Authenticity vs. Accuracy: How To Ace Your Novel Research

Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book

Authenticity vs. Accuracy: How To Ace Your Novel Research

I’m starting to get paranoid. It happens with every book I write. I reach the end of the first draft, start tying off loose ends on the first round of edits, and prepare to send the book to my first round of beta readers. That’s when I inevitably start asking myself panicked questions about the accuracy of of my novel research.

Maybe these self-directed questions will sound familiar:

  • What if my novel research isn’t good enough?
  • What if I put a street on the wrong side of the city?
  • What if I’ve got the dialect all wrong?
  • What if I’ve included a glaring anachronism?

The book I’m currently at work on—my historical superhero saga Wayfarer—is set in London during the Regency era (think Jane Austen). In many ways, it has been the most difficult of all the historical novels I’ve written, primarily because it takes place in such a popular period. I had some leeway in writing about the medieval Crusades (for one thing, the language is so different, perfect accuracy isn’t desired much less demanded) and the American west (where legend has taken over fact in so many areas).

But the Regency period? Put a chapeau-bras out of place, and fanatical readers will know it.

Never mind that the book is also set in London, which means correctly portraying a city I’ve never visited.

And don’t get me started on the language. Unlike the Middle Ages, 1820 isn’t so far away that the language of the period isn’t still decipherable to modern ears. What that means, of course, is every word choice must be filtered through not just the demands of British English, but also the question: Did that word even exist back then?

Cue the paranoia.

Novel research can make you paranoid!

The Two Sides to Novel Research: Accuracy and Authenticity

There are two good reasons for any author to indulge in this paranoia over “the facts” in a novel (whether it’s historical or not).

Reason #1 to Panic: Your Readers Are Smarter Than You

Scary thought, ain’t it? Now granted, not all of them are going to be smarter (aka, better read on your subject than are you). But I guarantee there will be a lot of them. No matter how conscientious you are in your research about Roman sewer systems or stamp collecting, there will always be someone who knows something you don’t. And if that person happens to read your book, they may well call you out on your mistakes.

Reason #2 to Panic: Poor Novel Research Destroys Suspension of Disbelief

This reason is by far the more important of the two, however closely related. The whole point of novel research, after all, is to create a seamless reading experience. We want to immerse readers in the detailed and realistic worlds we create for our characters. If you’ve got your Olympic equestrian character casually mounting her horse on the right side (instead of the left), you’re going to instantly pop that suspension of disbelief bubble for any reader knowledgeable about horses and riding.

Commit to Accuracy in Your Novel Research

In short, blatant inaccuracies can ruin your book. So do your research. End of story. Stop panicking.

Does this sound too simple a solution after all that fear mongering up there?

Maybe a little. But let’s be practical.

There is absolutely no way you can achieve perfect accuracy in your novel.

Never mind what Yoda says, the best you can do is try. After that, stop worrying about accuracy and start worrying about … authenticity.

Yoda Do or Do Not Meme Only Sith Deal in Absolutes

Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Accuracy

A story, by its very nature, is an illusion.

The characters aren’t real. The events aren’t real. The settings and events–even if portraying real life– are Shakespeare’s “but shadows.”

The best of this kind are but shadows and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. Midsummer's Night Dream Shakespeare

That’s why readers must suspend their disbelief in the first place. And they do. They willingly buy into the magic trick–as long as the magician (that’s you!) makes it look real.

By far, the most important factor in convincing readers to suspend disbelief is creating a story world that seems real. Readers aren’t asking for reality; they only want something that seems real enough for them to pretend, for a couple hours, that it is real.

That’s where authenticity comes into play. As long as you have accuracy enough to provide a solid basis for your story, you then have a wide-open canvas upon which to create the illusion of an authentic experience.

To put it indelicately: Hook your readers with the truth and they’ll swallow all the rest of your story’s lies.

How can you find this balance of accuracy and authenticity in your book? Let’s examine twelve steps you can put into action right away.

6 Steps to Achieve Accuracy in Your Novel Research

Novel research is easy. All you have to do is read and remember. But it requires time and discipline upfront. Use these six steps to break your task into manageable bites.

1. Begin With a Basic Understanding of Your Subject

Presumably, if you’re interested in writing about a particular subject, then that very interest has led you to at least a basic knowledge about it. For example, if you want to write about a homicide detective, then you might have been drawn to the subject because you enjoy TV shows about detectives. You know enough to at least create the framework, in your mind, for a story about a detective of your own.

Castle Nathan Fillion Stana Katic Season 1

2. Discover the General Questions You Need to Ask

Using that general knowledge, from Step 1, write your outline–or, if you’re a pantser, at least figure out the general beats and events in your story. This will help you get a handle on the general questions you’re going to need to answer about your subject. For example, after writing my outline for my 1920s barnstorming novel Storming, I ended up with a list of specific research topics I knew I would need to research:

Stoming Novel Research Subjects

3. Collect a Bibliography

Using those questions/topics, create a research bibliography. Search your local libraries and Amazon to find sources that will answer all your major questions. Depending on the nature of your subject, you may also want to seek out experts with whom you can talk or who can give you access to hands-on experiences.

4. Commit Serious Time to Novel Research

Writers often ask me how much time I devote to novel research. Basically: as long as it takes me to read through my list of research books. Wayfarer‘s research took me six months.

And where do I find the time to do all that research?

Easy: writing time. Whatever part of the process I’m working on (whether outlining, researching, writing, or editing), I do it during “writing” time, which for me is two hours every morning. This, of course, means that during the research period, I get to sit around reading all morning and call it work.

Novel Research for Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

5. Organize Novel Research Notes

Don’t trust your memory. Write down everything. Personally, I find it well worth the extra time it requires to transcribe everything I highlight in my novel research (e-readers make this super easy, since you can find all your highlights online and simply copy/paste them).

Kindle Highlights

This makes my notes searchable on the computer and allows me to collate them under pertinent headings. Your research will do you little good while writing if you can’t access it. (Plus, you can use your discoveries as part of your book marketing campaign to tease readers about your upcoming novels.)

