print by going back to its early years – to a time when, as a punky young upstart, print was lingering on street corners spooking the squares.  You see, print wasn’t always the stately (if not stodgy) elder statesman it was just before its demise.  Actually, it was something of a boogyman even in its infancy as mere writing.

Prior to writing, cultures relied mostly on oral transmission of stories and information.  Oral cultures (the common mode for ~150,000 years) place great emphasis on mnemonics, formulaic expressions, and the social immediacy of face-to-face communication.  There was an emphasis on the present and on the group and on a certain fluidity of knowledge.  Words were not objects, but were acts loosely memorized and differentially performed between physically proximal people.

Writing showed up on the scene and immediately raised eyebrows.    Writing allowed massive information storage in a non-neurological medium. It allowed folks to communicate with others who were not there – writing lets information and stories travel through time and space in a way that your brain simply cannot.  This was great for inventories and laws but even more awesome for communicating, well, almost everything.


Plato backs the wrong horse.

But not without a price. An alphabet is very disruptive technology.  The transition from orality to writing restructured consciousness in immediate and observable ways.  And this made some people cranky.  Like Plato, who writes (ironically!) of writing:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Ouch!  And Plato was upset about handwritten texts. Young printwas even more of a thug – if Greek and Latin papyrus scrolls freaked out the neighbors, what of the almost infinite collection of mechanically printed compendia unleashed by moveable type?  For some, the advent of readily available and widely distributed books served only to kill the word, enfeeble minds, and empower fools.


Ink and elbow grease, Exhibit A

What would happen if none ever had to memorize anything?? They could just look it up in books!  What if people read wrong information?? Or worse, information that you didn’t want them to read?? Power brokers like popes and bishops were quick to condemn widespread literacy and book distribution.  In 1486, for example, Archbishop Berthold of Mainz forbade the printing of any book that he did not approve.  A piece of satirefrom the time has a bishop complaining that though banishing ministers was easy, silencing printers was not, “…no Art yet could prevent these seditious meetings [of printers].  Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with mere Ink and Elbow-grease do more harm than a hundred [wayward ministers].”

Even people in the business were spooked – Hieronimo Squarciafico, a 15th Century Venetian print editor famously stated “Abundance of books makes men less studious.”

Alas. These guys were on the wrong side of fate.  Print, as we know, went on to become the basis of civilization.  Until its death on July 25, 2013.

Of course, we still live in a print culture.  But binary situates us at another crossroads.  We can now reintroduce some of that orality that print could not deliver.  We can invent ways of reading that extend and expand on print’s work. Here at the rosy-fingered dawn of digital, swift-footed binary can carry us closer to Ithaca

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