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My Writer's Journal

Ways to Write A Historical Novel

Most of the novels I've written have been based on a well-known historical figure: Mary Tudor (aka "Bloody Mary") was one of the first, followed by various Tudor relatives and other female European rulers. Because a lot is already known about them, coming up with a plot is not terribly difficult, once I've figured out where to begin (the end is easier; most of my queens end up dead). VICTORIA REBELS was a piece of cake, relatively speaking--all those diaries she kept! The bigger challenges are developing the character and finding her unique voice. Determining the pacing and filling in the details are all in a day's (or month's, or year's) work.

Sometimes, of course, very little is known about my main character, and all the secondary characters, and then the project gets a lot trickier: CLEOPATRA CONFESSES, for example. With only a handful of known facts, I had to invent the rest.

Another approach, and much harder for me, is to work with a particular time period or a certain event and to invent the characters AND the plot to tell the story. WHITE LILACS, written in 1992 (and recently published in Korean!), was set in Texas and based on an actual series of events in the 1920s. It's still one of my favorite books, because it was so difficult, especially the narrator's voice.

BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER: The Story of Helen of Troy and Her Daughter Hermione, coming out in Fall 2013, was another big stretch. It's based on ancient Greek myth, rooted in history that goes back 3000 years. I relied on Homer's Iliad and a number of plays by long-ago Greek playwrights. But challenging as it was, it has made me want to take on another project set in ancient times. We'll see.

Meanwhile, another novel is in the works, set again in the 1920s, nearly all of the characters my own creation. (See my comments above on that kind of challenge.) At the same time I'm back on safer ground, working on a new book on a familiar subject, and struggling to find a different approach to a story that's already well known. More on both later--I'll keep you posted.

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