6. Discover the Specific Questions You Need to Ask

Armed with all that general knowledge you gleaned during your novel research, you can then write your book. You should be well equipped to write knowledgeably and confidently about your subject. Even still, you’ll inevitably run into further questions during the blow-by-blow action of the actual story. Some of these questions will be simple enough for you to look up on the Internet during writing. For those that prove more complicated, include them in a running list and do whatever follow-up research is necessary after the first draft.

6 Steps to Achieve Authenticity in Your Novel Research

All that research was your logical left brain’s contribution to your story’s verisimilitude. Now, it’s time to unleash your creative right brain and let it take the scattered pieces of your research and connect the dots between them to creative an authentic experience for your readers.

1. Do Your Research

Authenticity must begin with a pursuit of accuracy. You can’t build an authentic experience of life as a concert pianist if you know nothing about music. Emphasizing authenticity over accuracy does not provide permission to simply ignore the facts. You must start with a solid foundation of reality if you’re going to have any chance of convincing readers to believe in the unreal parts of your story.

Amadeus Tom Hulce Piano

2. Support Every Lie With Two Truths

In writing any kind of story, you will occasionally find yourself faced with situations in which you either don’t know the facts or in which the story demands you tweak the facts to serve the plot.

In either case, here’s a good rule of thumb for protecting the authenticity of your story: Every time you make something up, make sure the “lie” is supported by at least two “truths.”

Historical novels do this all the time by surrounding a fictional character with people who actually existed in the period. We believe in Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, so why not a general named Maximus while we’re at it?

Russell Crowe Richard Harris Joaquin Phoenix Gladiator

3. Show Readers What They Expect to See

The very essence of authenticity is in validating the experience readers expect to have. Did Al Capone really say, “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground!”?

Robert De Niro Untouchables Al Capone I Want Him Dead

Doesn’t matter, because this is exactly what we expect Al Capone to say. It creates no cognitive dissonance in our expectations about 1920s gangsters.

The flipside of this is that sometimes you will find you can’t use certain accurate facts. If a fact doesn’t jive with your readers’ expectations, then you need to question whether its (totally legitimate) inclusion is worth the risk of jostling their suspension of disbelief.

Sweet on You Meddlin Madeline Chautona HavigChristian novelist Chautona Havig commented to me on Facebook,

Funny story. In researching my 1901 novel, I was trying to be careful to use slang of the day, syntax–everything. We try, right? Well, I found that even innocent things they WOULD have said sound much too modern. Such as, “You have the coolest yard in town.” Um… sounds all wrong.

4. Don’t Sweat the Details

Remember my paranoia over Wayfarer‘s presentation of an accurate 1820 London experience?

On this last edit, I’ve been conscientiously researching the etymology of any word I thought might be suspicious. That’s a lot of suspicion. It’s also, after a certain point, ridiculous.

Can you tell me what’s “wrong” with this excerpt?

He had no notion life wasn’t always a long journey to a distant horizon. Sometimes it ended in a blink, in a blur of fire and pain.

Turns out “blink” and “blur” didn’t mean then what they mean now.

Now, Emma Woodhouse may not have been able to “blink” away the tears that “blurred” her eyes after Mr. Knightley gave her what for. But I gotta tell you: my protagonist totally does. Even though these words aren’t accurate within the historical setting, I would be shocked to discover any reader who noticed, much less took exception, to them.

As an author, you must occasionally make the call to depart from the smaller details of accuracy, for the sake of your overall story. Don’t sweat the details too much. It is fiction, after all.

5. Maintain Consistency

Here’s the secret to authenticity: it must walk hand in hand with consistency. Indeed, consistency is the whole point. It’s why we avoid every detail that might jar–even if it’s an accurate detail. It’s why we don’t sweat the little, unrecognizable errors. As long you’re presenting your story’s truth with absolute consistency, readers will buy into it with little effort.

6. Show Your Bravado

Finally, be brave. Trust in your skill to create an authentic experience for your readers, and trust in that experience to help readers glide right past the places where you’ve sacrificed absolute accuracy for the sake of the bigger picture.

As any magician knows, you have to sell the performance. If you look like you believe 100% in the illusion you’ve created, readers will be all the more likely to follow your lead and believe in it themselves.

Brad Dennison Long Trail McCabeBut also be wise. Sometimes, no matter how perfect a word is to a scene, it still won’t belong, as in western writer Brad Dennison‘s tongue-in-cheek comment to me:

The things you wish you could include in a story. In the western I’m working on now, Johnny McCabe … didn’t even know [his brother] Joe was in the area. … Johnny says to him, “How is it I didn’t see you out there?” Joe says, “Ain’t a man alive can find me if I don’t want to be found.” I would so like to have Johnny say, “What are you, Batman?”

The balance between accuracy and authenticity is ultimately the balance of the entire story. If your mastery of authenticity is strong enough to convince readers to suspend their disbelief, then they’ll forgive–and even embrace–your occasional lapse of accuracy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What has been the most difficult part of your novel research? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

    In my recent manuscript, I had the kids visiting Olympus (easy, it’s like going to the corner store everyone knows it so well) Asgard (just make some stuff up, nobody will know – but again, most of the pantheon are well known), and then the pyramid of Khufu, where I’ve never been, and there will be hieroglyphics that lead them to the secret entry.

    Oh man, and the internet can’t agree on the meanings of those!

    So I made some reasonable calls based on the majority of what I found, and if I run afoul of a scholar reading my kids’ book, then I might learn something in the dialog that follows.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. When you *can’t* find the truth, don’t be afraid to make educated guesses.

    • Hey Andrew! Egyptologist here 😉 Ask away! (and it’s “hieroglyphs”, “hieroglyphic” is the adjective….) If you have a lot of text to cover, you can e-mail me at: fam.focke (a) gmx.de. Just please say you’re Andrew from Helping Writers Become Authors in the title so you don’t land in the spam… Actually, I’d need your email address anyway to send the hieroglyphs – though there ARE fonts, they’re a pain. It’s easier to use a hieroglyph program and export as a JPG.

