Three Simple Rules for Writing Historical or any other Fiction:

Advice is cheap—and in the case of advice aimed at writers, plentiful.

It is dispensed by authors, writers, publishers, editors, agents, and can be had in the form of a ‘how to’ books on ‘how to’ write books from $9.99 or higher to $0.99 or lower, various writers’ conferences, workshops, retreats, and MFA programs (but apparently not if you really want to write genre fiction).

Are you in a pinch?  Check out the freebie advice in this Devil’s playground, aka, “on-line.” Don’t know how to launch yourself to fame and fortune by writing that historical fiction? Check out eHow.

I thought about the ‘how to’ phenomenon when I saw the list of The 100 Greatest Novels of all Time and I wondered, did any of these authors ever read or receive a ‘how to’ advice?

Seriously.  If they didn’t, how did they manage to be so famous without it?

How could they tell if their plots were plodding, characters cardboard?  Did they ever realize they ought to have ditched that dialogue? Did they worry about starting with an important action? Committing the sin of too much detail or, (gasp) showing not telling? Did they do any research?

When did this proliferation of the ‘how to’s’ of writing come about?  The Devil’s playground wasn’t helpful with this research. I would guess that it occurred just about the time that penny dreadfuls and dime novels began to appear and create a mass commercial publication market—and the need to fill its demands. In a similar way, the e-pub world has created a demand for contemporary writers to write faster.

Of course, advice on how to write is not a new phenomenon. The earlier manifestations were the ‘how to’ books on rhetoric. I recently came across one such earlier ‘advice’ book, Lectures on Rhetoric, by Hugh Blair, D. D., (Scotland 1718-1800), described as ‘cultivator of polite literature in the eighteenth century.’

His lectures were condensed by Grenville Kleiser, for the use of Grenville Kleiser’s Mail Course Students, published in 1911. Not surprising, since Kleiser was an instructor of public speaking at Yale Divinity school, his edited version is clearly aimed not at those who wrote dime novels or pulp fiction.

Dr. Blair advises on p. 110 in a section ‘Regarding the Structure of Sentences: Harmony’ :

The attention to the music of sentences must not be neglected, yet it must also be kept within proper bounds; for all appearances of an author’s affecting harmony are disagreeable, especially when the love of it betrays him so far as to sacrifice, in any instance, perspicuity, precision, or strength of sentiment, to sound.

What struck me, among all that wonderful 18th century lingo, was the treatment of writing as a very serious stuff, not to be entered lightly, unadvisedly, nor in jest, but thoughtfully and soberly.

Fortunately, these days, the Steps, Tips, Rules, Advice, and ‘How to’ and  ‘How-not- to’ is only a click away. Consider the area of historical fiction and you have a choice of….

“Eight Simple Rules…”

“Seven Rules…”

“Seven Steps…”

“Five …Pitfalls…”

And then there is advice why the rules are mostly wrong.  Told to write what you know? Then “don’t write what you know.”

Confused yet? Don’t despair, the answer is only a click way at Wikihow:

      Imagination has no limits. Don’t let other people steal your ideas. Plain and simple, it may come in the form of a dream, or perhaps that annoying dog across the street sounds like it’s saying cookies. Any idea can be excellent.

     Write your idea down. No matter how stupid it may sound, it could be good. Maybe that idea about the dog that says cookies is lame, but someone will like it, or you can change it a bit later on.

So there you are, Three Simple Rules for Writing Historical or any other Fiction:

1)      Any idea is excellent.

2)      Write your idea down.

3)      You can change it a bit later on.


About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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