by Steve Liskow
I've started using open submission calls as writing prompts and it seems to work; I've finished more short stories in the last six months than in any other year since I started writing seriously. I've noticed many of the calls want historical fiction, which I usually avoid.
I can do research, but I try to avoid it because I'm a trivia junkie. If I see an interesting factoid, or, even worse, a link, I'll follow it to another link...and another. Three hours later, I might have 25 open links on the monitor, all of them fascinating, and none with any connection to my original quest. I'm the walking embodiment of research as the best way to avoid actually writing.
Besides the trivia distractions, I find that too much historical fiction uses exposition ("Lessons?") instead of story-telling. A few years ago, I heard of a book by another local author, and the premise intrigued me, so I downloaded a sample. The "dialogue" was "As you know, Bob," information dumps that sounded like a seventh-grade history text. Description of the setting and characters was even worse, and even more plentiful. The first 25 pages, the whole sample, had almost no story, but constant scene-setting in turgid prose. The writer was so proud of her research that she gave us all of it.
Another danger stems from involving a major historical event. If you write about Columbus, Gettysburg, or Prohibition, you'd better get every detail correct or you'll smother in the messages from readers who spotted your mistake.
There are exceptions, of course. Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger is a terrific novel about an English prostitute in the cholera epidemic of 1831. The setting and exposition stay in the background like good harmony singers and keep the plot and characters in the spotlight. If all historical fiction were this good, I read a lot more of it.
I've written a little--very little--historical fiction myself. Those works sprang from personal experience so the only research was confirming dates and checking the spelling.
Run Straight Down isn't really historical; my experience as a teacher inspired it. While I taught at the largest public school in the State of Connecticut during the 1990s, I lost students three consecutive years in gang shootings. A lawyer suggested I change all the details to protect myself from potential lawsuits, so I changed the town, all the names, and the geography. That meant I didn't have to do much research, but I still saw those boys' faces every time I sat down at the keyboard.
In 1967, I attended summer sessions at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, 30 miles north of Detroit. In late July, we crowded around the TV set in the lounge of Fitzgerald House and watched Army tanks rumble down Woodward Avenue.
Two other residents of the dorm lost their houses in fires set by protestors, and one received the news over the house phone while the rest of us watched his face crumble. My kinesthetic memory holds those tiny details because they connect to real people.
My other exception is Postcards of the Hanging, which I published in 2014. A judge for a contest praised my research and use of details to establish the mood and setting without being forced or obvious. Neat, huh? Now for full disclosure...
The story takes place during the 1964-65 school year, and it wasn't historical at the time. I began the first draft in 1972, and it was inspired by a sex scandal involving a high school teacher during my senior year. I changed all the names and details, but if I needed to check on music or dress styles, I looked at my high school yearbook.
I remembered the Beatles and Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, the football and baseball games (We had a terrific football team and our weakest basketball team in years), struggling to talk to girls, slang, adolescent angst, local bands and everything else, only seven years earlier. I taught myself to write by producing three distinctly different versions of the book, and the third one became my sixth-year project in 1980. Those three manuscripts gained my first 40 rejections.
When I decided to self-publish the book, I kept all those topical references because they helped me remember that world AND they defined my characters. I actually named minor characters after the streets in my neighborhood. I changed the sequence and used flashbacks to build more tension, but I was amazed how little rewriting I had to do. Someone suggested adding a prologue and epilogue to show the book wasn't really a YA novel, and those two sections, about 25 pages, contain most of the new writing. I added transitions to move in and out of flashbacks, but I think I only did major revisions to one or two existing scenes.
I don't know if I'll ever try another historical novel or story.
Maybe if I lived a more adventurous life...