Sunday, June 18, 2017

Writing Historical Fantasy Fiction: Resources and Tips for Writers

The key to crafting a captivating historical fantasy is to submerge the reader’s senses.

Writing contemporary fantasy is easier by comparison because, in some way or another, we are simply recording the details of the world around us while we weave our fantasy story. Likewise, pure fantasy worlds are realities we ourselves shape. We make the gods. We make the men. We make all the rules.

When writing historicals, however, we have a duty to capture the details and the experience accurately. How does a writer capture the essence of a past era, whether 100 years ago, 300 years ago, or even millennia?

The answer: research.

As daunting a task as you may think researching your time period might be, if you write historical fantasy, you’ve probably been doing it for a long time without even realizing it.

Here are some sources and references that will be useful to the historical writer.

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: Yes, I will start by saying the vastest source of historical detail lies within history books. It’s absolutely true—but very daunting. Apart from earning your degree in history, what else can a writer do to get those necessary details?

FILM & SCREEN: This is avenue of research you’ve explored without really thinking about it. It may even be the reason why you’re interested in writing historical fantasy in the first place: you’ve visited a particular era and you want to go back and put your own spin on it. TV, movies, documentaries. If it’s on a screen, watch it. Get a feel for the way people move, their mannerisms, their speech. Beware, though—you cannot view one program and declare yourself a historian. You’ve got to watch a lot. Look for patterns—consistencies, oddities. Over time, you get a feel for what is perceived by most viewers as the norm. Anything outside it will be viewed either as uniquely difference or wildly inaccurate. Choose your path wisely.

TOURS: Visit the place where you’d like to set your story and seek out historical details yourself. Stop at a visitor’s bureau. Go on guided tours. If you cannot travel, take a virtual tour instead.

Those are what I consider the easy ways. Here are a few others I’ve learned from a wonderful author, Nomi Eve, the author of Henna House, a historical women’s fiction novel set in 1920s Yemen. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a writing conference and she gave amazing advice to authors on how to “breathe life into the past”.:

MISSIONARY & EXPLORER JOURNALS: These are first person accounts of strange lands and new places. Some were scientists, out to record every detail of a new land. Some were missionaries, eager to bring back the details of new cultures. You can collect their sensory experiences—taste, smell, sound, color—and wrap your readers in them.

COOKBOOKS: Did you just laugh at me? If you did, then stop, because one of my favorite cookbooks is one based on A Game Of Thrones. The feasts are massive, the food both eloquent and medieval. The cookbook puts me right back in the middle of George R. R. Martin’s world. My second favorite is a German cookbook that is perhaps fifty years old. I love it not only for the recipes but also the stories within, the introductions to each chapter, the side notes about preparation and serving. That cookbook transports me back into the kitchen of someone’s Bavarian great-grandmother and is a historical excursion all on its own.

Think on this a moment…how much of our lives are spend eating and drinking, alone or with others? Cookbooks will tell you not only how food tastes and looks, but how a house smells, how people prepared their meals. You know that one does not snap their fingers to have a feast appear. Work goes into food preparation, and life occurs while we do that work.

MUSEUM CATALOGS: Museums will publish and sell catalogs of their exhibits which you can purchase on-line or in museum gift stores. We can’t all travel to different continents to tour an exhibit, but we can buy the catalogs: they contain pictures of the items on exhibit, along with descriptions and explanations of their use. My favorite museum catalog is one I picked up after viewing a Leonardo DaVinci exhibit.

MUSIC & FOLKTALES: Both are wonderful sources of historical data. Lyrics are signs of the “current” times. Songs are part of a culture’s “oral tradition” and is accessible to all singers, all listeners. We even classify music by the era in which it was recorded. The language, the sentiments, and the “current events” used to write lyrics give great insight into the singer’s world at the time. The bardic tradition truly is alive and well today. Likewise, folktales are windows to the past. You can find folktale collections for sale anywhere you shop for books.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES: The Internet makes contacting them easier than ever, and they are generally staffed by people who are passionate about the history they preserve. Nearly every town in my area has one. We have a rich coal mining history in my area and so our towns were established on the coal companies, the German and Welsh men who ran them and the Irish who worked them. Lots of history, both Old World and New, have been preserved by our local historians.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Crowdsource your contacts list. Ask questions on Facebook or Twitter. You may be surprised at who in your friends list knows the answer. Social media truly is a global community so you may find a lot of information about the world you are researching just by posting a question.

Five Tips To Improve Your Historical Fantasy Reader’s Experience
Some things to remember: when you set out to write a historical fantasy, remember that it’s a fantasy, first and foremost. You need to incorporate the proper types of plotting, characterization, and story elements necessary for the fantasy genre. The historical aspect should come secondary to the story—it anchors the story, it enhances the setting, it gives individualized details to your character, and it may cause you to alter story specifics to fit the era.

Historical aspects should submerge the readers in the experience so make sure you provide a sensory experience: sight, taste, smell, sounds, and touch.