      Actually, that’s just the sort of thing that annoys me as an Egyptologist and history buff (sorry, Andrew). If someone gets the little things wrong (hey, you might not realize that the Egyptians didn’t have the “l” sound and name a character with an l in it) – okay. But something like translating a text – there are people out there who can help. Ask University faculties. Museums. I know there are some snobs out there, but there are also tons of people eager and willing to help.
      I suggest, in fact, if you are writing a historical novel to try and find an expert to read your novel AFTER it’s finished (I guesss around Beta level). The thing about research is that you have to look in the right places, and if you don’t know what the right places are, you can read tons of books and still make some glaring mistakes. That’s okay. It is, as we historians like to say, “not your field”. But it’s also something that can be fixed 😀
      My husband and I are always amused by the fact that, apart from the obvious (and purposeful) anachronisms, A Knight’s Tale and the Three Musketeers movie with all the airships have some of the best and most historically accurate costumes and props. More so than “historical” films for any period except Regency. Go figure!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        That’s interesting about Knight’s Tale and Musketeers. Supporting the theory of the bigger the lies, the bigger the foundation of truth must also be, perhaps?

  2. My series of historical novels (you’ve read them) involve a protagonist who’d been raised in England, but joined the German army in 1912 and pursued his military career through two world wars… (and went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936!!)
    My greatest problem of authentic language was avoiding any taint of Americanism that could not possibly be in his (or the story’s) jargon before 1945.
    I say ‘taint’, because we in Canada stand between a rock and a hard place in our use of the English language, and Americanisms are second nature. One slip with an “okay” and it would be ‘game over’. (another Americanism, I THINK.)
    My British beta reader told me of a number of language errors that had slipped through.
    Thank God for beta readers.

    • Hi Lyn, I was thinking a while back that I should read one of your historical novels. Having strategic beta readers to help with inaccuracies sounds extremely pivotal in this case.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve always been incredibly impressed by how effortless you make your research look in your novels. As for Americanisms, I breathe in terror at the thought right now! I definitely need to nab a pair of British eyes to help me check this current WIP.

      • *raises hand to volunteer*

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hey, thanks! Are you in London?

          • I’m not British, but I’ve lived in England for several years now and notice when American words are used in a book that is supposed to be set in England. Drives me nuts 😀 But I try to remember that I hear the words every day while the author does not.

            Thanks for this post. I needed it right now…research is hard for me becuase I know I need it for the book I’m working on, but I’m a little nervous I won’t get it right.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Americans get dinged for this a lot (and rightfully so), but it definitely happens the other way around. There was a memorable Doctor Who episode, set in Depression-era NYC that had all the American characters calling the elevator a “lift.” 😉

    • Joe Long says:

      Thanks to Hulu, I watch British, Australian & Canadian (esp Vancouver) TV shows.

      I got the impression that the folks in BC tended to speak an Australian vocabulary with an American accent.

  3. Great topic! I’ve been waiting for something like this to pop up. First I’d like to congratulate you and all those who make an attempt to write historical fiction. Hats off you, seriously. Easier said than done. By the way, I had never even heard of historical fiction before discovering this blog and your writing. I also admire your approach as well your fine tuned writing process. Quality versus quantity. You certainly take your time to produce a quality novel and it definitely shows. That in itself is a testament to your own standard, mindset, and authenticity as you put it. The linguistics and semantics alone would stymie me. And I like languages!

    I’ve thought about writing some historical fiction when I grow up. Inspired by you of course. There’s at least 2 or 3 ideas already on the backburner. But that’s definitely down the road as I learn about structure, outlining and the whole realm of writing. I do however, find the research part pretty daunting with my own kind of paranoia. Will they buy into this? Is it believable? They’ll see my mistakes! Sometimes I’ll dismiss doing too much research and rely on my imagination to write fantasy because I don’t have a complete grip on a subject. Know what I mean? Maybe I do have some obsessive tendencies! I’ll get too bogged down in all the “research” that I’m not writing at all and get overwhelmed. I HATE that feeling. On a positive note, it is fun too! I’ve consulted professionals about certain topics on justice and getting great feedback! One of them is a lawyer/SFF writer who happens to have an awesome book. Closest to the Fire: A Writers Guide to Lawyers and the Law.

    I have a lot bottled up about this subject. When do you know you’ve done enough research? When do you draw the line before getting to overwhelmed or lost in the details? Or how much should you research? The more I research something, it seems the list just never ends and I end up going down a rabbit hole. Do you set parameters for yourself? Like, I’ll research only for six months or does it vary?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There definitely comes a point where you just have to *stop* researching. For me, that point comes when, as I say, I finish reading the list of books I’ve created for myself–and also, whenever, I’ve answered all the important questions posed by the story. Deadlines can also play a part for me if I feel I’m starting to waste too much time.

      • That definitely sounds doable.

        • Benjamin – start writing. The moment you get into the act of telling a story it becomes easier. An adventure.
          It’s not written in stone. Don’t stop to correct mistakes, just write. When you come to the end of telling the story, you then begin the editing process. This is as much fun as writing the first draft. Here is where you double check the historical facts and break up those information dumps and catch those little phrases inappropriate to the time and place…
          I could go on, but Katie covers all of this very thoroughly in her writings and on this site.
          GO for it. At this point the reader is the last thing you worry about.

  4. Samantha says:

    Perfect timing! I’ve been tossing around a World War II story idea, and the research is intimidating. How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Now I’ve a strategy to do just that.

    Thanks so much! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Another trick I’ve picked up over the years is to do a lot of “casual” research long before I ever start the book. For instance, right now, I know I want to eventually write a fantasy trilogy based on Tudor England. Every time, I run across an interesting tidbit in my pleasure reading, I make a note of it and type it up in a research folder for the book. I’ve already “effortlessly” collected over twenty pages of notes for that one story alone.

    • @Samantha: I’m writing a WWII story at the moment – let me know if you want any resource recs or anything like that, I’m happy to share the good ones 🙂

      • Samantha says:

        Sarah, how sweet of you to offer! Thank you.

