Inkpop Blog

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History to Fiction: Writing Tips from Award Winning Historical Fiction Author Ann Turner

Posted by inkpopbecki on January 19, 2011

We know we can not change history, but sometimes we can re-imagine it from the perspective of fictional characters. Ann Turner, author of the new book Father of Lies,  has some tips on how to write historical fiction. If you want to hear more, join us for a live chat with award winning author Ann Turner tonight at 5 p.m. EST in the inkpop forum events.


1/ When I write historical fiction based on actual events, I have two threads to keep in mind: be accurate about the history and weave in emotional content which makes that period come alive.  Basically that means I use the person I was as part of the character I am creating.  For example, Lidda, in “Father of Lies,” is rebellious, independent, a free-thinker, acutely aware of dishonesty in others, and sensual. This could be a description of me at 15 years-old.  It is permissible to make some changes in the use of historical material, however, which I did in bending the time line slightly in FOL.  I noted that at the end of the book.

2/ Language is always tricky when writing historical fiction; you want to give a sense of authenticity to the period but to do it in a way that doesn’t put off your readers.  So although I did a ton of research into the period I write about (1692 in Salem, Massachusetts), I couldn’t really use the kind of language they spoke or wrote in.  It’s archaic and sometimes difficult to follow.  What I did do was not use contractions (which they generally did not) in speech, and to try and throw in the occasional authentic historical term for authenticity.  For example, Dr. Briggs (and who knew if he was really a doctor?) examined the girls making the accusations against “witches” in Salem; he said that they were under the influence of “the evil hand.”  I love that phrase, and used it in the book.

3/ I always need to think about how my character, set in a time before ours, is like people in my time: how is this girl like a girl I know?  How is this boy like a boy I know? For even though the people of Salem in 1692 thought differently about their world (such as believing in witches, certain that ghosts came to haunt them, certain that the devil surrounded Salem with his fearsome power), they shared many of the things that we care about as well: family, a secure household, dreams of a better future, love, and the beauty of nature.  It’s a bit like walking over a divide with one foot on one side and one foot on the other, balancing–keep the past in mind but also connect it to our time.

4/ Different writers have radically different ways of writing and thinking about their writing.  Here are some thoughts I have which may or may not be useful to you: I rarely know where I am going when I set out.  Some writers know the end of their book; others, like myself, set out on the journey, trusting a way will be found.  In “Father of Lies” I did know how it ended, but that is unusual for me.  Trust yourself.  Never give up.  Don’t get worried if you get stuck or slow down.  When I’m stuck, I always go back to the beginning and let the story claim me once again, get excited once again about my characters.  Remember how much chocolate chip cookies and strong black coffee can help the writing process.  Caffeine rocks!  Have a play list of music to write to, if that helps; my daughter has. Don’t be afraid to throw stuff away.  Sometimes you have to do that to move forward.  Nothing is written in stone.  And if you don’t feel like writing, do it anyway!  Don’t worry about being “creative,” but take your book out, read it over, make some corrections, scribble notes in the margins, talk to a friend about it, and before you know it, the juices will start flowing again.


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