  1. Capture your setting. Incorporate street names, landmarks.
  2. Pay mind to clothing worn at the time, especially if social classes had great disparity between them.
  3. Add a layer of language. Remember that speech varies among people based on social class and education, even personal experience. Do use slang and foreign words when appropriate. (I’m not a big fan of books written in dialect, though. I don’t want to have to sound a line out just because I didn’t know what to do with all the apostrophes and mysterious contractions.)
  4. Incorporate prevalent religious beliefs. Faith systems are very important because they may influence social behavior, mannerisms, and speech--everything from ethics to OMG.
  5. Make sure your fantasy fits the history, and vice versa. They should enhance each other, not make people wonder what the heck was that author thinking? 
The last one may be the most important tip of all. When I wrote The Heartbeat Thief, I chose to begin the story in the English Victorian era because of its societal views on death as well as a woman’s place in the world. The story itself is a vampire-type tale, where the Immortal steals heartbeats rather than drinking blood to survive. The character wanted to remain within society, not pursue a dark solitary life. A touch on another’s skin is intimate, perhaps to the point of scandalous—at least to a Victorian mind. It seemed like the fantastic elements were ideal for a Victorian setting.


Another reason why I chose that era if because the story is structured to follow Edgar Allan Poe’s story Masque of the Red Death. The first lines of the book mention the character was born the year it was published, each section is started with a relative quote from the story, and the main character’s journey through her mortal/immortal life take place in the same order as the seven apartments of Prospero’s palace. The last room is draped in the colors of black and blood and it is there that Death awaits. Once again, the fantasy and the history complement each other as perfectly as I could imagine.

Give Your Readers An Experience They’ll Never Forget
Ultimately, you want to write the story that takes a reader to a place in time and space that leaves them wondering…could this have actually happened? Historical details aren’t just decorations—they build an environment that readers can experience for themselves. You want them to journey back with you to live out that story, page by page.

And there is no greater reward than hearing a reader tell you that you got it right. This is a review  The Heartbeat Thief earned shortly after it was published.
"Krafton not only tells you a story, she makes you experience it with your senses. You can feel the fog moistening your skin as Senza wanders around London. You can smell the city's decay. You can hear the clatter of horses against the cobblestones. And your own heart will anguish along with Senza as she despairs about life--and death--in an era when a woman's beauty guaranteed her a well-matched marriage, even more than her wealth..." --Ronesa Aveela, author of the Mystical Emona series 
This review quote went a long way to validate the research I’d put into writing The Heartbeat Thief. It makes me feel proud of this book.

You should be proud of your book, also. Put serious work into researching your historical period. Don’t write your book as if it were a history lesson; write it as an amazing fantasy that dwells within the constraints of an interesting time period.

Historical details should infuse the setting and characters with the flavors unique to that place and that time. If you wrote your fantasy story a dozen different times in a dozen different historical settings, you should end up with a dozen separate, unique experiences.

Take your reader back to a time long gone by. Let the fantasy keep them there.




USA Today Best-Selling Author Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of two urban fantasy series (The Books of the Demimonde and The Demon Whisperer) as well as several stand-alone titles. She also writes for upper-YA audiences (formerly under the pen name AJ Krafton). THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Fiction Writing: How To Include Pets, and Why You Should

Described by readers as Silence of the Lambs
meets The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Blessed Mayhem, Book 2, releases July, 2017 from
Crossroad Press.

Click Here to look inside Wings of Mayhem.
I love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they become important family members for the main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, mastiff, and St. Bernard (MARRED and CLEAVED), a calico, tabby, and all-black cat (Wings of Mayhem), pet crows (Blessed Mayhem), and a black bear (A Sultry Abyss in SCREAM). I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog for Black Out (RUN), but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to use fictional pets.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who the main players are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction...

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, Bob and I watched John Wick recently. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy that his dead wife sent him. When the bad guys murdered him I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not kill the pets. 

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

Like I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who'll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn't talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play in the plot. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Why that fictional pet exists is crucial to understand.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Catch up with the Grafton County Series.
MARRED is Book 1

Click Here to look inside.
Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. They’re fascinating, by the way. I'm now working to coax a pet crow of my own. Story for another time. 😁

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you’ve got to know the basics…their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Stimulate the readers’ five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into these deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. It can really add a great deal to a story, too. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into terror.

Plus, they’re fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd's feet twitch when he's dreaming? Does the Bulldog throw his owner the stink-eye when he can't reach his favorite toy? 

Dogs do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws are perfect to massage the hero's back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I'd sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it too. After all that hard work, I couldn't deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, ravens, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. A lone wolf baying at the moon might be a bit cliche. Try to be more unique with your animals. The woods are filled with animal sounds.

A few favorite background noises and wildlife sounds...

Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.



Dead silence works well too, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to evoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they're even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it's a tough sound to ignore.



If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.



Near a lake? Use water lapping against the shore.



Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.

Consistency

If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes too. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren't kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can't let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He's slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We've all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age too. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don't lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It's hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How 'bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They're some of my favorite characters to write.

Check out how I used pets in CLEAVED
Book 2 in the Grafton County Series.

Plus, why I climbed inside an oil drum for research.

Click Here to look inside.


What about you? Do you enjoy reading about fictional pets? If you write, do you include pets in your stories?

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. 

In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue co-hosts "Partners In Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. She's also the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. 

Sue lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

Enter the Summer Thrills and Chills Giveaway for a chance to win a $25 gift card and six e-books from participating authors.

Connect with Sue online, or join her mailing list and be the first to know about contests and giveaways. As a bonus, you'll also get to play in the Crime Lover's Lounge. Your secret key code will unlock the virtual door.

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