        If it’s okay to share a few links, and it isn’t too much trouble, I’d appreciate that.
        🙂

  5. The series taking the most research is the two thirds of a trilogy I’ve written in the Canadian North. Language, culture, history, mythical history, police procedure in the North. It’s been interesting. Especially as I’ve blended a few town together to create the setting for my stories. (Working on the rule of using a fictional setting if you are going to create mayhem.)
    I have one more book to write and will need to look at junior miners, prospecting, investments, and some new ways to create mayhem.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah, yes, sometimes it’s better to make a few things up rather than risk people in a real-life town getting upset. It’s also an easy way to base a setting on a real-life place without being 100% tied down to its facts.

  6. Great tips – bad research can kill a novel for me, and I find a lot of American authors don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to British and European history (or they can’t be bothered finding out. It’s hard to say).

    I like authors who provide an author’s note which separates fact from fiction, although that raises the question of whether they should be at the beginning or the end. At the beginning, and they can spoil the story. At the end, and I’m sometimes too frustrated by the “mistakes” to care that they were deliberate.

    I recently read a disclaimer at the beginning of a novel (sorry, but I can’t remember which one), where the author apologised in advance for the facts she had changed. I thought that was clever – it told me she had done her research, but also that she had made deliberate choices to go against the facts to strengthen the story. I can respect that.

    This might be the way to go – an introductory acknowledgement that certain facts have been changed, then a fuller disclosure at the end, where it won’t give away any important plot points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Don’t know what they don’t know”–that’s what always scares me. :p

      I included an Author’s Note of that ilk in my medieval novel Behold the Dawn. I chose to put it at the end, since it was definitely spoilery.

  7. Excellent advice in your latest piece. I’ve always believed that if the facts are right, the reader will believe the fiction, and that you contradict the laws of nature at your peril. Even fantasy (especially fantasy) has to be credible.
    Even minor characters need to be real and believable, so researching their lifestyles and ‘look’ has to be done. This is why I write stories set in today’s world, or in times I’ve lived through myself.

    Settings and locations are best if you know them personally… even if only from a short visit… as the ambience of a place will come through in your writing. If it doesn’t, you’ll notice it yourself. It’ll feel wrong.
    The finer details can be honed by using ‘Streetview’ (or by visits if the location isn’t too far away) I’ve used ‘Streetview’ to verify sight lines when a character is observing others (I write crime novels) or to check on road layouts or what a character might see from a vehicle.

    It’s also worth calling the reception desk at public buildings or companies etc. I needed to know where the gents’ toilets were in Cardiff County Hall, as a murder victim was to be killed on his way to relieve himself after a meeting. (The online building plan didn’t show the detail I needed.) I got all I needed from the security desk by phone.
    I’ve phoned police stations to check details, and specialist garages to ask about certain details of the classic cars they work on (for hiding things – It’s no good having those diamonds hidden in a magnetic box stuck inside the oil pan, if the oil pan is aluminium.)
    If you phone a place for information, and tell someone you’re an author, they’ll usually be happy to help. It brightens up another boring day at a desk.

    In one book, I very nearly fouled up. I had my villain make an escape by stealing a boat, but my knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the Bristol Channel’s sand bars and currents was limited to on line searches. I made the escapee a novice too, which almost worked… until I had the chapter read through by someone who’d sailed the area. A few changes to techniques and alterations to the boat’s course ended up with a far more interesting piece with even more sense of jeopardy. It was worth a phone call, followed by e-mailing the piece. I’d underestimated the dangers and the problems. I hadn’t realised the effects of those particularly fast tidal flows on steerage. I do now though.

    I’ve made a rule for myself that if my knowledge is limited on a subject, and research doesn’t quite fill in all the details, then it’s better to keep things simple than to risk dropping a howler by stating something completely wrong. I leave that to the movies.
    I’ve seen too many Hollywood films where a character drives from one location in London to another by passing every known tourist landmark… (check ‘Brannigan’ – it’s a real howler from that point of view). As a former London based motorcycle despatch rider and delivery driver for twenty years, I know the city well enough (but still I’ll check Google Maps etc. because road layouts and new buildings have changed a lot since those days, and I now live in the West of England.)

    A very useful piece for everyone. I particularly liked the point about readers perceptions of situations, even if they’re not entirely correct. I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose we’re all influenced by popular beliefs anyway, but having it spelled out made me think about it.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Chris, a motorcycle despatch rider? LOVE it.
      I also love how you put it. “…it’s better to keep things simple than to risk dropping a howler.”
      KISS.
      I’ve always followed that route. One way I do it is to write from the protagonist’s PoV, so that everything in the novel shows only what he knows and sees. Many times I’ve taken refuge in showing his swift impression, allowing me to avoid hard details.
      Also, the passage of time in a narrative transition can gloss over missing factual research.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “It’s better to keep things simple”–I totally agree. Many times, I’ve gone back and deleted a seemingly great detail just because I could verify it.

  8. I feel your pain- recently I was reading some Amazon reviews of Behold the Dawn (haven’t read it- looking into reading it) and encountered all the “controversy” over your use of the word “bucko.” Give an author a break, people! Seeing how many noticed and commented on an out-of-place word has me terrified about what might happen if I ever slip up.

    For the story I am planning, I need to research medieval Japanese and Bedouin culture. I’m a little overwhelmed about where to start on research, especially since my library had zero books on these topics. Making a list of specific areas to research is a great idea.

    • Japanese and Bedouin, Brenna? Is there any connection?

      • I will be combining elements of the two cultures in my fantasy world. The novel will take place in a desert, but there will also be samurai-type warriors, an honor system, etc. Of course, the setting will be more cemented once I have done my research.

        • Sounds great. I love the Japanese ancient culture with its samurai and ninjitsu.

        • Brenna, Methinks you can do anything in Fantasy, including creating your own world background and history…
          But you’re right. You need a firm anchorage for the reader.

          • I completely agree with you, Lyn Alexander. I am creating my own world and history, with many elements from no source but my mind. However, I will be using Japan and the Middle East somewhat in the way Tolkien used England- as a backdrop, and for inspiration from the real world as I create my own.

        • I wonder if the Gobi Desert had (or still has) any honorable samurai. Wait, are you saying the Bedouins don’t have an honor system?

          Ah … you do realize the ninjas were only a few families on the islands of Iga and Koga?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! Thanks, Brenna. 😉 In all truth, that’s not a word choice I’d make for that book if I were writing it now. I’ve changed it in recent editions.

    • Hi Brenna,

      There’s another type of source, if you can’t find historical sources (although I think your library can probably get those via interlibrary loans). Consider anthropologists. I think both fantasy and science fiction writers could both do with lessons in anthropology, as this is the study of culture and societies.

      Bedouins are nomads, if I remember correctly. There will be a difference in nomads vs. agricultural people. But nomads and farmers /land owners tend to cooperate with each other, and the farmers might even be offshoots of the nomad’s tribe.

      In his book on the fall of Rome, historian Peter Heather mentioned that because anthropologists studied modern nomads (e.g., Bedouins), historians realized that nomads do not aimlessly wander. They travel in fixed patterns between their summer and winter pastures, so if they start showing up suddenly in new places, like the Huns, it’s a clue that something has happened.

      So if you can’t find history books, give anthropologists a shot. There might be material to reverse-engineer the culture you’re trying to build.

      • Thank you for the recommendation! I am overwhelmed by the interest everyone is showing in my story. 🙂 Yes, actually I got the idea to use Bedouin culture because my main character is going to fall in with a group of desert nomads. I will definitely look for both historical and anthropological sources. Thanks again!

        • This really sounds like a good book. Sounds interesting!

          • Thank you, Benjamin. Of course, it’s only in the beginning planning stages, so time will tell if it turns out to be good and interesting!

        • Hi Brenna… Have you read ‘Dune’ (or any of the sequels). Frank Herbert did something very similar with his epic fifty years ago. Now that’s what I call desert culture.

          Check it out. It might give you some ideas. (It’s an excellent book… A real classic, but it stands the test of time well.)

          Good luck. I admire those who can create new worlds. I write in the real(ish) world of contemporary crime novels.

          • I saw the movie Dune when it first came out and loved it. Your right, the sand culture is amazing. I just rewatched the trailer for it last week.

          • Thanks! I’ll look in to reading those. I read a lot of classics. 🙂

          • Dune is my favorite! And I second the recommendation; Herbert did do his research. During the last Iraq War, a couple of sci fi nerds were convinced that Saddam Hussein had stolen some ideas from “Dune,” specifically the fedayeen, who are also called “fedaykin” in the book.

            A few people had to gently explain that the Fremen were modeled on the Bedouins and the other cultures of the Middle East / North Africa.

            Which reminds me, that Tuaregs / Berbers would be another nomadic culture. For my fantasy, I read “The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa,” by Elizabeth Fentress and Michael Brett. Sadly it didn’t have enough about their history, but it does talk about their modern culture.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Hah! I didn’t know that about Saddam “stealing.” That’s hilarious. :p

      • Excellent RECOMMENDATION. That’s a great idea.

  9. One thing I discovered when working on my currently-backburnered historical trilogy was a tendency to get bogged down in the details. I once spent two weeks trying to figure out exactly when, between the Civil War and Wild Bill Hickok’s death in 1876 it became common to have numbers as well as suits on playing cards. Two weeks! It finally dawned on me that *it doesn’t matter* and I rewrote the scene to remove references to the cards. Gah!

    As a history teacher, I think you’re spot on in the accuracy vs authenticity issue. Make us *feel it,* or as I say to my students *could* it have happened that way, and we’ll forgive a great many small error, if we even notice.

    Sadly, I don’t have any recommendations for Bedouin or medieval Japan, but as a college history teacher, I can recommend some books on the Tudor period. Alison Weir has a ton of excellent books that are both academic-level history and very accessible to the non-academic (not a ton of jargon.). Pretty much any of them. There are enough excerpts from primary sources to give you a feel for the language, and details about life,as well as the lives of the nobility.

    Anyway, wonderful post! Thank you

    • Thanks for thinking about it, anyway!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hey, thanks for the Tudor recommendations! I’m doing a lot of “painless” research on this series, since I won’t be writing it for several years yet. I’ll add these to my reading list right now.

    • Alison Weir! I was coming here to say this, and I’m glad a bonafide history teacher likes her, too. Weir is very readable, and I don’t think there will be a minute of pain reading her 🙂

      Another casual resource is the History Channel, assuming they still do history. I’d sometimes note the names of historians who popped up to give commentary on this or that historical event.

  10. I want to put in a word for YouTube. I wanted to visit some of the places that my fantasy is based on, but they became unsafe suddenly (well, one always was). But YouTube came to the rescue, allowing me to see tours of the landmarks I wanted to explore, especially the ones narrated by historians.

    Thanks to YouTube, I also learned how an astrolabe worked and exactly what’s happening during the “lost wax process” the ancients used in metalsmithing. For one thing, the name does not mean that people lost knowledge of how the wax process worked, so it’s a good thing I did not attempt to wing it in the story. Rather, it’s referring to what’s happening to the wax, and should be spelled “lost-wax.” I never go into the process in my fantasy, but I needed to be able to picture what the silversmiths were up to in the scene in which they appear.

    I love the advice to be general, although some instances would probably happen by accident for me: it never would have occurred to me to mention what side someone was mounting a horse from. Just get on and giddy-up 🙂

    I’m afraid of the British vs. American English from the other direction. My dad is from a more recent colony, and I grew up watching British television. Some of the books I read as a kid used ‘sceptical’ vs. ‘skeptical.’ This is where a lexicon dictionary comes in handy, because their etymologies say what language a word comes from and what it meant in that language, and when we started using it. Mine helped me to decide how to spell the name of the mythical creature with the eagle foreparts and the lion hindparts: gryphon is the original spelling, so I went with that to set the tone.

    Also, browse the magazine racks for history magazines, including the Smithsonian’s. They taught us in school to always check the copyright date when it comes to history and science. A book on Roman Britain written before the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets will be missing some juicy tidbits. Magazines and news articles have nice updates to what’s in the books. Now we know for sure that Richard III was a hunchback; it wasn’t just Shakespeare’s propaganda.

    Another resource: websites like the British Museum and NY’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are fantastic, not just for letting you see what objects were around in the time period — oh, that thingamajig existed back then, so I can let my heroine have one, etc. But also they’ll often list bibliographies in their articles.

    For verisimilitude, don’t forget about historical reenactors. Bonus if historians are the reenactors; it turns out some historians have blogs. I wondered if the style of “bra” my Roman era fantasy heroines were wearing would be too hot (wool) or too uncomfortable. A reenactor demystified the whole thing on her website. Which was good, because now the characters had a hiding place for certain objects.

    I don’t know how to conlag (making up languages or words in fake languages). So I’ve relied on Lexilogos.com which is one-stop shopping for dictionaries of ancient Greek, Latin, etc. I found another online dictionary for Akkadian. They’re great if you need to have a character say a spell, or you need to name a creature. Remember that “Aslan” just means “lion” in Turkish, so even the greats cheat, too 🙂

    All that said — definitely do not sweat the details. At some point, you just gotta write. I like the idea of the author’s note. I plan to have one, just to point people to some of the sources I used for my people and monsters: Pliny, Herodotus, etc. I just took them seriously … it’s amazing how rich a fantasy can be just by going to the source material. Support one lie with two truth indeed!

  11. Curtis Manges says:

    Just a suggestion for those working on historical fiction—-the more esoteric the better—-see if you can find a historic reenactment group that’s focused on your chosen time and place.

    Online enthusiast groups are great sources. In my novel (SF, with the early part in a post-apocalyptic setting) a lot of people are back to using horses and carts, buggies, etc., and I knew I could get myself in trouble. I found an online forum-—The Horse Forum—-and joined it just so I could seek help. I simply posted in the general forum, told them I was working in SF, and what I needed to know about.

    They LOVED it! A few of them were SF fans as well, but those who responded were all vocal in their gratitude that I wanted to get it right. I’m thinking that if I ever get this thing finished, I’d like to figure out a way to offer those people discounted or free copies, personalized if possible (market strategy, right?).

    What’s strange about this is that I hardly used any of what I learned. Importantly, though, I had *confidence* in it. In this, I think it’s like an impressionistic painting: tiny detail may not show up, but the Big Picture is consistent, correct, and easily identifiable; everything fits.

    Hope this helps.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I second this. Most people who are passionate about a subject are *ecstatic* to get to talk about, especially if they think it will end up in a book. I’ve met a lot of great people this way.

  12. Great points. It seems like a lot of this is intuitive (at least for me). As I was reading, I found myself sort of saying, “yeah.. THAT makes sense.” Of course it’s always good to have someone else (who’s a writer) solidify some of the same thoughts you have — so you know you’re not crazy!
    I also think, with all of this said, and even with an imperfect work, that honest negative feedback on the topic of research, is the next biggest step to improving. Like you said, no one should be expected to know every single little thing about a topic, because there is too much nuance and information that feeds realistically into your subject.
    BUT, if you can figure out (from the negative feedback) what area of research you might have failed in, there’s a good chance you can use that information so that the next time around, you’re thinking in these new ways: whatever they are, ways that help you approach research or maybe even a better way to organize research, etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I won’t say that I *like* it when a reviewer calls me out on historical quibbles in my published works. 😉 But I’ve definitely learned and grown from it as both a writer and a researcher.

  13. The “You Can’t Say That” website you linked to is amazing! I had to force myself to stop reading it. 😉

  14. Thanks for writing this. It’s very reassuring!

  15. This post could not have come at a better time! I’m working on an alternate history (steampunk) story. I’ve been doing some research on when certain things happened here versus when said things (abolition of slavery, for example) happened in England (or the UK, depending on precisely when – something else for me to look up [again]). Now if I can only remember to make notes…

  16. Wowsers. You guys are amazing. A lot of you sound like history buffs, which is certainly my worst subject. But I guess that’s what research is for right? I actually do like history more everyday and currently researching the history of kung-fu, wing-chun kung-fu, shaolin kung-fu as well as judiciary legal systems for my upcoming novel.

    Thanks for this post Kate. Especially having the questions prior to diving into research for some sense of pararmeters. Research is FUN. But I need to limit myself to the necessary information critical to the story.

    You guys rock!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think I can safely say that my love of history is a large part of why I became a writer. After all, what is history except a story?

    • Don’t just restrict it to the facts pertinent to your story, Ben… Soak it all up.
      If you have a fuller understanding of the background, it’ll seep out into the writing and breathe life and reality into the story.

      You never know when those facts will be useful. If they’re in your mind, then they’re there to inform your thoughts as you work out where you’re going next.
      Even when I’m dreaming in bed at night, I’ll sometimes get ideas for my plot, or how my characters are going to progress. These get informed by some of the ‘useless junk’ floating about in my head. It all helps.

      • Yes! I’m really liking that. I have a “soak it up” kind of mentality, so this goes along with my gut feeling. I’m a sponge when it comes to stuff like this.

        Thanks

  17. Thanks for this! I can’t stress enough how important research is. Usually writers argue they don’t have time research. Well, in that case, they shouldn’t expect people to take their work seriously! Research should be the primary ingredient in a good story.

    Your article is superb! What I found very difficult is for non-native English speakers to write in English. Even if their English is fluent, it’s very difficult to imitate everyday dialogue, unless you have actually lived in an English speaking country.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, this is very much true even for dialects *within* the same language. Getting the British dialects right in my WIP was very important–and very tricky–for me as an American.

  18. Candace Carroll says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am in the middle of writing the first draft of my second historical novel and was really worrying about how to go about doing research when I am done. I hate squashing the inspiration of the first draft with wondering if I got a technical or minor historical detail right, so I tend to write and then research, writing down questions and things to check on as I go. This was very timely!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s actually one of the reasons I like to sandwich my research in between the outline and the first draft. I get to create my story in the outline and figure out exactly what I need to know, then research to find the answers, and then write the first draft with pretty much no concern about whether or not I’m headed in the wrong direction with my representation of facts.

      • That’s a good way to do it too! I’ll have to give it a try, usually I am just to impatient to get started on the writing and end of researching as I go 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Well, I’m very much of a “ounce of preparation is worth a pound of proofreading” kinda person. 😉

  19. The only thing I disagree with in this article is surrounding a character with real historical figures. For me, nothing pulls me out of a book faster than when a fictional character interacts with too many real people, especially if he/she influences either that character, or has a ridiculous influence over actual historical events (i.e., Moses’ former true love influencing Pharoah to go after the Israelites in The Ten Commandments, when in the Bible it was Pharoah’s own pride and hardness of heart that caused him to do it, no nagging wife needed).
    I’d rather the historical figures be more on the sideline myself, part of the atmosphere more than a Who’s Who of whatever time period it is that the MC goes around hobnobbing with. //rant over 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Let me clarify: definitely not suggesting all historical stories need to incorporate historical characters.

  20. Haley Bowles says:

    Dear K. M. Weiland,
    My name is Haley and I’m thirteen. I am a writer. I know that you published your first book when you were fourteen. How did you write your book and still keep up with school work and other things? I know you must be busy with the book that you are currently writing but if you know of a way to help me I would really like to know. Thank you for giving good advice for writers and myself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Welcome to the site, Haley! I was actually 20 when my first book came out. However, I’ve been writing steadily since I was 12. The key, as it is for writers of any age, is to set aside a doable amount of time and be consistent at showing up to write every single day. That’s a habit that will generate a huge amount of productivity and serve you very well over the long run.

  21. I can’t wait to read Wayfarer! It’s so hard not to obsess about minor errors that slip in, but I don’t think they affect the quality of the work if the story is good. I seem to recall that some of Shakespeare’s plays have really egregious anachronisms — like a clock in Julius Caesar. I have to confess that sometimes I really superenjoy picking up on tiny little errors about something I am familiar with, like law or law schools or Louisiana or the South. This happens on television shows all the time and frankly adds to my enjoyment of the story, if it’s a good story. If it’s not, and I have to watch it for some reason, it gives me something entertaining to think about… (And of course no one would want courtroom scenes to be accurate. There are few things more boring than real-life courtroom scenes. More “can you identify this spreadsheet” than “you can’t handle the truth!”)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, Shakespeare is a great example! We’re not so aware of it these days, but his plays are actually extremely inaccurate in the larger details, as well as the small. Didn’t seem to have hurt his authenticity too much. :p

  22. “I do it during “writing” time, which for me is two hours every morning. This, of course, means that during the research period, I get to sit around reading all morning and call it work.”

    I’m told ENFP personalities have these “energy spikes” that they rely on for creative work. It’s certainly true for me. I can’t set a writing schedule for beans– all I know is that I can’t do it first thing in the morning, when I can’t even tell the difference between my left hand and a refrigerator. XD But I did discover that simply setting a couple of alarms on my phone– one to go off in ten minutes, the second to go off thirty minutes after that– gives me enough motivation to sit down and write pretty quickly. I always go over that thirty minute limit by at least an hour.

    I never thought about it before, but I wonder what would happen if I did the same thing for sitting down to read and do research? I get so easily sidetracked during my research phase sometimes. I find interesting links that *look* like they might be important to what I’m researching, but they don’t always turn out that way… and then I’m off “researching” a neverending chain of links, and before I know it, I’ve learned a lot more about recipes containing peanut butter or techniques for defeating the final boss fight in Spyro the Dragon than I have about Second Order Cybernetics. (To this day, I still don’t understand half this stuff I’m reading on it.) @_@

    Which brings me to a question: What do you do when your research suddenly turns so agonizing that it’s no better than reading Wikipedia pages and you have to fight to stay focused? (I don’t know if other people are as put off by Wikipedia as I am.) Sometimes I feel like I’m learning about the entire universe, then sometimes I feel like the stupidest little insect, like I’ll never understand what I’m reading about, and therefore will fail at what I’m writing about. How do you get through it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First of all, I believe it is *so* important to understand your personality in figuring how to “hack” your own process. I’m an INTJ, which means I eat, sleep, and breathe schedules and structure. That’s how I roll. It’s *not* how everyone rolls, and it’s valuable to recognize that and to recognize there isn’t a right or a wrong way to do any of this. There’s just one of many, many different ways that *work* for the individual person. So kudos to you for recognizing that in your life! You’re saving yourself a lot of grief.

      As for your question, honestly, there’s no pretty answer. There’s only: keep at it. Sometimes taking breaks can help prevent your attention from wandering. But sometimes you just have to slog through the boring stuff to find that one little kernel you needed.

    • I have never fully taken control of those P energy spikes (I guess that’s the nature of the beast), but I find that making to-do lists is the best way for me to manage myself. (Yeah, I know — lists — that’s so J, isn’t it?!?)

      I absolutely suck at sitting and deciding to do something for a certain amount of time. I really do well when I’m free to jump from task to task (I’m a big believer in the insights that come when you stop focusing directly on the subject). The best way for me to keep the energy rolling is to make a manageable list of things I can do in that sitting or in that workday and race through it as quickly as I can. This often turns out to be several hours, which flies by much more quickly and productively than if I had attempted to schedule the day.

      I’m superb at putting out fires. I’m less superb at steadily plowing through non-emergency tasks, but the best solution for me is to make them emergency tasks by putting them on the TO DO RIGHT NOW list.

      I have much more experience of how to manage this as a lawyer than as a writer, but as a writer, I find it MUCH better to structure my work around tasks than time-blocks.

      I just had to share this since I’ve been struggling with this issue for years as a P-oriented lawyer. Another lawyer once told me that “J is the essence of being a lawyer.” I obviously don’t entirely agree, as I’m quite good at what I do, but it’s certainly true that a P has to fight the tendency to be a wild pony wandering aimlessly across the plain.

      And, because Ps often need encouragement, please keep in mind that NOBODY can do precision work more quickly than a P on an energy spike! (And this may be because NOBODY gets more done when they’re not actually “working” than Ps.)

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I would bet good money that though you may struggle to fit into a “J” occupation, the “unusual” perspective you bring to as a Perceiver makes you very good at your job indeed!

        • Thank you, Katie! On a good day, this is true. It helps that I am surrounded by people who know how to manage and/or support me, and that I’ve found the right area (complex regulatory compliance) and work situation (independence without having to be in charge).

  23. “Every time you make something up, make sure the “lie” is supported by at least two “truths.””

    You know, I did something similar to that once. My femal protag superhero rides a motorcycle, and she wanted a way to disguise it so people wouldn’t recognize it. At first, she and another character were considering paramagnetic paint (running an electric current through the paint would cause it to change colors), but another character pointed out that the YouTube video that popularized the idea of paramagnetic paint was a hoax: It was just that YouTuber’s demonstration of his use of Adobe After Effects. However, they went with electroluminescent paint. (Do a search on “The Science of LumiLor to see what it is.)

    Along with the electroluminescent paint, they modified some of the motorcycle’s parts to open out and change shape, and I threw in a 3D printer for them to make some of the parts. So in the end I included a lie that remained a lie, threw in some truth, a bit more truth, and hopefully by the end of it all, nobody will notice or care that I haven’t got the faintest clue on how to modify a motorcycle. XD

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haha. That made me grin. As someone else who has no idea how to modify a motorcycle, I for one will suspend my disbelief. 😉

  24. I found the internet quite useful in researching for my writing, especially with my last novel. I needed to know how an Uzi worked and the only time I fired one was when I was in the service more than 30 years ago. I was able to look at a clip on line and see one fired so that gave me what I needed to know. I found other things as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Internet is great for gun and machine info. That is one thing I usually remember to use YouTube for.

      • How did we writers ever live without it? The only place you can look up what “that thing you use to do whatsit” is called.

  25. For a while, I’ve been working on a science fiction/fantasy story that has A LOT of different environments, characters, technology-levels, etc. I think it’s a common misconception among non-writers that if you write speculative fiction — particularly fantasy — you don’t have to do any research, that you can simply make up everything and it will be fine. However, any writer worth their salt knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I will make no claim that speculative fiction requires more research than any other genre, but it certainly can have just as much as any historical fiction novel; which is saying something, considering the amount of work historical fiction writers put into their work.
    I’m definitely not an expert on the art of researching for writing, seeing as I am young and inexperienced in life in general, but I found a researching strategy that works well for me at least. With all the different planets and characters in my story, it gets hard to keep track of all the research and ideas I have for specific ones. So, (this is going to sound weird, I can feel it) I use the Pinterest secret boards to store all my research. I’ve created a board for each of my planets and characters. Then, when I do research online for one aspect of whatever setting or character I’m researching at the moment, I can pin the website to the board and type up a short summary of the information or some tags so I can find it again very quickly using the search engine.
    I don’t know if this is the best way, but it’s worked so far; plus it sure makes me happy to see all that research work lined up in perfectly straight columns!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely agree with this. I do a lot of research for my fantasy novels, even though I don’t have to be as rigidly factual.

  26. Joe Long says:

    I wrote a short preface in present day, then the rest is a flash back to 1979. I minimized my research by sticking to the area I grew up in, in a time when I was a teenager.

    It’s fun to write about a recent time when the technology was different. The house had one TV and maybe two telephones (you had to make sure someone wasn’t eavesdropping on the other extension). No computers and only a wrist watch to tell time while on the move.

    Then there was trying to get an authentic dialect without going overboard. I slip in some iconic words, but try to avoid alternate pronunciations. How would I easily let the readers know that ‘wash’ is said as ‘worsh’?

    Still, this week I was thinking of given names for new characters and realized even that’s changed. I’ll go through some high school yearbooks from our area at that time and make a list of the names people were giving their children in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My last book was set in my hometown. It was such a change from the far-flung (and usually imaginary) settings I typically write, and it was a ton of fun!

      • Joe Long says:

        I’m an INTP, so I just have to look something up and then tell you about it!

        My HS, classes of 1977-1979, most common names (7 or more instances, in descending order)

        Susan, Debbie, Cindy, Kathy, Mary (Ann, Jane, Jo, Kay), Barbara, Carol, Kim, Lisa, Nancy, Michelle, Patty

        Dave, Mark, Jim, Jeff, Mike, Bob, John, Tom, Dan, Rick, Ron, Scott, Steve

        Should’ve done it earlier for my own WIP, but for a particular location/time period, I can see making a list like this, and when you need a name for a character, pick one off the list.

        We also have a good number of eastern European families that live here, so when I decided to give one of my characters a Serbian surname, I checked carefully to match the given name, that it wasn’t Croatian or whatever (which someone would get offended over)

  27. I am working on my first novel which is realistic fantasy about Ireland and the fairie faith. I need to be accurate about an American teen suddenly moved to live in Ireland with a rural Grandmother who strongly believe in fairies. The realism comes in where I want the Tuatha de Dannan to be a race that could manipulate matter and shape shift using advanced quantum physics. My biggest problem comes from that fact that that period and that of druidism have such limited real facts. It should make it easier to write but there is so much out there that has already been fantasized and I don’t want this to sound like a typical fairy fantasy story. Is there anyone out there who can tell me more about Ireland than I can find on the internet and in books on the fairy faith?

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  1. […] Some writers love it, some hate it. K. M. Weiland considers the two sides to novel research: accuracy and authenticity, and Donald Maass thoroughly explores relevance in […]

  2. […] as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what […]

  3. […] Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book […]

  4. […] than two thousand years. This presented its own special set of challenges (see K.M. Weiland’s great blog post for some tips on writing historical fiction), but it felt right so I scrapped the first draft […]

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